Years ago, a girlfriend and I took a gourmet cooking class just for kicks. Over the course of six weeks, we chopped onions like the pros, made homemade pasta, discovered Hollandaise sauce is harder to make than we thought and piped out delicate pastries in the shape of swans, some of which more closely resembled floundering ducks.
Lame swans aside, we had a delightful time and learned a great deal. I still think of that class whenever I chop an onion.
Much as I’d like, it would be impossible to find time now for a week-long class, so when I discovered that a variety of cooking classes are available for just one evening or afternoon, I was intrigued.
I’m happy to report that these classes deliver the goods in the way of both education and entertainment. If you’re looking for a unique way to socialize with friends and family, then pull out your calendar and start picking dates. Your cooking class awaits.
All About the Experience
It’s a Thursday evening and the fun’s just getting started at Artisinal Dish Fine Grocer & Eats, where ten of us have signed on for the Pizza class. Perched in comfy seats at high wooden tables, we have a perfect view of Chef Greg Mullen and the expansive open kitchen. The mood is relaxed as we chat before the class begins.
Rita Miller, the Florida wine consultant from the Opici Wine Group, is on hand, pouring a variety of different Italian red wines. She starts us off with a glass of Sangiovese to accompany the slices of herb cheese pizza Chef Greg prepares to whet our appetites.
As we nibble and sip, the chef demonstrates how to make two different tomato-based sauces. He shows us how to slice an “X” in the end of each Roma tomato before cooking so the skins slip off easily. By the time Chef Greg has moved on to showing how he whips up his pizza crust, my mouth is starting to water. To my surprise, he adds a little white wine to one type of crust, explaining that it adds both moisture and flavor.
Sure, you can use a mixer to combine your crust ingredients, but, as Chef Greg demonstrates, it’s much more effective (and satisfying) to use your hands. We even learned that you can make pizza dough a few hours in advance and then refrigerate it. The cold slows down the yeast’s action until you take it out and let it rise for a second time.
At this point, it’s all we can do to stay in our seats. When we’re invited to step up to the granite counter top and begin shaping our crust, everyone dons an apron and finds their place. Some participants use their hands to pat out the dough, while others opt for rolling pins or evenflour-dusted wine bottles rolled on their sides.
Once we achieve the crust shape we want, we place them on individual pizza stones. Now for the really fun part: choosing sauces and toppings. There’s a huge assortment of ingredients available to top our pizzas in any combination we desire. I decide to craft my first pizza with tomato sauce on one half and a tempting cilantro/pecan pesto sauce on the other. Then, I add mozzarella, caramelized onion, slivers of purple potato, chorizo and thinly sliced Wagyu beef meatballs. It’s delightful having so many toppings to pick from while not having to chop, slice or prepare any of them!
Jennie Greening, the chef’s assistant, uses a paddle to guide our pizza stones into the wood-fired brick pizza oven. At more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit, the oven cooks our pizzas to perfection in barely three minutes. Then, all we have to do is settle back and enjoy them as Rita visits our table with another bottle of wine.
A short time later, everyone is ready for round two, with most participants selecting different sauces and toppings to try new flavor combinations. My hands-down favorite is the blackened onion, an amazing concoction made from sliced onions, balsamic vinegar and a little sugar. The mixture is cooked over low heat for many hours until it’s reduced down to a thick, flavorful consistency best described as a spread. Several of us are begging for the recipe by the end of the night.
As the class wraps up, we’re inspired, armed with pizza sauce and crust recipes, not to mention an arsenal of cooking tips. There’s a feeling of camaraderie among the participants, several of whom have attended previous classes.
“I took the Cooking Fundamentals class, and it was fantastic,” says Robbie Payne. “We cooked two gourmet meals, and I made the dishes at home the next week; my husband said it was like a four-star restaurant. I came to take the Pizza class because I was so impressed with the first class.”
Chef Greg and his assistants Jennie, Meredith Donnan and Dish co-owner Mary Gary keep things moving smoothly all night and are there to help.
Dish offers different classes every month, taught by Chef Greg, as well as guest chefs. Classes average eight to 16 people, but with hands-on classes, such as ours, ten is the maximum number.
