No Light Cream in My Crème Brûlée
I confess i learned early on to sauté onions and simmer cinnamon and vanilla to create a certain illusion about my culinary talents. While I do enjoy cooking, following recipes takes patience and organizational skills that I don’t possess, and I don’t know my vol-au-vent from my velouté. Which is why I’m sure I don’t belong in a French cooking class with Valerie Harsanyi, chef and caterer to some of Naples’ elite.
“No need to worry,” says Valerie, who goes by the name Valerie Chef du Jour. “You will be joining a small group of ladies who gather in one of their kitchens once a month to learn something new and share a delicious French meal. I do all the preparation except that you will make your own dressing under my supervision.”
Salad dressing under supervision seems safe enough, and to sweeten the pot, so to speak, this month’s class will be in the dream kitchen of Patti Holden, the newest group member. Patti shares a sunny yellow Mediterranean-style Port Royal home with her husband Jim, retired president of DaimlerChrysler Corp.
Jim has left the premises for a golf game long before Valerie arrives at 10 a.m. with pots and pans, spatulas, groceries and a handful of pretty blue, silicone-coated wire whisks. I arrive on time at 11:00, surprised to find myself the first one there. Patti has just put the finishing touches on her dining room table, in a country French garden motif in Lilly Pulitzer pinks and greens. While Valerie begins to chop and grate at the spacious granite-topped kitchen island, there’s a flurry of excitement in the foyer. The others are trickling in with hugs and exclamations, and some oohs and aahs over Patti’s chef-quality kitchen and sophisticated casual decor. These are not casual acquaintances. Mary and Pat are cousins. Linda and Pat’s friendship began 40 years ago in Pennsylvania. Linda and Lynne were roommates in Old Naples when one was newly divorced and the other widowed. Lynne worked for Pat, who founded Chelsea Gardens at Third Street Plaza in Old Naples. Patti became friends with Pat when she returned often to Chelsea Gardens for one-of-a-kind pieces for her new home. (“Please, please reopen that store—we miss it so much,” the ladies beg Pat.) Janette couldn’t be here today, so I get her place. The easy camaraderie envelops me as well.
Six stools at the bar face Valerie’s work island. At each place are a crisp white apron, a napkin, a personal-size recipe booklet, a wire whisk and six sets of tiny individual cups containing the ingredients we’ll need for our salad dressing. I peek inside the booklet for today’s menu: Roasted Sweet Potato and Orange Salad, Tarragon Chicken with Wild Mushrooms, Ratatouille and Crème Brûlée.
Valerie tosses peeled, bite-size chunks of sweet potatoes with fresh rosemary, olive oil, and crushed garlic, and places them on a parchment-lined pan. She slips it into the oven and turns her attention to the Ratatouille, a casserole-style dish involving sautéed eggplant flavored with garlic, parsley and seasonings, and layered with onion, mushrooms, bell pepper, tomatoes and grated parmesan cheese.
As she sautés, slices and layers, she lectures. Only it doesn’t seem like a lecture. It’s sprinkled liberally with anecdotes and interrupted with chatter and giggles from the group.
“How can you slice those tomatoes with that killer knife while you look at us and talk?” someone asks.
“Yes, isn’t it gorgeous? It’s incredibly expensive, and my sweet, romantic husband gave it to me for my birthday.”
“Oh yeah,” Lynne quips, “that’s exactly what I’d want for my birthday.”
She may be a knife snob, but Valerie Harsanyi is no culinary snob, she tells us as she shakes the parmesan cheese from a store-brand can.
“A good cook can make a five-star meal at a reasonable price. Remember that delicious pork in puff pastry we made last spring? I highly recommend pre-made pastry unless you particularly want to spend three or four extra hours in the kitchen. And wait till you see the wild mushrooms I got for the Chicken Tarragon.”
While I’m visualizing Valerie tromping through the French countryside with a pig on a leash, snuffling out rare truffles, she reaches beneath the counter and with a flourish presents a huge plastic jar of freeze-dried, sliced mushrooms.
“Costco! They reconstitute beautifully in hot water, and you won’t taste the difference. But for the dessert I’ll use heavy cream—the real stuff. No light cream in my crème brûlée.”
I love this chef! She has her priorities straight, and she doesn’t toss around impressive phrases like “vol-au-vent” when “puff pastry” will do.
Her advice is down to earth, too. “Do you wash your greens even if the package says pre-washed?” someone asks. “Yes, always.”
As she slices a beautiful red onion: “Did you know that a sliced onion can become toxic after 48 hours?”
