California dreamin’? Trip to cooking school is all that

09 Jun California dreamin’? Trip to cooking school is all that

By Sydne George

For the Tribune
“Some people like to paint pictures, or do gardening, or build a boat in the basement.

Other people get tremendous pleasure out of the kitchen, because cooking is just as creative and imaginative an activity as drawing, wood­carving or music.”

— Julia Child

My mom and I love to cook. So, going on a weekend cooking school getaway together to Sonoma, California, was an unbeat­able pleasure. To celebrate a milestone birthday, my mom arranged for the two of us to fly to Sonoma and spend a long weekend learning about artisan bread baking, French cooking and elegant brunch preparation at Ramekins Cooking School.

Ramekins, located just four blocks off Sonoma’s historic plaza, boasts a professional teaching kitchen set-up with demonstration mirrors and cam­eras for optimal viewing during cooking classes.

In operation for more than 12 years, Ramekins offers a wide variety of classes, ranging from Springtime in Rome to Pure Japanese to Barbecue and Blues. Upstairs from the cooking school are six guest rooms to accommodate those staying there for special occasions.


Artisan bread baking

We began our culinary cru­sade in the able hands of Chef Michael Kalanty, who teaches artisan bread baking at The Cal­ifornia Culinary Academy in San Francisco. His mission for our class of 16 was to teach us his basic method of making sweet­bread dough. Calling us up front and center to learn about bread baking, he grabbed a piece of parchment paper as his chalkboard to explain the stages of making bread.


Mise en place — Literally “everything in place,” this refers to the ritual of measuring ingre­dients so they are at hand and ready to go.

Mixing— Combining ingredi­ents in a sequence to create good structure and not kill the yeast.

Development — Kneading the dough by folding, pushing and turning the dough with your hands.

Fermentation — Letting the dough rest (and rise) for flavor development.
Shaping — Creating pan loaves, rolls, cinnamon buns or whatever you are making.

Proofing — Allowing the shaped dough to rise before bak­ing.

Decorating and baking — Slashing, brushing and baking.

If you have a scale and a ther­mometer, you can make almost anything in the kitchen, Kalanty said. Up to his elbows in flour, he leaned over to allow a helper to grab the thermometer out of his chef’s coat pocket so he could check the doneness of the bread.

“Everything’s done at 175 degrees,” he said. “Check it in two places.”

Kalanty spoke lovingly of proofing rolls in an environment that won’t hurt them.

“At my mom’s I put it in the dishwasher with a couple of cups of boiling water,” Kalanty said. “I’ve proofed in my car,” he admitted, smiling.

“How to Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread” is Kalanty’s comprehensive guide, the compi­lation of five years work. It recently received the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’ “Best Bread Book in the World 2010” award at the Paris Cookbook Fair.

Kalanty was the executive pas­try chef at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia prior to coming to San Francisco. While there, he developed his recipe for Philly sticky buns that Philadelphia Magazine voted best sticky buns in Philadelphia for five years run­ning. Kalanty shared the recipe and method the day we were there.

“Hopefully I made the bread baking look easy,” he said, as we tasted the three wonderful sweet­breads we made that day — the award-winning Philly sticky buns; the cinnamon buns with their tender cake-like texture; and the soft and airy babka, an Old World coffeecake grand­mother would make, with its unusual tang on the back of your tongue.


French flavors

Equally as charming and pas­sionate about cooking was our French chef, Pierre Lagourgue, who held onto my hand when he met me, smiling and chatting even as class began.

“Cooking is like painting.” he said. “One day I feel one way. The next day I feel another. I am always changing, and my palate is always changing.”

A Frenchman from the south of France, Lagourgue is Basque. He came to San Francisco in 1968 to help his brother in the restau­rant business, intending to stay for two years, but he’s still here today.

Upon arriving in San Francis­co, Lagourgue operated Chez Leon with his brother, from 1968-1977, and then went on to open Chez Peyo (Basque for Pierre) in Sebastopol, a restaurant he ran with his wife Rose Marie for 27 years until 2005. Since then he has been teaching classes in French cooking at Ramekins.

“I love what I am doing,” he said.

Presentation is everything, Lagourgue believes.

“If the presentation is good, they love it,” he explained. “They eat with their eyes.”

Lagourgue advised us to listen to our own palates.

“You are the expert,” he said, And please our palates he did that day, demonstrating pate de campagne, buckwheat crepes with crab, twice-baked goat cheese souffle, Belgian endive, watercress and beet salad with walnut dressing, blanquette de veau, rice pilaf, asparagus with citrus oil and lemon souffle, a meal fit for a king, all paired with local wines.

As the food was being pre­pared, he stopped to tell stories from his restaurant days to illumi­nate various methods and tech­niques in the kitchen.

“The secret to a good souffle is the egg white,” he said. “By acci­dent in the restaurant, I was in a hurry, and I learned not to whip the egg whites too much. If I have any water in the bottom of the bowl, I didn’t do a good job.”


Elegant brunch

Our final cooking class was taught by veteran instructor Mary Karlin, who has been with Ramekins since the very begin­ning. Karlin’s latest book is called “Wood-fired Cooking: Tech­niques and Recipes for the Grill, Backyard Oven, and Campfire.”

She lives in Superior, Arizona, and teaches classes at Sur la Table at the Kierland Common shopping complex when she’s not traveling to Sonoma to teach classes at Ramekins.

Karlin currently is working on her second book, a cheese mak­ing book and will offer a cheese making class in the fall at Ramekins.

