Williams-Sonoma Cooking School: A New Option in the Cooking Class Realm

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Chef Vlad orienting students before instruction began.

Recently I was invited to attend a cooking class at Williams-Sonoma‘s Union Square location on Post Street in San Francisco. There’s no question that founder Chuck Williams changed the way Americans cook today. His vision of importing French cookware to his original Sonoma shop in 1956 and selling them to home cooks revolutionized how we interpret and enjoy food.

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Individual cooking stations equipped with Meile oven, induction cooktop, and an enviable amount of W-S cookware.

Just a few weeks in to this new concept, the classes really personalizes the cooking experience. They also provide attendees the opportunity to not only sit and enjoy demos from one of the resident or guest chefs, but also allow attendees to work with Williams-Sonoma products at mini kitchen stations equipped with Miele appliances. Currently, classes are held at three of their storefronts: San Francisco’s Union Square, Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and Sydney’s Bondi Junction Station.

Upon arrival, everyone gets a crisp white chef’s coat, apron, and kitchen towel. Once properly dressed, we all gathered around the expansive marble island and listened to Chef Vladimir Niza talk about our menu. Chef Vlad is in charge of the company’s culinary programs including the new curriculum and has extensive experience and education in the culinary and nutrition field. Classically trained with degrees in nutritional science, he’s the perfect balance of charismatic European chef and scientist. Chef Aaron Clarke oversees the Union Square program and is personable and knowledgeable counterpoint to Chef Vlad’s demeanor. Needless to say, I felt in good company.

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Chef Vlad sprinkling fresh truffles on top of our first course, Jerusalem Artichoke Soup.

Chef Vlad prepared our first course, a puree of Jerusalem Artichokes with Truffles and Jerusalem Artichoke Chips, and demonstrated why every one that can afford a Vitamix should own one. Wow, no fine sieve required, with this baby. A silky smooth soup with a 60-second whirl.

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Working at our individual station, preparing our main course.

The main course was demo-ed by Chef Vlad and after watching him prepare it, we paired up and headed to our stations. The dish, Pan-Fried Fillet of Wild Salmon with Spinach and Watercress and a Wasabi Cream, was technical enough to please those with some cooking knowledge, yet not overly challenging for those with only basic skills. Besides both chefs, there were plenty of W-S assistants on hand to check our progress and answer questions. The highlight for me? Working on a commercial-grade induction stovetop. Me want one. Badly.

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My cooking partner, cookbook author and food blogger Amy Sherman, in charge of the salmon.

Really, though, how many times have you visited a high-end cookware shop, picked up a knife or pan, and not followed through with the purchase, in part, because you are unsure how effective the tool will be to you once you get home? These classes really are an opportunity to test cookware, knives, and other kitchen accouterments before purchasing. Appliance showrooms allow prospective buyers to take a $5,000 oven for a test drive, so why not try out that $100 sauté skillet before you buy? Genius. If this flies, it will snuff the showroom talk, no doubt. Yes, you might be able to purchase similar products at a slightly cheaper price elsewhere, but if it ends up sitting in a drawer, then you’re out that money either way.

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Pan-Fried Fillet of Wild Salmon with Spinach and Watercress and Wasabi Cream

If all of the dishes are this carefully selected, then W-S will have no problem filling seats. The recipe was decadent and elegant without being overly fussy or technical. Impeccable ingredients were sourced locally and on par with what you would find at a nicer SF restaurant, which is another factor that really sets this program apart.

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Poached Pears with Raspberry Sorbet and Almond-Cookie Crumble. Talked so much it began to melt. Still delicious!

Chef Vlad prepared dessert while we all went back to our seats to marvel at each other’s plates. We all ate very well that day.

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Chef Aaron, Chef Vlad, and Star (101.3) Mornings DJs Marcus D and Sandy.

Class topics range from basics like Essential Knife Skills to advanced techniques like Butchery & Cooking: Nose to Tail. Classes also vary in length, theme, and season. Check out the calendar here. You can sign up for a two-hour DIY Workshop or enroll in a 5-day intensive.

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Chef Aaron putting the finishing touches on the soup.

