I am one of those individuals that could happily remain a student forever. I love all the details of the classroom; the sense of discovery, the excitement of learning, the infinite possibilities offered by a blank white page. Over the last few years I have been hearing more and more about a local cooking school called Essen. The school’s founder, Betsey Sterenfeld, would pop up on Facebook pages, news articles, at healthy eating demonstrations, and in conversations with fellow foodies. When discussing subjects for possible food blogs with friends there was one recurring suggestion. Go talk to Betsey! So on a lovely, early June evening I set off with my dear friend, and Food-Love-Lancaster Ghost Chef, Eric Rittenhouse, to see what all the buzz was about.
Essen is a recreational cooking school with studio classrooms throughout Lancaster County. This Tuesday evening class was held at Kegel’s Produce Playground in a beautifully proportioned room with a spacious seating and dining area and well-appointed commercial kitchen. Eric was to play the role of student chef, so that I would be free to observe, record and photograph. When we arrived the other students were gathered around glasses of wine or filtered water and some tempting hors d’oeurves. Introductions were carried out over slices of fresh baguette, a sampling of charcuterie, and a preview of two of the evening’s course offerings: kohlrabi pickles and Red Eye Mayo. I almost missed the introductions because I found the starters so intriguing. The mayonnaise was a special favorite and I found the spicy-smoky flavor to be a perfect partner to the sopressata and French bread. The secret behind the Red Eye is, of all things, coffee. I kept returning to this glossy, taupe-toned spread throughout the evening. The slightly bitter edge of the coffee brought out the sweetness of the meat in unexpected ways. This palate pleaser is one of those simple surprises that I will be sure to revisit often in the future. I think you might too when you see how easy it is. Simply stir 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder into 1 teaspoon water until combined. Mix with 1/4 cup mayonnaise and 1/4 teaspoon sriracha hot sauce. Stir; season to taste.
Now that I had so enjoyed the teaser I was eager for class to begin. Eric and the other students donned their aprons and moved over to a carefully appointed prep table. Each student was provided with all of the essentials on identical baking sheets; measuring spoons, cutting mats, assorted tools and a good chef’s knife. The subject was “Road Trip,” a 5-dish series that would provide a “packable menu” for any of the moveable feasts of summer. Each recipe was carefully selected to showcase the Essen core values of solid cooking techniques, married to simple fresh foods that can become centerpieces on the tables of busy families. Though a bit of the prep work; frying onions, roasting chicken, was performed earlier in the interest of time, the majority was a hands-on communal affair shared by students and teacher. Graters were distributed for zucchini shredding while a bowl of extremely fresh ricotta was passed for all to admire. Each recipe was available on carefully prepared handouts that listed ingredients, detailed directions and included a handy list of necessary equipment. I found this added touch most helpful for my own, often eccentric, cooking style. If I need a 7-inch springform pan for a Zucchini Cheesecake then I also need to remember where it lives in my tiny, space-starved apartment. Betsey is also generous in sharing her own favorite tools and techniques throughout the evening. The benefits of a Microplane® are clearly evident as she effortlessly zests a lemon for the cheesecake mixture. Yet the simple pleasures of a re-purposed jam jar for “measure and shake” vinaigrette are aptly demonstrated as well.
With a savory cheesecake tucked up in a pre-heated oven Betsey turned the students’ attention to the rest of the menu. A combination of short grain, brown and wild rice was set to boil while the mise en place for Two Rice Salad with Chicken and Herbswas prepared. Under Betsey’s watchful eye the students chopped herbs, sliced chiles and shredded arugula. The vinaigrette was measured and then sampled by all to determine the perfect balance of fish sauce, lemon juice and sesame oil. This dish was described as an ideal way to incorporate left-overs from earlier meals into a new menu. She cautioned that the rice should always be made fresh and that the other ingredients should be chosen with care, “…each component should taste so good on its own that you would enjoy it all by itself.” After a quick blending of all of the key ingredients and more than a few taste tests to insure flavor balance it was time to move on to the next dish.
