Thursday, December 16, 2010

from amateur chef to holiday kitchen crusader

I like to consider myself a fairly tuned-in taste-tester and quite a knowledgeable nosher, but despite donning such a title, I, myself, have yet to boldly cross into that wild frontier of skillful cooking.

Beginning at a young age, I was always given free reign of the kitchen. My mashing, chopping and most importantly munching went unrestrained as I assisted my grandmother in preparing her eye-catching feasts, perfectly lining a table that seated more than 20 family members. However, my way might not have screamed with neatness or efficiency, and I adore my grandmother for that.

But, as I speed past age 25, my mastery of absolutely zilch formal kitchen skills has transitioned from adorable to embarrassing, which led me to seriously entertain the idea of attending a cooking course to, at the least, acquire a smidgen of proficiency with a knife.

After shuffling through hand-outs and course catalogs of near-and-far brief culinary programs, I spied that Chester Heights' Hamananassett Bed & Breakfast & Carriage House offers several two-day cooking classes throughout the year, as part of their Brandywine Country Cooking School.
Under the tutelage of professional and personable chef Ann-Michelle Albertson, also of the Wynnewood's Albertson's Cooking School, class attendees sashay their way through themed hands-on programs, creating various multi-course meals that are, after all your hard work, thoroughly enjoyed in the incredible setting of the polished and elegant estate, established in 1856. 

Recently, Albertson alongside the B&B's owner Glenn Mon, hosted an eager-to -learn and get-their-hands-dirty group, including myself, focused around the concept of cooking holiday fare. Decked out with attractive aprons and binders packed with our soon-to-prepare traditional recipes, we flooded the inn's kitchen, bright-eyed and hungry. 

While the first day of the two day course is spent allowing new classmates to socialize with one another and become situated in the cozy historic setting with an evening reception, as paired with a light “Stir-Up Sunday” activity, the bulk of the edible education is tackled on day two, following an elaborate and charming breakfast.
The most appealing component of Hamanassett's course is that each piece of each meal is prepared by the attendees, not just by the instructor. Focused on allowing his guests to tackle all aspects of his school's menu, Mon's program is all hands-on.
Slicing, dicing, baking, sauteing—you name it, the kitchen was without a slow start on Monday morning, November 8. Since all attendees were present to participate in preparations for holiday fare recipes and how-tos, the entire luscious luncheon menu of double mushroom timbales, roast goose, autumn root vegetable mash, and caramelized pear tartin had been conquered in under two hours, honing our skills along the way.
With my sweet teeth in check, I signed on to assist my teammates with the instructions for the classic dessert, seen here with a twist. The recipe, adapted from Gordon Ramsay, featuring Bartlett pears, carefully peeled, halved, and cored, was completed within the hour by our own eager hands. At last, we crowned the piping-hot tart with a dollop of our just-churned Gorgonzola ice cream.
Taking a step back as classmates Dave and Nancy Jeffrey of Fairfax, Virginia took the lead roasting our meal's protein, I was amazed as the kitchen-conquering couple had no qualms about putting the local bird in its place—and their final product screamed of golden goose success on our mid-afternoon tabletop.
The kind-hearted innkeeper, who manages the Hamanassett aside his wife, Ashley, allotted pockets of time for rest-and-relaxation throughout the all-Monday-long cooking course, and speaking from experience, retiring to a room has never been this sweet.

Our two o'clock kitchen roundup, where we together prepared seven recipes for our detailed dinner feast, was where my individual cooking inspiration came alive, as I realized that having kitchen anxiety is really, never necessary. Attracted to Albertson's selections for both of our courses and meals, all attendees were able to attack recipes that we would have otherwise ignored, as we may have previously viewed them as “complex” or having too many steps.

Proud to proclaim that in our three-hour session, our seven-person class, plus two instructors, produced all components for a traditional English holiday feast, including roasting chestnuts and incorporating them in soup, preparing a salmon souffle torte topped with our own constructed food art, sculpting twice baked potatoes, cooking a standing rib roast, prepping dough for Yorkshire pudding, and swirling all the appropriate sauces and toppings any diner would dare to devour.

But, after two days well-spent in the vibrant kitchen of the Hamanassett, we can all confess that we will not longer look like amateurs during dinner prep. Better yet, through Chef Ann-Michelle Albertson's schooling, we not only understand how to conquer our own cooking spaces, but also, are now influenced to use the freshest, most local and sustainable ingredients.

While I would suggest to anyone who is interested in embracing culinary feats, whether an established home chef or a casual participant, to attend Chester County's Brandywine Country Cooking School's Holiday Fare course, the six other themed programs are as appealing as my recent kitchen participation.

In April, the B&B hosts a “Last Dinner on the Titanic,” which indulges classmates in Edwardian Era fare similar to that seen on the sunken ship, and in June and August, the “Brandywine Bounty” class offers the ultimate farm-to-table experience, where you explore Brandywine Valley farms, sourcing your food and cooking with the locally-acquired ingredients.

For more information, find Hamanassett B&B online at or call 610-459-3000.