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Thursday, March 4, 2004 02:23 pm

Grace about town 3-4-04

Kitchen magician

Confession: I love to cook. It started with bread-making. When I was four, Mom let me help bake bread. She always let me help because her mom never let her (my grandmother felt Mom would make a big mess). When my mother was eventually allowed to do a limited amount of cooking, Grandmother insisted that she cover the counters with newspaper.

Luckily Mom was never so concerned with a little mess: To this day I create quite a bit of chaos in any kitchen, anywhere.

My love of cooking began with my love of eating. How to get fresh, hot chocolate-chip cookies? Easy -- bake them. I actually did start off with an Easy-Bake Oven, delighting in concocting scrumptious little cakes through the magic of the Easy-Bake light bulb.

But I hungered to cook in a real-life oven. Whenever I baked cookies, I talked my little sister, Amy, into greasing the cookie sheets. "I'm going to let you do the funnest thing," I'd tell the poor unsuspecting kid. "You get to grease the pans!" It didn't take her long to figure out that pan-greasing wasn't as glamorous as I'd made it out to be.

Baking has always been a delight, but then I branched out into ethnic cooking. I went from lasagna to crêpes and cream puffs. In junior high, I concocted elaborate Chinese meals. The chopping alone was an unbelievable amount of work, and I had no Cuisinart to lighten my burden. I don't know how I escaped slicing off a finger, but I only drew a little blood now and then. For one particular Chinese banquet, I spent the day chopping and cooking up a storm. At dinnertime, however, the house was suddenly deserted. So I cried. I know I didn't spend my entire junior-high existence sobbing, but tears were common. The family eventually showed up (and liked the food), but it was hairy there for a while.

Lately I've been on an Indian-food kick. I love the stuff, and I get a lot of satisfaction from preparing a meal composed of five or six dishes. Indian is trickier than a lot of other cuisines, mostly because of the number of different spices and the vast array of ingredients in each dish. I've assembled quite a collection of Indian spices; it's the one thing I made sure to bring back from LA in addition to lots of kitchenware.

I've been looking for something different, though, and have been curious about cooking classes offered around town. A class lasts a few hours, and when you're through, you've made a meal that you get to eat. It sounds like a great concept, despite the fact that I have a tendency to do most things on my own.

My friend Randy and I went to a class at Carol Jean Fraase's farm. The menu included caviar blini Napoleon, veal Orloff and molten-chocolate cakes. I love caviar, I had no idea what Orloff might be and anything with both "molten" and "chocolate" in its name had to be good.

There were nine of us in the class, which was led by Carol and her assistant, Sarah. Carol explained what we'd be cooking. Pretty much everything involved quite a bit of butter and cream. Carol gave Randy and me the job of buttering the ramekins for the molten-chocolate cakes. I found this ironic, but she never claimed that it was the funnest job.

That's all I did, workwise, during the class. Randy was coerced into making tiny pancakes for the caviar blini. He was self-conscious about cooking in front of other people, and I encouraged him to get over that. What if he has to be the host of a cooking show someday? He must be prepared.

One guy did a lot of stirring, something he seemed to excel at. Once a friend invited me over for some gumbo but then forced me to stir the roux for about 18 hours, so I have a tendency to balk when confronted with stirring.

Suddenly we were finished. I wasn't precisely sure how this had come about. Oh, I forgot to mention -- at the beginning of the night, Sarah had poured us glasses of delicious white wine. I had at least two while greasing the ramekins and observing the chopping, and I was feeling pretty darn mellow by the time we were ushered to the table.

Right away we got some excellent champagne to accompany our caviar blini, which were divine. Browned butter was poured over them, something I think should be a requirement for all food. Browned butter makes everything delicious.

Veal Orloff (named after the Russian nobleman Count Orloff) involved three different sauces, including a mouthwatering mushroom-and-cream combination. A good red wine was poured alongside.

Finally came the molten-chocolate cakes. When I cut into mine, the chocolate trufflesinside oozed out. Mmmmm.

During dinner I struck up a conversation with a friendly fellow named Ed. He'd been to several of the classes and keeps coming back. He, too, is an avid cook, and we agreed that the class is more about the food (and the wine) than actually learning new techniques.

But you bet I'll be making the caviar blini sometime soon -- and the cakes, for that matter. OK, I'm definitely going to be re-creating the whole meal. It was fun, entertaining and delicious. What more could you ask for?

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