Even the most accomplished home chefs have comfort zones. It became clear the moment that Eric picked up a rolling pin that he was about to leave his. But the combination of eager student and good sport prevailed and soon he was filling, folding and crimping Berry Hand Pies with the best of them. There remained a final dish to finish on the evening’s menu and it would pose a formidable food preference challenge for yours truly. Since I can remember, I have avoided any recipe that involved lima beans. The mere mention of succotash produces a gastronomic shudder. So I was more than a bit skeptical as the aforementioned legumes were added to a food processor. They were followed by familiar favorites; roasted garlic, cumin, mint, and crumbled feta. The finished, spring green spread was turned into a pretty bowl, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture. I reluctantly joined the queue for a sample of Lima Bean Spread with Feta and Za’atar, only to be amazed at the delicious layers of flavor in the first taste. I would have shared an observation about old dogs and new tricks but my mouth was too full to comment. I happily sampled my new veggie favorite while class finished off with a quick preparation of Kohlrabi Pickles. This involved some quick work with vinegar, dill seed, sugar and salt combined with Betsey’s impressive knife skills on a most unusual and recalcitrant root vegetable.
Everyone’s efforts were richly rewarded as we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labors [observation IS a labor] at a communal table. Dishes were passed and techniques discussed over a delicious “Road Trip” meal. As often happens when foodies gather, recipes and favored flavors were shared. We chatted about summer gardens, ingredient sources (instant espresso for Red Eye Mayo can be found at Mandros Imported Foods, Lancaster) and our go-to dishes. Several of the students were Essen alums. Some had been guests at an Essen Bridal Shower where all of the invitees prepared and shared a fabulous meal together. We were all in awe at the scope of knowledge and technique that Betsey was able to incorporate so seamlessly into our Essen evening. She and her unobtrusively efficient assistant, Mandy, perform a remarkable kitchen ballet that produces an impressive 5-course meal in a little over two hours. We parted with smiles and shiny jars of za’tar to take home as tokens of our culinary classroom experience.
Since our Essen class Eric and I have brought the lessons to our cooking lives in various ways. Each of us retain a sense of excitement from finding a kindred spirit in Betsey Sterenfeld, who spreads the good news of food and comfort and kitchens as the heart of a home and the source of so many of life’s happiest moments. Eric has embraced the baking spirit and produced Rittenhouse versions of Hand Pies. I not only located my springform pan but reproduced the Zucchini Cheesescake to rave reviews. I adore this dish on so many levels but at the moment it is a favorite because I no longer need to avoid well-meaning friends with bags of extra zucchini from their summer gardens. Instead I welcome them with open arms. You will too with a savory cheesecake recipe that produces a bright wedge of summer!
2 cups zucchini, unpeeled and grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 ½ cups ricotta cheese
½ cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh dill, chopped
1 lemon, zested
2 large eggs, well beaten
1/3 cup goat cheese, crumbled
drizzle of olive oil
- Preheat oven to 375 º. Grease a 7 – inch springform pan and place on baking sheet.
- In a colander, toss zucchini with salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Squeeze dry.
- Meanwhile, combine ricotta, Parmesan, shallots, garlic, dill and lemon zest in medium bowl. Stir in eggs and continue mixing until well combined. Mix in zucchini.
- Pour mixture into springform pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and dab off any moisture remaining on top of cake. Sprinkle with goat cheese and return to oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until goat cheese has melted and cake barely jiggles in the center. (If cooked and not golden, place cake under broiler for about 1 minute to color.)
- Remove from oven and let cool 5 minutes. Release sides from pan. Cool completely and serve at room temperature, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with a few sprigs of fresh dill.
If you would like to learn how to make cooking and sharing the experience of fresh food a rewarding part of your life consider taking part in an Essen Cooking Class. For detailed information on Essen and the upcoming schedule of classes visit Essen breathe.live.grow