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Location: Instructor's Home, Chester and the Danforth. Toronto.

Whenever I've eaten spanikopita or baklava at friends' houses, I've marvelled at their ability to work with phyllo dough. Such delicate translucency of pastry! So delicate and fine! It must be a nightmare to work with. Today, I learned that odds are good that none of them make their own phyllo dough. They buy it in rolls from the supermarket. It dries out quickly, but is otherwise very easy to work with, like a light sheet of fabric more than dough. All by itself, this revelation makes me happy I took today's class.

I ran across Debbie Diament's My Place for Dinner cooking school by way of her website earlier this week. She was offering something unlike any of the other courses I'd already signed up for: a cooking class taught out of an instructor's home. Additionally, her Moroccan class not only fit my schedule but fulfilled my promise to take a Moroccan cooking class.

Five of us showed up on her doorstep today around noon, and were welcomed in by Debbie herself and her assistant Nancy. We started right away, sipping cups of mint tea while taking turns chopping the ingredients for our first course, Moroccan Sweet and Spicy Beef Phyllo triangles. Finely diced onions and mince were fried with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and lemon juice. We brushed the sheets of phyllo dough with nifty silicon brushes. We all overcompensated in our eagerness to be thorough, and the resulting appetizers were rather more oily than they should have been. Otherwise, they were delicious with a yogurt and cumin sauce to finish them off.

In the other classes I've taken thus far, each person did every step of each recipe. Today's class was different. Cooking was a group effort, interspersed with conversation, helping each other, and collectively contributing to the dishes. No one did everything, but we all saw and discussed all the parts of each recipe. There was space for questions and comments. While making Couscous with Zucchini and Red Pepper, we discussed sources of high-quality instant chicken stock. While working on the richly-flavored Carrot Salad, we smelled smoked paprika (use half as much as amounts given for regular paprika). We talked about storing spices and using saffron while cooking a Chicken Tagine. Rosewater lasts forever, and makes a subtle, but effective contribution to slices of orange with cinnamon and icing sugar.

The class was accessible to a range of cooking competencies and skills. It didn't matter if it took a long time to cut an onion. The class was about learning, regardless of level. Of course, it was also about eating. We all ate too many phyllo triangles, but still had appetite for the flavorful couscous, which went beautifully with the richness of the tagine. The carrots were bright to taste and to see.

Despite taking our time and asking plenty of questions, we were a remarkably efficient class and finished early. Full with advice on other recommended cooking schools to try out, and where I might be able to buy quince, we all headed off to The Cook's Shop to browse (20 percent post-class pattern; a common cooking class feature, it seems!).

I really enjoyed the friendliness of today's class, and the richness of the flavors. I'm excited to play with phyllo dough, and equally happy to know I can freeze any appetizers I make with it, so I'm not stuck trying to eat fifty of the things all by myself. I would have learned even more if I'd done all the steps myself, but I don't think it would have been that much more, since most of it was chopping and measuring. I liked the team effort approach too, and the feeling of cooking being an adventure, augmented by the class not being held in a formal classroom setting. From a practical standpoint, I learned more from the knife skills class; but I came away happier from this one, since there's no way to feel left behind when we're all working together.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 27th, 2005 09:51 pm (UTC)
sounds great. I'd like to take cooking lessons someday, and the benefit of taking a one time class is that it doesn't get tedious or use up all your time. I think I'd like to take a sushi making class someday.
Feb. 27th, 2005 09:56 pm (UTC)
The same instructor is teaching a sushi class next week. One of the participants argued that it shouldn't count as a "cooking" class. (If you define cooking as involving heat, there's not a great deal in most sushi prep, except for the rice.)
Feb. 28th, 2005 12:30 am (UTC)
But cooking applies to any kind of food preparation. o.O
Feb. 27th, 2005 10:21 pm (UTC)
Smoked paprika is highly addictive!
Feb. 28th, 2005 04:22 pm (UTC)
Do you eat it by the spoonful?
Feb. 28th, 2005 04:39 pm (UTC)
No but I use it a lot in salad dressings, marinades and dry rubs
Feb. 27th, 2005 11:18 pm (UTC)
When I was on JYA in Florence we had cooking classes with one of the signoras that students stayed with. The approach was the same, with everyone pitching in and then eating together. This was especially a good thing when learning how to make risotto in 100 degree weather with no air conditioning-- nobody had to stir in front the of the hot stove for more than a few minutes at a time.
Feb. 28th, 2005 04:27 pm (UTC)
The hot stove argument is a compelling one for cooperative cooking.
Feb. 28th, 2005 04:19 am (UTC)
One of these days, and this is not the day, I'm going to make my own phyllo. I've seen my mom do it a zillion times, and I've actually purchased the proper rolling pin, and the Macedonian cookbook that tells me how. All I need to do now is lose my mind, and we're all set.

There is NOTHING in the world like homemade phyllo, but so far I haven't been able to make myself do it.
Feb. 28th, 2005 04:23 pm (UTC)
I'm not certain now that I've ever had homemade phyllo, but I admire you for even thinking of attempting it. It looks like a real pain to make.
Feb. 28th, 2005 07:21 am (UTC)
I think that.. you can count the 'restaurants' that make their own phillo do.. on 1 hand in the entire united states...
The stuff is a pain in the ass to make.. (I made strudel dough.. at school, hwich is.. easier but similar.. and that was a pain)

Feb. 28th, 2005 04:24 pm (UTC)
I find it strange that multiple national cuisines should rely on something so extraordinarily fiddly as an integral element.
Feb. 28th, 2005 01:04 pm (UTC)
I've never tried making filo or puff pastry -- just seems like way too much hassle.

Over the weekend I tried your tip of using the back of a knife for peeling ginger -- pretty damn nifty!
Feb. 28th, 2005 04:25 pm (UTC)
And you get a bit more extra ginger to work with at the end! In the past, I've always sliced the skin off of ginger. Given how oddly shaped it always is, there's quite a bit of ginger loss in slicing.
Feb. 28th, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC)
yeah back of knife.. a spoon both work awesome.. if the ginger is nice and fresh.

filo and puff pastry..are 2 very different beasts.. puff pastry is.. alot easier to make.. it just..requires like.. 2 pounds of butter and alot of patience.. filo.. involves very delicate stretching..
and really, there's so many fine quality frozen sheets of the stuff.. it's silly to make your own.. and way too time consuming. Athens, and the folks who make puff pastry.. have giant rolling machines that make the stuff for them..
it's way more cost effective to just.. buy the stuff.

I'm glad you're having fun doing your classes though :) that sounds like fun
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )