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Cooking school vacations help home cooks prepare for the holidays

Cooking school vacations help home cooks prepare for the holidays

"How did you manage to burn the water?" chef Gordon Ramsay was screaming in my face over a pot of bubbling pasta. "My grandma could do better than that, and she's dead!"

I'm jarred awake, relieved it is just a dream. But trepidation quickly returns when the unfamiliar wallpaper of my room at this lovely country inn reminds me that I am about to embark upon my own reality cooking experience.

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I've signed up to be Chef for a Day, spending four hours working alongside Michael Salmon at his four-star-rated Hartstone Inn, preparing the evening's dinner service for 36 reservations.

Foodies flock to the Hartstone Inn for its fine-dining restaurant and recreational-cooking school. I had been looking for a one-on-one cooking school experience to learn progressive cookery techniques for entertaining and preparing holiday meals; Hartstone's Chef for a Day program fit the bill.

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The program is one of many culinary-immersion experiences that can help home cooks learn new techniques ahead of the holidays — and get some inspiration while they're at it. You can get to some — such as the Salamander in Middleburg, Va. — in an easy drive, while others are a bit more of a trip.

A 2 1/2-hour drive from Baltimore, Cumberland in Western Maryland offers a quaint mix of history and the new, with shopping, arts, activities and more.

Eighty miles north of Portland, Camden is a summer-resort town wrapped around a postcard-perfect New England harbor. Home to fewer than 4,000 year-round residents, Camden has an astonishing number of award-winning chefs and culinary-driven B&Bs. I spend the morning photographing the waterfront and exploring the menus in the windows of the restaurants.

When I arrive at the kitchen that afternoon, Salmon greets me warmly, hands me an apron and introduces me to sous chef Brian Gramins.

"I have a list of things I need to get done [for dinner service] by 5 p.m.," says Salmon, explaining the protocol. "I've hosted the gamut, from those who've never before handled a culinary knife to professional chefs. Gramins generally picks up what doesn't get done." I say a silent prayer that I will become one of his prized proteges, rather than a hack.

We review tonight's recipes; Salmon and I will be making hors d'oeuvres for happy hour: funchi (polenta) rounds with shrimp, and prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with brie, plus the amuse-bouche, a single-bite palate-teaser served on a spoon at the beginning of dinner, and the dessert — cappuccino souffle.

I am thrilled; these are all wonderful ideas for the holidays.

We begin on the souffle, creating a roux of butter, flour and milk, heated, whisked together, with yolks beaten into the mixture —never more than three at a time, Chef warns, or they won't become incorporated.

Step two is flavoring: espresso and Kahlua go into the mixture.

Egg whites whipped into stiff peaks give souffle its rise. Using a rubber spatula, I begin folding in my whipped whites, feeling quite proud of my peaks. That's when Chef declares I need spatula work. "The technique is a cutting motion: down, across, up and over," he says, demonstrating. Somewhat crestfallen, I fill the souffle dishes, and place them in the oven. "Rise," I pray to the baking gods.

Creme anglaise, the souffle's custard topping, also requires precision; its cooking temperature must remain at 175-178 degrees because eggs will coagulate (begin to scramble) at 180 degrees. I check the thermometer twice. Nothing scrambled today, hallelujah.

The best cooking-technique takeaway comes with the amuse-bouche. Today's entails cooking skirt steak sous vide. This trendy method involves placing the meat inside a vacuum-sealed bag and slow-cooking it in a water bath for an hour. The circulator tool maintains the cooking temperature evenly. The beauty of this process is that it melts the juices so they cook into the meat. The typical approach — applying direct heat in an oven or on a grill — squeezes out the juices.

This is the holiday meal game-changer I've been waiting for: It allows food prepared in advance — including whole turkeys and roasts — to maintain the succulence and flavor of freshly cooked food.

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While our steak is sous-viding, we smoke portabella mushrooms and sea salt with cherrywood chips. Then we season and sear the steak in a pan, slice it into bite-sized strips, and position it and the mushrooms, crisscrossed on amuse-bouche spoons. Chef and I each taste one: delicious. Amuse-bouche, check.

Next up are the funchi rounds: little cups made of polenta and cheese, filled with spiced aioli and topped with grilled shrimp. Gramins pops one in his mouth and gives it a thumbs up. Fini.

