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Ash Daniel photos
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About four months ago, inspired by an episode of Top Chef: Just Desserts , I decided to try my hand at some pastry. They made it look so easy, and I had phyllo in the freezer just begging to be baked.
Needless to say, my knowledge of baking was (and is) pretty limited. The phyllo box had a recipe on the back that looked simple as, well … pie. That recipe turned out to be the beginning of my end. The phyllo kept falling apart, the berries were too sweet, and the butter got all over everything, making things a little too slippery to manage. I can whip up some mean meals otherwise, but I'd pretty much decided to leave the cakes to Kroger. That is, before I took a "Holiday Baking Basics" class at Sur La Table.
Walking into the kitchen/classroom at the shop in Stony Point Fashion Park, I instantly felt comfortable. The atmosphere can only be described as warm. There were wood cabinets, no abundance of industrial ovens, and the smell of warm cakes already being baked for upcoming demonstrations wafted in the air. I was greeted with a welcome pamphlet, a packet that contained every recipe we would learn that day and a coupon good for the week after class. We were off to a good start.
Lynne Just, the instructor (and owner of Just Desserts), has been teaching pastry for so many years that she seems completely comfortable instructing people in a kitchen environment. What's more, there wasn't a single question we could throw at her that she couldn't answer or tell us an interesting anecdote about. I learned that the size of an egg matters, discovered a trick to maintaining even heating in muffin tins and was told about the benefits of a "crumb layer" on cake.
All in all, I thought the class was perfect for my level of expertise (which was zero). I had hoped it would boost my confidence, and that's exactly what it did. Fellow student Cheryl Roberts told me that she was there because she wants to expand baking experiences with her 11-year-old daughter beyond reading the "outside of a box." After taking her first bite of our pumpkin spice cake, another woman taking the class, Erica Ellis, proudly exclaimed that although she has always bought her contribution to Thanksgiving dinner from the grocery store, "This year, I'm making this."
We made seven different recipes during the class. To get this done in less than two hours, we were separated into small groups at different stations but told we could roam as we wished. In our groups, we worked together to complete one recipe. After about an hour, we were steadily reaping the benefits of our effort (i.e. eating to our hearts' content) from there on out.
Talking to other students, I realized that this class not only fit my modest skill level but had something to teach the more experienced as well. Joyce Lightner remembers her grandmother teaching her to bake, and Joyce then passed that knowledge on to her daughter. As a gift, her daughter had suggested they take the class together. I saw their eyes light up when they asked for advice on working with sticky foods, explaining that wax paper with butter didn't do much for them. Just suggested parchment paper, and they said they couldn't wait to get home and try it out.
As for me, I plan on making muffins with feta, roasted red pepper and basil for my next family get-together. I also learned that the back of some boxes have recipes that really are easy as pie — check out a Hershey's Cocoa container for a blueprint to making chocolate cake, for example. Lynne says it's the best she's ever had, and I can attest that it's pretty darn delicious.