During our class, we did a whole brunch menu. We were divided into groups and assigned a recipe. While the menu was intended for brunch, Karlin said these versatile and delicious dish­es individually could be served any time of the day.

Karlin taught us a few neces­sary techniques and then wanted us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

As she walked us through the recipes, she modeled specific techniques such as skinning a piece of salmon for the chard­wrapped salmon with melted leeks and dijon Sauce we’d be making.

“I’m going to do a show-and­-tell on the salmon,” she said, showing us how to remove the skin from the fish. She recom­mended using a sharp knife, preferably a fillet knife, and start­ing from the tail end. She picked up the piece of salmon and began pulling with one end, pushing and skinning with the other.

“Buy a side of salmon if you can and skin it,” she said. “The skin is there to keep the fish moist, so leave it on until you use it.”

She moved on to showing us how to cut and clean leeks, flip­ping them like a deck of cards and checking for sand. And then she set us free with our recipes to make buttery orange-ginger scones, asparagus chive and goat cheese souffle gratin, chard­wrapped roasted salmon with melted leeks and Dijon sauce and marmalade-glazed lemon tart with pistachio crust and lavender creme.

Miraculously, not long after, we found ourselves seated in the Vineyard Room, savoring every bite of the elegant spring brunch we had prepared with the help of Karlin.

From the end of April to Octo­ber Ramekins offers cooking classes outside, she said. Visit for a list of classes.

Recipes from classes at Ramekins cooking school in Sonoma

For the Tribune
(recipe by Pierre Lagourgue)

 8 medium beets

 ¼ cup Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar

 ¾ cup walnut oil or olive oil

 7 heads Belgian endive, sliced crosswise

 3 bunches watercress, stems trimmed

 1 cup toasted walnuts

Preheat oven to 375°. Wrap beets in foil and bake until ten­der, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. Cool. Peel beets and cut into ½­inch pieces. Can be prepared a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Place vinegar in small bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss endive, watercress and walnuts in large bowl with enough dressing to coat; season to taste with salt and pepper. Place beets in ring around edges of salad.

Makes 10 servings

(recipe by Pierre Lagourgue)
 3 tbsp. butter plus butter for coating ramekins

 1 cup dry bread crumbs

 3 tbsp. cake flour

 1 cup milk

 10 ounces goat cheese

 3 egg yolks

 Salt and pepper to taste

 1 cup egg whites (about 7 large)

Place rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425°.

Butter eight 5-ounce ramekins, making sure to coat them well. Fill each ramekin with the bread crumbs then turn them over and tap out the excess. Reserve any remaining bread crumbs.

Melt the 3 tbsp. of butter in a stainless steel saute pan over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 20 seconds, whisking constantly.

Whisk in the milk and cook for about one minute, whisking con­stantly, until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of a thin pourable pudding.

Crumble 8 ounces of the cheese into a large mixing bowl. Pour the hot milk mixture over the goat cheese and mix well. Add the egg yolks and mix again. Season with salt and pepper.

Using an electric mixer with clean dry beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold half of the whites into the cheese mixture to lighten it. Then gently fold in the remaining whites.

Divide half of the souffle mix­ture among the prepared ramekins, then top with the remaining souffle mixture, divid­ing it equally.

Sprinkle the remaining bread crumbs over the top.

Place the ramekins in a large baking pan and pour in boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is called a bain Marie or water bath. Bake for 25 minutes or until the soufflés are golden.

Remove from the oven and let stand in the water bath, for 15 minutes. Using a towel to hold the ramekins, run a knife around the inside rim to loosen. Turn out the soufflés onto a baking sheet. The soufflés may be held at room temperature for up to six hours before the final baking.

When ready to serve, bake the soufflés in a 425° oven for five to seven minutes, until deep golden brown.



 1½ to 2 pounds salmon fillets

 Olive oil to rub

 1 tbsp. fennel powder

 1 tbsp. sweet paprika

 ½ tsp. kosher salt

 ¼ tsp. ground white pepper

 8-10 Swiss chard leaves, stalks removed

 2 tbsp. butter

 3 tbsp. olive oil

 1 pound leeks, trimmed to 1 inch light green, cleaned

 4 shallots, thinly sliced length­wise

 1½ tsp. dried thyme

 1½ cups dry vermouth

 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 400°.

Cut the salmon into six por­tions and rub with olive oil. Com­bine the fennel powder, paprika, salt and white pepper and spread onto a baking sheet or large plate. Roll the salmon in the mixture to coat and then set aside.

In a straight-sided skillet, bring 1½ inches of salted water to a boil. Quickly blanch the chard leaves just to wilt. Immediately shock them in an ice bath to cool for about two minutes. Remove and lay out on paper towels to drain. Lightly salt one side of each leaf.

Lay one salmon fillet on each chard leaf, about one-third of the way in from the end nearest you. Wrap each salmon fillet burri­to- style to encase. Use two leaves to cover if they are small. Set bun­dles aside. Brush each bundle with olive oil and place flap side down on baking sheet.

Place in the oven and roast for 10 to 15 minutes. Make the leek sauce while the salmon is roast­ing.

Thinly slice the leeks cross­wise.

In a large slope-sided skil­let, heat butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. When butter froths, add the leeks and shallots and slowly cook, stirring every few minutes, until the leeks and shallots are translucent. Do not brown them. Stir in the dried thyme and vermouth. Stir in the Dijon, then salt and white pepper to taste.

Continue to cook until the leeks and shallots are “melted” and soft. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Remove salmon bundles from the oven. Place one per person on a bed of the melted leeks.

Drizzle with some of the liquid and serve.

Serves six.

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