We stuff fresh figs with brie and blanket them with prosciutto before broiling and drizzling them with thyme-infused honey.

By 4 p.m. the kitchen is buzzing with sounds of whisking, chopping and sizzling. Gramins is showing off his entrees: Maine crab cakes, seared salmon with honey coriander glaze and lobster chowder. It all smells glorious. Suddenly it's 5 p.m. and Salmon shoos me out of the kitchen to get ready for dinner. You did great, he assures me.

At the cocktail hour, I mingle with the guests, holding my breath as they sample my funchi rounds. "Did you taste these shrimp appetizers? Heaven!" the woman next to me murmurs. I suppress a smile. At dinner, the amuse-bouche is a hit. Course after course is served all around me, and I eavesdrop on delighted reactions to my contributions. When the souffle comes out, I catch whisperings of "Wonderful" and "Oh, yum!" Now I beam. Success. I can't wait for the holidays.

See below for a listing of destination cooking schools offering menu ideas for the holidays.


Hartstone Inn, Camden, Maine

Website: hartstoneinn.com

Classes: The Chef for the Day package includes four hours in the kitchen preparing dinner with the chef, food tasting, personalized chef's cookbook and Hartstone Inn apron. For the holidays, Hartstone is offering the class Holiday Hors D'eouvres (Dec. 3 or Dec. 4) featuring imaginative recipes for entertaining.

Cost: Weekend cooking school packages range from $357 to $575 and include two nights' lodging with breakfast, afternoon cookies and tea, a gourmet candlelit dinner for two and enrollment for one in the cooking class. Lodging (from $135) for the Chef for the Day ($325) package must be booked separately.

Accommodations: Each guest room and suite is different; many have gas fireplaces, Jacuzzis, porches and luxe bed linens.

Getting there: It's in Camden, Maine, a nonstop flight to Portland on Southwest (from $59) followed by a scenic 80-mile drive north along the coast.


Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.

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Classes: One of the world's most prestigious culinary institutes, the CIA teaches hands-on, themed and skill-driven Food Enthusiast programs in the way of single-day classes to weeklong boot camps taught by highly acclaimed chefs. Those include a variety of holiday cooking and entertaining classes, ranging from single-day classes on desserts and meals to a two-day Hors D'eouvres Boot Camp.

Accommodations: The institute does not provide accommodations for its recreational cooking school clientele. Four miles away, the Journey Inn is a charming B&B offering themed rooms with private baths and delicious breakfast, from $160. journeyinn.com/.

Cost: Most single-day classes cost $250. Boot camp is $650 and requires that participants purchase a tool kit, $175-$475.

Getting there: The institute is 268 miles from Baltimore. By train: Amtrak to New York's Penn Station. Switch to Metro North (in Grand Central Station) to Poughkeepsie station. The institute is 10 minutes by taxi.


Coopers Landing, Clarksville, Va.

Class: Holiday Entertaining & Heavy Hors d'oeuvres, Nov. 27. Guests arrive on Sunday and convene over a five-course dinner and wine pairings. After candlelight breakfast on Monday is a two-hour cooking class, followed by lunch. In the evening is a cheese reception, followed by a two-hour class.

Accommodations: Guest rooms feature period furnishings, private baths and luxury linens, many with fireplaces.

Cost: $700/couple includes the above, plus deluxe room, two signature aprons and a binder of recipes. $495/single.

Getting there: Clarksville is 260 miles from Baltimore.


Hamanassett Bed and Breakfast, Chester Heights, Pa.

Classes: Game Most Faire (Nov. 4-5) features the preparation of wild0game dishes including pheasant, quail and venison accompanied with autumn vegetable dishes and a traditional English Christmas pudding dessert. Upon arrival on Friday, participants receive class materials, technique manual, and signature apron. Guests convene at a Friday evening reception featuring a "stir up" of the Christmas pudding along with a tasting of seasonal beers. Class is conducted on Saturday afternoon. Dinner will be served to the class on Saturday evening, accompanied by paired wines and a flaming Christmas punch. Breakfast is also included both mornings.

Cost: $170. Lodging is separate.

Accommodations: Lavishly designed Victorian guest rooms have private baths, many with soaking tubs, English bath amenities, complimentary snacks and soft drinks. From $205.

