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Cooking School is in Session

By Carolyn Jung

Bay Area–based online culinary courses offer a flavorful escape for adventurous palates.

After a helter-skelter year of one too many Instant Pot stews and limp takeout pizzas at home, we’ve fallen into a major culinary rut. Been there, chewed that. The time has come to heap our plates again with thrills and excitement.

Get your gourmet groove back with a virtual cooking or tasting class. Whether livestreamed or on demand, classes have popped up of late for just about any interest, from mastering Italian wines or shaking up craft cocktails to fanciful cake decorating or creating an authentic Lebanese feast. Platforms such as Skillshare offer on-demand video courses taught by chefs, mixologists and baristas around the country. MasterClass’ videos boast world-class chefs such as Thomas Keller demonstrating sous vide techniques, Alice Waters transforming farmers market finds into homey dishes, and Dominique Ansel detailing the perfect croissant.

I gave it a whirl recently, trying a virtual class from three different Bay Area outfits.

Cheese & Chocolate Virtual Tasting
With Laura Werlin & Delysia Chocolatier

Details: This $140 class was a special joint effort. Delysia Chocolatier, however, offers regular virtual online tasting classes each month. Werlin and Napa Valley food writer Janet Fletcher have joined forces for Cheese O’Clock cheese and wine tasting classes, some featuring guest cheesemakers and winemakers. Registration is free and includes links to purchase the specific cheeses and wines beforehand.;

Cheese with wine, of course. But cheese with chocolate sounds like gone horribly wrong. This class, however, opened my eyes wide to the possibilities for these seemingly disparate foods.

It was taught jointly by cheese expert Laura Werlin, from her San Francisco home, and Delysia Chocolatier founder Nicole Patel, from her office in Austin, Texas. Turns out that chocolate and cheese are not really such oddball mates, Werlin explained, when you consider that cheese goes naturally with beer and bread, both fermented products, just like chocolate.

Laura Werlin (Photo by NADER KHOURI)

Four 7.5-ounce slabs of cheese were shipped to all 75 attendees, as well as four bite-size truffles. We set the cheeses and chocolates near our computer, along with a jar of roasted coffee beans to refresh the nose, as we not only eyeballed the chocolates and cheeses, but sniffed each one to fully appreciate the nuances. This is actually crucial for Patel, who is allergic to chocolate and relies on smell to craft her truffles with balance.

One by one, we tasted and discovered why a pairing worked, such as how a dark chocolate butterscotch truffle with candied ginger and candied orange heightened the surprising brown-butter-salted caramel taste of a Ewephoria Gouda from Holland. We also learned that the higher the cacao percentage, the louder the snap of the chocolate; and that the edible rinds of some aged cheeses are better left alone, as they’re just too pungent to eat.


Love for Butter Cooking Class
With Palo Alto’s Vina Enoteca

Details: In addition to this $75 virtual class, Vina Enoteca offers wine tastings and other cooking courses at different price points, with participants picking up the bottles or ingredients at the restaurant the day before. The most popular? The Bolognese-making class, which always sells out in a flash.;

Although Vina Enoteca has hosted a variety of livestreamed classes, this was the first one taught by pastry chef John Shelsta, whose Love for Butter pop-ups are now legendary on the Peninsula. Since tackling viennoiserie in an hour would be near impossible, Shelsta instead showed us how to make a lusty chocolate crémeux with chocolate cookie crumbles and caramel sauce.

Love For Butter Cooking Class kit. Photo by Carolyn Jung
The crémeux from the Love for Butter course. Photo by Carolyn Jung

The day before the class, we 20 attendees were instructed to pick up dessert kits at the restaurant. Neatly packed in a large box were plastic tubs of all the ingredients needed — from eggs to cream, and even glucose — measured and color-coded to correspond to each recipe component. We just needed to have ready a hot oven, saucepans, baking tray, whisk and spatulas. Along the way, Shelsta shared tips such as how corn syrup can be substituted for glucose, both of which helps retard crystallization in making caramel. He also noted that it pays to keep extra caramel and cookie crumbles in the freezer to jazz up plain store-bought ice cream on a whim.

At the end, he showed us how he likes to present the fancy French chocolate pudding in a bowl with cookie crumbles artfully arranged off to one side and caramel drizzled all over. Our crémeux, which did need a few hours to set up in the fridge, was enjoyed the next night paired with the Pedro Ximenez dessert sherry also included in the kit.


Julia Child on the Menu
Souffles & Cocktails with San Francisco’s 18 Reasons

Details: Most 18 Reasons online classes are $50, a reduction in price from the in-person sessions held pre-pandemic by this nonprofit started by Bi-Rite Market. Previously, class fees funded nutrition classes and grocery giveaways for low-income families. Those programs are now paid for by grants, as well as donations, many of which are made by students who have taken the classes.

After receiving a list of ingredients and equipment, I had to grocery shop and prep items beforehand, making this class a real commitment, especially since it stretched 2½ hours. These classes, which typically sell out, are limited to 12 attendees. This affords a lot of time for individuals to ask questions via the chat function or by requesting to be unmuted by waving your hand on-screen. When one student lacked a stand mixer to whip egg whites, instructor Zoe McLaughlin, a veteran of restaurants in France, demonstrated how to do it by hand with a whisk for the perfect consistency.

Like the other students, I had been intimidated by souffle, fearing they’d emerge from the oven not regally lofty, but dismally deflated. McLaughlin stressed beating the egg whites until airy yet with structure, and not removing the souffle from the oven until its risen sides appeared mostly dry — two key points. In the end, we triumphantly showed off our spinach and goat cheese souffles on camera and toasted with the French 75 cocktails we also made.

18 Reasons students Poonam Singh and Rick Bradley, who recently took a seafood boil class, show off a finished dish brimming with potatoes and corn. (Photo by 18 REASONS)

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