OXFORD -- It all started when Pam Meredith went looking for young conscripts to help crank out a mammoth batch of cookies at the private school in Easton where she taught phys ed.
In hindsight, things went almost too well, or at least awfully fast. Oh, the chocolate chips were to die for (like just about anything Meredith cooks). Then parents and students demanded an encore.
"I kind of kidnapped a couple kids from friends of mine, and we went at it," says Meredith, 34. "The next day, everybody's lining up, wanting to know when I'm going to do the next cooking class. I guess it's all really evolved from that."
In this case, evolution wound up as Pudding on the Ritz, the laid-back Eastern Shore cooking school she's operated since 1997 from a waterfront cottage near Oxford.
Teaming with chefs from Talbot County's best-known restaurants -- the Inn at Perry Cabin, Town Dock, Columbia and Latitude 38, to name a few -- Meredith has created a cozy setting for 15 to 20 students who get up close for everything from grilling local seafood to making their own pasta or ice cream and sorbet.
The casual classes are cheap ($45 a person), and as if the deal needed sweetening, students end each one-night class with great food.
Taking the kids' enthusiasm to heart, Meredith began her venture by offering weeklong summer cooking camp for 6- to 9-year-olds. It booked quickly, based on word-of-mouth. This summer, Meredith is offering four weeks in June and July.
Before long, there was that encore thing again. Parents and friends began asking when Meredith was going to come up with something for adults.
"I thought the key is that people really like to see what the chef does behind the scenes," Meredith says. "I've been to classes like the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) things in New York and San Francisco, and it can be very intimidating. What I was looking to do was something that was more like a home kitchen."
The casual atmosphere begins with the custom kitchen Meredith had built in the small waterfront cottage next door to her parents' place in an area known as Sailor's Retreat.
Yes, it looks like work space for someone who's seriously into cooking -- spacious counters and cabinets, a double oven on the wall and plenty of track lighting.
Still, it's not imposing. There are family snapshots plastered all over the refrigerator. Except for the tilt mirror positioned carefully over the cook top, it looks pretty much like what it is -- Meredith's kitchen.
For the 18 students who turned out recently for a two-hour seminar on preparing fish and fish sauces (a class featuring rockfish and salmon, which Meredith says "people begged to get in"), long tables are set with a small booklet of recipes along with the silverware.
George Goldsborough, who lives just up the road on Peachblossom Creek, says he's never cooked much, but he's determined.
"I can barely boil water," Goldsborough says. "This [seafood preparation] is a good class for an Eastern Shoreman. I'm going to learn to cook one thing to surprise my wife."
Clare Soponis came all the way from Northwest Washington, she's heard so much about Pudding on the Ritz.
As the students get settled, chef Michael Rork, who owns the Town Dock Restaurant in St. Michaels, admits to something akin to stage fright, despite having done these seminars with his friend for years.
"It's like going on stage," says Rork, whose first- and second-grade boys have attended "Miss Pam's" cooking school.
"I'm running around all day, getting everything I'm going to need. It's a great kitchen, but it's not my kitchen," Rork says.
If he's out of his element, it's certainly not obvious as the affable Rork, with help from Meredith and her mother, Ann, concocts a blend of sauces -- Crispy Sesame Coating, Soy Teriyaki Vinaigrette and Mango Chutney Compote.
"Listen, this will be the best vinaigrette you've ever tasted, I guarantee," says Rork. "There are a couple little tricks I left out of the recipe, but I'll tell you," he says with a wink to students.
One little-known cooking secret, he joshes, is about using raisins -- first, they provide natural sweetness for the vinaigrette, and two, they're always lying around the restaurant. "Somebody had to come up with a recipe to get rid of the raisins."
It's that kind of intimacy that makes the whole thing work, Meredith says. Students are close enough to inspect ingredients, ask questions, banter with chefs like Rork, who made his reputation in Houston, Little Rock, Ark., and during an eight-year stint at the Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore.
That, and everybody goes home full, clutching a handful of recipes they can try out on their own.
Three years after giving up her teaching job, Meredith has little reason to expect her enterprise won't keep rolling.
Her winter and spring courses finish in early June, and most of the slots for summer camps are already filled. In the fall, she'll gear up for another session of adult classes.
In the meantime, Meredith is launching a new venture, a line of packaged food gift items under the Pudding on the Ritz banner. Soon, she'll have a Web page.
"We'll see where this part of it goes. I've been very blessed so far," Meredith says.
For information on Pudding on the Ritz cooking classes, call 410-820-4414.
Makes 1 cup
2 slices thick, country bread, crust removed
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup whole blanched almonds
1 pound Roma tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup Spanish olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine bread and vinegar in a bowl and soak for 20 minutes.
Spread almonds on a baking sheet, toast until golden, 10 minutes-15 minutes. Let cool.
Transfer almonds to food processor and process until finely ground. Add vinegar-soaked bread with vinegar, tomatoes, paprika, salt and pepper; puree. With machine on, add olive oil in a slow, steady stream; process until a smooth sauce forms. Serve at room temperature with grilled fish and chicken.
-- From Michael Rork
Salmon With Crispy Coating
3/4 cup panko, Japanese-style bread crumbs
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
2 (6-ounce to 8-ounce) salmon fillets
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Combine bread crumbs, sesame seeds, paprika, salt, garlic powder and pepper in a small bowl. Place the beaten egg white in a small bowl. Dip the salmon first in the egg white, then dredge in seasoned bread-crumb mixture.
Place salmon on baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden.
-- From Michael Rork