Getting there: Hamanassett is in Brandywine Valley, 90 miles from Baltimore.


Harvest Moon Bed & Breakfast, New Holland, Pa.

Class: Innkeeper-chef Carl Kosco designs three- to six-hour cooking lessons around the local ingredients and traditional recipes of Lancaster County. Coming up: Holiday Breads (Dec. 10). Participants create "the perfect" French baguette, Italian semolina, Christmas stollen, fruitcake and Parker House rolls. Includes a cookbook and samples from the class.

Accommodations: Romantic guest rooms feature cozy goose down comforters, locally made furnishings and private baths, and include gourmet breakfast. From $119.

Cost: Class is $50, in addition to room rates.

Getting there: Harvest Moon B&B is 93 miles from Baltimore.


Institute of Culinary Education, New York

Website: ice.edu

Classes: Check the schedule to view ICE's wide array of holiday-themed classes. It claims to be the world's largest program, offering over 1,500 hands-on recreational cooking, baking and wine classes, teaching the gamut of techniques, cuisines and concepts. One-day classes typically run four to five hours.

Accommodations: ICE doesn't offer overnight accommodations. But downtown NYC finally got its first boutique hotel last month that's fit for foodies. The Beekman features celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and restaurateur Keith McNally. Chic rooms feature crafty furnishings and large marble tubs. From $615.

Cost: Individual classes begin at $105 a session. Five-day boot camp is $650.

Getting there: Amtrak provides daily service to New York, from $65. From Penn Station take the E train to One World Trade Center and walk three blocks down Vesey Street. ICE is on the third floor of the Brookfield Place building (225 Liberty St.).


L'Academie Kitchen, Bethesda

Classes: Hands-on two- to three-hour classes are taught in the same professional kitchens by chef-instructors who teach L'Academie's career training programs. At least a dozen classes are geared toward holiday cuisine, featuring dinner, breakfast, finger foods, baking and creating gifts from the kitchen. With most dinner classes, wine is served.

Accommodations: This can be a day trip.

Cost: Individual classes from $85.

Getting there: It's a 40-mile drive from Baltimore.

L'Academie de Cuisine Pop-Up Cooking School, Washington

Class: The Metro Cooking Show, D.C.'s annual two-day extravaganza of all things culinary, features chefs, products, demos, tastings and talks. A major new event this year on Dec 3 is offering a series of holiday-oriented cooking classes — hors d'oeuvres, sauces, sides, cookies, et al.

Cost: $60-$65/class.

Getting there: The Washington Convention Center, Mtount Vernon Avenue NW, is 38 miles from Baltimore.

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Mercersburg Inn, Mercersburg, Pa.

Class: A weekend retreat involving two hands-on French cooking classes taught by chef Francois Dionot of L'Academie de Cuisine. Guests arrive Friday, attend Saturday morning cooking classes and work in teams to prepare lunch, dine with the chef, then attend an evening cocktail reception and chef-prepared dinner. After breakfast Sunday, the group meets for a second cooking class and departs after lunch.

Accommodations: A total of 17 guest rooms with private bathrooms, some with balconies, fireplaces and double whirlpool tubs. From $139/night.

Cost: Cooking class is $185; chef's dinner is $85.

Getting there: 96 miles from Baltimore.


Glenfiddich Farm Cookery School, Leesburg, Va.

Classes: The 175-year-old former dairy and turkey farm offers three-hour hands-on classes preparing a four-course meal, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. The Dec. 7 Holiday Menu class features pork tenderloin with pear-apple sauce, butternut squash gratin, Gorgonzola and prosciutto pops on apple, and chocolate cake stacked layers.

Accommodations: A perfect day trip.

Cost: $60-$65.

Getting there: 76 miles from Baltimore.


Salamander Resort and Spa, Middleburg, Va.

Classes: Salamander's Cooking Studio offers cooking demonstration and hands-on experiences, working with the resort's culinary team crafting a variety of meals and desserts. Participants receive a signature apron and recipe cards. Of note: Holiday Pies and Tarts with pastry chef Jason Reaves (Nov. 19).

Accommodations: All guest rooms offer views and include seating and dining areas, 40-inch flat-panel TVs, pedestal tubs and "experiential" showers. From $395.

Cost: Interactive classes $79.

Getting there: Salamander is about 80 miles from Baltimore.

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