Williams-Sonoma was kind enough to forward the soup recipe. Enjoy!

Jerusalem artichoke soup

Jerusalem artichokes are wonderfully nutritious and versatile. This simple soup is the perfect way to enjoy them on a cold day. Serves 6.

Ingredients:

1 lb. Jerusalem Artichokes, peeled and chopped

1 Medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 Tbsp. Unsalted butter

1 Tbsp. Peanut oil

1 quart whole milk

salt, pepper

Method:

On a low heat, sweat the onion for 5 minutes in the butter and peanut oil. Add the artichoke, sweat for a further 3 minutes. Cover with milk then simmer gently for 20 minutes. When cooked, the artichokes should be totally soft. Puree in a blender until fine. Add a little more milk if the soup is too thick and season to taste.

Serve with a little chopped parsley and croutons. Or, add a small amount of finely chopped truffles, drizzle with truffle oil, and garnish with a few deep-fried Jerusalem artichoke chips.

Anise-Corn Biscotti

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I think I make too many biscotti. Must be my addiction to a hot cup of something. The writing life is a lonely one, and having a hot cup of coffee, tea, chocolate, even lemon-flavored water keeps my fingers nimble and my attention focused.

 

An unexpected mis-labeled bag of white flour turned out to be a new idea for biscotti. I usually make a traditional Greek biscotti, flavored with anise seed and Ouzo, and as I opened a new bag of flour yesterday, I noticed little brown flecks of outer bran? Whole-wheat flour was my guess, but really who knows. With only corn flour in my cupboards, I substituted my second cup of white flour for corn.

 

Now I know the Greeks discovered a lot of things, but corn isn’t one of them. Thankfully, the flavors didn’t clash and actually tasted rather nice together. The corn flour also lends a nice crunch and added layer of sweetness. It’s my version of the Old World meets New World sweet.

 

Anise-Corn Biscotti

Makes two small logs, and when cut, about 24 cookies.

 

1 cup white all-purpose flour

1 cup corn flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon whole anise seed, ground

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 extra-large egg

3 Tablespoons Ouzo or other anise-flavored liqueur

 

1. Whisk together flours, powder, salt, and anise in a bowl; set aside.

2. In another bowl, whisk together softened butter and sugar, either by hand or in a standing mixer, until light and fluffy. Add egg and Ouzo and mix well to incorporate. Add the flour mixture and mix  to combine. Cover the dough and chill for at least an hour.

3. Place oven rack in center of oven and pre-heat oven to 350°. Remove the dough and divide evenly in half. On a large sheet pan, form each portion of dough into a log, lengthwise on the pan, so that it is approximately 4-inches wide by 12-inches long.

4. Bake biscotti logs until they lightly brown on the edges and set to touch, about 15 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and allow the logs to rest for about 3 minutes. One at a time, remove a log and place on a cutting board. At a slight angle, slice log into 1-inch strips, and return biscotti to sheet pan. Repeat with second log and place pan back in the oven for another 7 minutes. Remove pan and cool cookies until room temperature. Store in an air-tight container for up to one week.

Cocktail Gardening with Rum

Since I last wrote about cocktail gardening for the SF Chronicle, I have been busy mixing up all kinds of drinks. I recently received samples of a delicious new premium rum, Shellback Caribbean Rum from Barbados. Shellback is a title that a sailor receives after sailing across the equator. Both the silver and spiced versions, or white and dark, are nothing like I have sampled before. I guess it’s time for me to grow up and ditch that Bacardi from ten years ago. Kind of like trading in your Charlie fragrance for Balenciaga.

Taking a more mature, thoughtful approach to cocktails means upgrading your selections to small-batch distillers and carefully crafted spirits that tell a story, and exploring unusual flavors that make up these complex elixirs. By all means, pour yourself a shot of these types of pricy concoctions, but if you do you’ll be missing out on the aromas and subtle characteristics that make them so darn delicious.

By adding herbs, citrus, and other ingredients that have already been infused during the distillation process, these drinks really become special. I can’t wait for tonight when I’ll be learning the proper mixing techniques from Las Vegas-based mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim. I’ll also start thinking of ways to use both the silver and spiced versions in cooking. Maybe strawberry mint and spiced rum chocolate truffles, or jerk chicken with spiced rum glaze.

