The Fat and Skinny of Holiday Cooking
Food eaten between November 1 and New Year’s Day contains no calories. I suspect I’m not alone in honoring this conviction. Yet a lifetime of stepping on the scale January 2 has convinced me that our cherished belief is a cruel urban legend.
This year I faced an additional challenge. Our editor assigned me to take and report on an Anne Arundel Community College Culinary Institute holiday class. Biscotti, cookies, Scandinavian baking and truffles tempted me — and promised an overabundance of extra calories.
Reading the very full catalog, I found an excellent rationalization. Dual enrollment in the class Cooking for Weight Loss and Management would counteract all that butter and sugar. So the plan was set. I would take both classes, Scandinavian Baking and Cooking for Weight Loss. The calories would balance out, and I could enjoy with impunity such Scandinavian treats as saffron bread, brandy rings and ginger snaps.
My weekend at cooking college started Friday night with Cooking for Weight Loss. Cheryl Ignaczak, an experienced chef, was our instructor, teaching both general cooking techniques and how to make tasty food with fewer calories. Prepared with a sheet of tips, techniques and recipes, we set to our mission: hands-on learning, making as many of the recipes as time allowed.
We students were eager to learn and worked in teams, with the instructor keeping an eye on us but not intruding unless we had a question or were about to do something really silly.
“I like to cook, I want to learn to cook smarter,” said fellow student Louise Griffin of Severn.
The key to cooking good food with reduced calories was in the ingredients, both quality and quantity, we learned as we chopped, mixed and sautéed. For example, we sautéed onions in a light coating of cooking spray instead of butter or oil. The results were just as good.
The Scandinavian Baking Class shows off their results.
In stuffing peppers, we replaced half of the meat with shredded zucchini and spinach. White rice was replaced with bulgur wheat. The result was one of the best renditions of stuffed peppers I have ever tried, with significantly reduced calories.
We also cooked Crunch Chicken Bake, Big Easy Shrimp and Italian-style Spaghetti Squash. When everything was done, we sampled and critiqued our results. I made the mistake of having dinner before class, but we all took home leftovers, so I got to savor my lessons over several days.
The lessons are lasting, too. Several days later, when cooking eggs, I reached for cooking spray instead of butter. Success!
Sunday morning, fortified in smart, reduced-calorie cooking, I took my leap into the fat of Scandinavian Baking. At home, my wife is the consummate baker, so I needed to learn more than Scandinavian recipes. This would be my introduction to the art of baking. I hoped mysteries like blooming yeast, proofing bread and kneading dough would unfold in this class. I had no expectation of catching up to my wife’s level of expertise, but perhaps I could make her a cake for her next birthday.
In the baking world, as I would learn, dough needs time to rise and custards to set. So Chef Louise Nielsen, our instructor for this four-hour course, planned the order of attack to maximize the output.
Our seven students, including a mother-daughter combo, divided into three teams to start on breads — saffron bread and cardamom coffee braid — to give them time to rise. Dough was mixed, then went into a proofing oven. This is a marvelous machine that halves the time required for the rise. It’s great for professionals and cooking classes, but not a requirement at home.
As the yeast did its magic, we worked on strawberry cream cake, apple cake, spice cake, brandy rings and ginger snap cookies — much better than you can buy at any store (see recipe below).
At critical times, we gathered around as Chef Nielsen demonstrated techniques that would be hard to learn from a cookbook.
How do you know your dough has been kneaded sufficiently? If you can stretch it until it’s thin enough that you can see forms through it.
Mother and daughter Ronnie, right, and Kerry Townsend prepare cardamom coffee cake.
How do you temper eggs? Add hot custard into the eggs, not the other way around.
When is whipped cream whipped enough? When inch-and-a-half peaks will not fall.
After four hours, we had lots to be proud of: an overwhelming supply of cakes and cookies. This was much more than we could consume on the spot, so we divided up the bounty to take home. Fortunately (from a caloric viewpoint), I could only carry so much to my car. Next time I take a class, I’ll bring a take-home box.
Fellow students and I agreed we had learned a lot and had fun doing so. Not a bad way to spend a weekend. However, I’ll be eating reduced-calorie stuffed peppers for a month to make up for this indulgence.
Ginger Snap Cookies
Culinary Institute Classes run throughout the year, with a new curriculum in January. All are taught in well-equipped professional kitchens on the community college’s Arnold campus or at the Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute in Glen Burnie. Cost is about $70 per class. That had seemed high to me, but I changed my mind after seeing the quality of the instructors, the professionalism of the kitchens and the premium ingredients we used. I particularly enjoyed using professional cooking equipment — proofing ovens and super-heavy-duty mixers — though you certainly don’t need them to succeed at home.