By John Steinbreder
Jennifer Millar stood behind the counter in the spacious kitchen and began mixing the eggs, sugar and cream. And all I could think of was Dan Aykroyd in drag.
Not because the accomplished Bay Area chef bore any resemblance to the actor, who famously dressed as Julia Child for a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Rather, it was being in a demonstration kitchen and watching Millar prepare a sumptuous pineapple upside-down cake as 15 other “foodies” and I sat before her. She explained the recipe steps as she mixed the ingredients, and my mind suddenly flashed to Aykroyd’s hilarious send-up.
But there was nothing particularly comical about what we were doing this night. There was an air of earnestness in the room, for we were in class. Cooking class, that is, and one of dozens offered each year by the Ramekins culinary school in the charming California town of Sonoma.
The subject was “Classic American Desserts,” and I was there with my mother, Cynthia, who lives in that wine country burg about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, and my daughter Exa, who had joined me on a vacation trip. We had driven by the school several times in previous visits, wondering what it might be like to take a course there, and finally decided to find out.
Millar’s class fit our schedules, but I also liked that it covered an area of cooking – baking – I know little about. And I appreciated our selection even more when I saw that in addition to the pineapple upside-down cake, we would be making things such as coffee crunch cake and lemon meringue pie.
Now, that was a syllabus to cherish.
Ours was a three-hour course, and Millar, who is part owner and pastry chef at the Sweet Adeline Bakery in Berkeley, kicked it off with her pineapple cake demonstration. Cameras projecting images on four televisions hanging above her work space helped us observe the way she mixed the batter and then poured it over the brown sugar, butter and pineapple rings. And her explanation of why she preferred to put cranberries in the center of the pineapple rings as opposed to maraschino cherries held us rapt, as did her suggestions that we could slip a bit of dark rum in the batter and maybe even a little coconut milk.
Once that was in the oven, at 350 degrees for roughly 40 minutes, Millar delved into the intricacies of pie dough, covering everything from the importance of using proper recipes to how to “tease out” the dough once it is made. The students peppered Millar with questions. What is the best flour to use? How long before butter goes bad, even if it has been stored in a refrigerator? Which Kitchen Aid mixer is best?
Millar patiently answered those queries as she crimped the dough for what eventually would be part of a Meyer lemon meringue pie. And then it was our turn.
We moved to a pair of roomy tables upon which the ingredients for the various desserts were set. Everything had been chopped, diced, measured and meted out by a pair of volunteer assistants, Luke and Randy, and the kitchen manager, Cindy, and all that was left for us to do was choose a dessert and get to work.
My mother and daughter paired up at the place where the makings for a green apple pie were laid out. (It occurred to me how appropriate that Mom would be making, of all things, apple pie.) She and Exa peeled, cored and sliced the apples and tossed them in a mixing bowl with brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and a little orange and lemon zest.
Meanwhile, I started preparing fudge brownies, a dish I occasionally made in the days when Aykroyd was a “SNL” regular (and more often than not from a recipe inspired by Alice B. Toklas), but one I hadn’t attempted in ages. Millar stopped by to check my progress as I melted the unsweetened Scharffen Berger chocolate in a double boiler with some butter and ground espresso, offering advice on the best way to fold in the flour and chocolate chips.
It would take 20 minutes for the brownies to cook, and I passed the time by visiting with the other students as they did everything from whisking the filling for the lemon meringue pie to spreading chocolate icing on the devil’s food cake. Our class, initially demure, had grown chattier as we became increasingly engaged in the dishes we were preparing. We nattered about the things we each liked to cook and marveled at the different treats we were creating as mixers whirred, oven doors opened and shut and whisks dinged against the sides of metal bowls.
All our desserts were done after roughly 21⁄2 hours, and then it was time to sample the fruits of our labors. So we sat around a table together and picked at plates on which bits of our desserts were arrayed, a sort of high-caloric feast that gave me a massive sugar rush and the sense it would be a little tougher to hitch my belt on the usual notch the following morning.
– For information on Ramekins classes,