Rosemary Shortbread

It’s that time of year again when I impulsively start buying extra flour, sugar, and butter, so don’t ask my why I ended up making a batch of pumpkin-flavored rice crispy treats. Finding a recipe off the web can be risky, and as I learned a few days ago, adding moisture like pumpkin puree to a perfectly good indulgence like rice crispy treats just doesn’t work (do you hear that ApartmentTherapy!). And since I was going to mail them to my son away at college, I’ve been eating them instead. Soggy, yes, but not that much different than when the plain cereal is doused with milk for breakfast.

So now I am going to use those baking ingredients that are taking up valuable counter space with a batch of Rosemary Shortbread. (His idea, not mine.) I got the recipe off of Epicurious.com and feel much better about using recipes where the comments are from people who actually make the recipe, confirming its accuracy, and not just responders saying they “look good”. Lesson learned. These are spot on perfect. Enjoy!

Rosemary Shortbread Cookies

1 1/2 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

2 Tbsp. honey

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

1. Mix together first four ingredients; set aside.

2. Place butter in a standing mixer bowl or large bowl and whip until light and fluffy. Add honey and sugar and continue to whip until well incorporated. Add flour mixture and blend just until dough forms.

3. Remove half of dough from bowl and place on a 12″ sheet of wax paper; flatten and lengthen to form a rectangular log 1″ thick. Fold wax paper over until dough is wrapped. Repeat with other half batch of dough and refrigerate until firm, up to overnight.

4. Remove dough from refrigerator, unwrap, and slice in equal pieces and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet in a 350° oven for 15 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom. Store in an airtight container for up to a week. Makes 32 cookies.

Cranberry-Olive Oil Muffins

It’s easy to assume that once the calendar says “January 1” we purge our shelves and cupboards of unhealthy foods that find their way into our homes and kitchens during the holidays. But not all of us are so eager to turn over a new leaf and initiate a new year goal that is as likely to stick as re-purposed postage stamps. The first couple weeks of January should be set aside for holiday-frosted Christmas cookies bought on clearance, leftover holiday candy that was forgotten when stockings were stuffed, and newly gifted cook books that now tempt us with the promise of perfect pies and sweets.

There were several cook books that tempted me this year, and I happily supplied a few titles as gifts. Thank goodness for the library because the titles that didn’t end up on my shelves are available at my local library. It was probably not a mistake that I chose to “borrow” Heidi Swanson’s new book, Super Natural Every Day, because most of it is filled with healthy recipes. The book is beautiful and full of inspiring ideas, but I will never find Tempeh in my refrigerator. Never. But several of her recipes have inspired me to create spin offs, or my versions with flours I have on hand, oils I prefer to use, or substitutions I know my family appreciates. (See Tempeh.)

This recipe for Cranberry-Olive Oil Muffins is inspired from the above cookbook. I tweaked it a bit and am very happy with the results. (And it doesn’t contain Tempeh.) Enjoy!

Cranberry-Olive Oil Muffins

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 cup unsweetened bran cereal

1/4 cup flax seed

1 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

2 eggs

1 6 oz. container of non-fat Greek-style plain yogurt

1/2 cup non-fat milk

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

zest and juice of one small orange

3/4 cup dried cranberries

1. In a food processor, whirl oats, bran cereal, and flax seed until finely ground. Remove from processor and place in a mixing bowl; add flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon and mix to combine.

2. In another mixing bowl, add eggs and whip; add yogurt, milk, honey, oil, extract, and zest and juice of orange and mix well. Add dry ingredients and cranberries and mix until batter forms. Place batter into a greased 12-count muffin tin, distributing evenly. Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 20 minutes, or when lightly browned on top and cooked through.

Caraway Quick Bread

Lately I’ve been craving baked goods with caraway seeds. It could be the colder weather and the thought of fresh bread baking in the oven. It could also be the recent trip to the spice store that prompted me to purchase an item that I don’t currently have. I could wander Penzeys in Menlo Park and sniff and smell the samples for hours. I love how you can take a whiff of several different cinnamon or black peppercorn varieties before purchasing. Many of their spices come in different varieties from different locales, demonstrating how geography plays a key role in a spice’s flavor profile, heat level, etc.