“One of the things we really try to do is demystify cooking,” says Chef Greg. “Take your time, prepare and think about what you’re going to do. Keep it simple. We want people to have fun with it.”
Trust me, we did!
Learning & Laughing
When Joy Dudis retired after three decades of politics in Ohio, she never thought she’d become a cooking instructor.
“I don’t even like to cook,” she laughs.
After Joy and her husband, Roger, moved to The Villages, she realized she’d be bored if she didn’t come up with a way to entertain herself. She and Roger became cooking instructors for The Villages Lifelong Learning College and have been entertaining themselves and their “students” for the past four years. (Classes are open to the public and only cost a few dollars more if you aren’t a Villages resident.)
Joy, with Roger assisting, teaches at least six cooking classes per month, and classes take place at the Dudis’ home.
“He is my more-than-right-hand man,” she says of her husband and co-instructor. “He mans the ovens, dishes up the food and actually makes some of the dishes.”
Joy and Roger built their spacious kitchen—complete with huge island, two ovens, five-burner gas cook top, two dish washers, walk-in pantry, wine cooler and soda cooler—for entertaining. Now, they’re so busy with their classes, the couple doesn’t have much time for entertaining.
When Joy says the classes are simple, she means it.
“There’s no slicing, dicing, chopping, paring, peeling or sautéing,” she declares. “We use mostly prepared ingredients. I like to call it ‘dump and stir.’ They’re easy recipes, and you don’t have to spend all day in the kitchen.”
Recently, 13 participants gathered at the Dudis’ home for the Easy Brunches class. Joy greeted her guests wearing pajamas and with her hair in curlers. She appears “in costume” for every class, with her outfit tailored to the specific topic.
Within 90 minutes, Joy and Roger prepared an astonishing array of brunch items. She whipped up a Texas quiche with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese and a little kick from green chilies, an egg and chili cup, and two different potato dishes. Roger turned out an apple-sausage ring using ground sausage, Granny Smith apples, Stovetop brand herb stuffing, onion and egg substitute. A blintz soufflé came together in minutes, thanks to frozen blintzes with added sour cream and eggs.
Joy assembled two different mixed fruit salads: one with rum and brown sugar, the other with a dash of cardamom and mace. She then demonstrated how to create an easy, yet crowd-pleasing sweet finale: bread pudding. Joy starts with cinnamon raisin bread, which she saws into large chunks with an electric knife. After spreading the bread in a pan, she tops it with a mixture of milk, egg, cinnamon, raisins and a bit of Splenda for sweetness, then pops it in the oven.
“Some of my recipes I’ve had for years,” she says. “I test everything and make my own modifications.”
Joy is all about showing class participants that, not only can cooking and entertaining be simple, it doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
“We usually serve Oak Leaf label wine, which is $3 at Wal-Mart,” she says. “For the Brunch class, we also did Bloody Marys.”
Participants eat at every class (and take home the leftovers)—that’s half the fun. The other half is the entertainment value.
“The best part of her classes is the playfulness,” says Pat Young, who moved to The Villages from Colorado last fall. “She makes cooking more than a chore.”
Angela Op de Deek, from British Columbia, Canada, was visiting friends and attended the Easy Brunches class.
“I’m a retired home economics teacher and taught for 35 years,” says Angela. “I can tell you from both a professional and fun point of view, the class was absolutely fabulous. What Joy’s doing is technically correct but also fun. She shows you can have a brunch or dinner party and it will look and taste fabulous, but you don’t have to do a lot of work. She has an amazing sense of humor. I could see myself as her sous chef if I move down here.”
Joy admits her lessons are “a little R-rated,” but her clever banter is one reason her classes are always full. The kitchen is the best place to catch her in action. All those grins and giggles, plus tasty food, too!
Cook, Eat, Learn If you could use a few cooking pointers, check out the following information and sign up for a class or two.
6998 N. U.S. Highway 27, Ocala / (352) 622-9977 / artisinaldish.com
(Click on “Cooking Classes” and browse the calendar.)
The Villages Lifelong Learning College
(352) 753-3035 / thevillageslifelongcollege.com
(Go to “courses” and click on the appropriate catalog, then click on “Culinary Arts.”)