The caraway flavor is very subtle in this recipe. The seed provides more of an herbal, parsley note rather than a heavy caraway flavor. I’m not a fan of whole seeds in food so I tend to crush them when cooking with them. A mortar and pestle is one of my most used kitchen items. I love how it turns a daunting item like an unusual or infrequently used spice into something delicate and fragrant.

Caraway seeds are grown commercially in Holland and Germany and are used heavily in Scandinavian cooking. Some say it’s the oldest cultivated spice known to man, having been found alongside other cooking relics dating back more than 5,000 years. In modern times, it was and still is associated with Northern European cuisine, but it was frequently used during ancient Greek and Roman times. For centuries, caraway has been used medicinally for stomach ailments and as a sleep aid.

Caraway Quick Bread

No yeast, no rising, and a little less romantic, but great when you have a craving for fresh-baked bread in a hurry.

1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup ground flaxseed

2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. sea salt

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed

8 oz. honey-flavored Greek-style yogurt

1 large egg

1/4 cup olive oil

3/4 cup whole milk (or more)

1. Preheat oven at 375°. Grease a 9″x5″ bread loaf pan and set aside. In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine first seven ingredients; set aside. In a small mixing bowl, combine yogurt, egg, olive oil, and milk and whisk until thoroughly combined.

2. In a standing mixer or with a hand-held mixer, add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Add more milk, a tablespoon at a time, if mixture appears dry. It should look like wet cookie or biscotti dough. Do not over mix. Spread dough into prepared loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until top is nicely brown and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center of the loaf. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Pumpkin Spice Cookies with Maple Frosting

There’s a sweet little cafe in downtown San Carlos that serves the most amazing treats. My instincts tell me that originally it started out as a cupcake shop, but has slowly transitioned to a cafe that serves savory and sweet edibles, including cupcakes. The proprietor was smart to name her shop something broad enough to ride the cupcake trend without pigeonholing her brand and ultimately limiting the success of her shop.

Last Saturday I popped in with my daughter on a mission to bring home their amazing maple-glazed oat scones, but also walked out with a pumpkin spice brown sugar cookie. Divine. Soft and cake-like with a swirl of vanilla-spiked brown sugar frosting. Here’s my version.

Pumpkin Spice Cookies with Maple Frosting

These are best served the same day, but can be stored for up to three days in an airtight container. Pumpkin spice consists of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg. Because I’m crazy for spices, I like to mix my own. If you have this blend on hand, feel free to substitute 2 tablespoons of it in place of the individual spices in the recipe below.

Cookies:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

1/2 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1 stick unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 large egg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup pumpkin puree

Frosting:

1 1/4 cups confectioners sugar

5 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature

3 tbsp. maple syrup

Cinnamon for dusting

1. In a bowl, sift together first seven ingredients; set aside. In another mixing bowl, beat butter using a hand-held mixer or standing mixer until fluffy, about 1 minute. Add sugars and beat again for another minute. Add egg and beat, scraping down sides of bowl, until well incorporated. On low speed, add vanilla and pumpkin puree and combine. Add flour-spice mixture and mix until batter forms, about one more minute.

2. Refrigerate batter for at least 15 minutes. If making ahead, cover and refrigerate for up to half a day.

3. Preheat oven to 350° and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Remove batter from refrigerator and, using an ice cream scoop, scoop batter onto lined cookie sheet. Each sheet should fit 12 cookies. Dip fingers in water and smooth the tops of each cookie to flatten so that each cookie measures about 1/4″ x 2 1/2″.

4. Bake cookies, one sheet pan at a time in the center of the oven, for 15 minutes. Remove cookies from pan and place on wire rack to cool.

5. To prepare frosting, sift sugar into a mixing bowl to remove any lumps. Add butter and whip on high; slowly add syrup. Whip until frosting is fluffy and smooth, about 2 minutes.

6. When cookies are cool, spread frosting on cookies  and dust lightly with cinnamon.