“Omigosh,” someone exclaims, “I chop up a week’s supply of onion and keep it in the fridge!”
“I wouldn’t,” says Valerie. “And your egg whites? If your recipe calls only for yolks, don’t save the whites for later. After five hours, throw them out. I once horrified a dinner guest by pouring leftover béarnaise sauce down the sink. ‘Please don’t waste that amazing sauce,’ my friend begged. ‘Let me take it home.’ Absolutely not. Béarnaise can be kept one or two hours at room temperature. No more. Down the drain.”
By now, the sweet potatoes are out of the oven, Valerie is stirring the sherry into the browned chicken and mushrooms in the cast iron skillet (cook it bone-in for more flavor), and the ratatouille is browning gorgeously. The fragrance in Patti Holden’s kitchen is almost unbearable.
While Chef Valerie whisks up the creams, sugars, egg yolks and vanilla for the crème brûlée, we whisk together our pre-measured orange juice, olive oil and rice vinegar with honey, stone-ground mustard, garlic and seasonings. “A little at a time, a little more slowly,” Valerie says over my shoulder.
The individual ramekins of crème brûlée are out of the oven, and we’re wowed as Valerie’s torch caramelizes each one to perfection. One is not so perfect. It’s the one she sacrificed by cooking it directly on the oven rack, not in a pan of water with the rest. “That’s why it fell. Don’t worry, this one will be mine.”
We laugh because even the “wrong” one looks perfectly delicious.
Leaving Valerie to arrange her roasted sweet potatoes on beds of baby spinach with sections of juicy oranges, thinly sliced red onion and toasted pine nuts, we move into the dining room, where Patti pours wine. The feast is divine and the conversation lively.
“Preparing and sharing a meal is about laughter, love and [engaging] all the senses,” Valerie says. “It’s more than the end result; it’s about the process.”
I’m now counting the hours until my second cooking class at noon on Saturday. The setting is Alexander’s, a cozy, bistro-style, Naples restaurant, with chef-owner Alexander Bernard presiding. This month’s theme is “artisan breads and pizza.”
As before, I arrive a little early, expecting to be among the first guests. Also, assuming that Chef Alexander will measure, mix, knead (or not), form and bake his creations, then present them all together at the end, as Valerie did, I started my morning with a hearty breakfast. As it turns out, I miscalculated on both counts. By 11:45, nearly all of the 35 guests are already seated at the horseshoe-shaped table encircling Chef Alexander’s workstation. And scant minutes into the class, waiters appear with delicious things to taste. This will continue for the next two hours, as the chef makes his way around the room with small samples between servings of the five-course meal.
We start with a selection of tapenades, hummus and dipping oils to preview Alexander’s whole-grain artisan free-form bread. He has selected a nice red Badiola Tuscan wine and a Lagaria Pinot Grigio.
Soon after come lobster bisque and salad. All the while, Alexander is flouring, punching, stretching, rolling and glazing dough, and deadpanning really funny one-liners while he reveals simple tricks that can make the difference between bread to complement a meal and bread that is the meal.
On today’s agenda are gluten-free olive oil bread, a multi-functional lavosh (flatbread), which he’ll present as a pizza crust and a puff pastry; and challah, a glazed sesame-topped loaf.
Alexander’s master bread recipe fills three pages. It looks intimidating, but I see that he details techniques that cookbook authors often take for granted. For example, “lukewarm” water should be toward the cooler side rather than warmer. While you should cover your dough to rise, the lid shouldn’t be airtight. And wet dough that’s refrigerated overnight is less sticky and easier to work with than dough at room temperature.
In Chef Alexander’s classes, it pays to stay alert, because at random moments he holds up something luscious and says, “Who wants to take this home? You? OK … here you go.”
Had my attention not been fully engaged with three versions of gourmet flatbread pizza, I might have been quick enough with the “Me! Me!” when he held up his final creation: a whole, melt-in-the-mouth tarte tatin: skillet-caramelized apples still sizzling on its flaky lavosh crust.
So, what did I learn in school this week? That a recipe is only a suggestion. To master the techniques and have fun with substitutions. And not to be intimidated by fancy words. A tarte tatin is just an upside-down tart, and crème brûlée is baked custard fancied up with a blowtorch. Next season, Chef Alexander will demonstrate that très chic technique, sous-vide, which means slow cooking in plastic bags.
I’ve already served Valerie’s sweet potato salad to rave reviews at home. My tarte tatin wasn’t quite as pretty as Alexander’s—my dark brown sugar obscured the pale apple color—but if I say so myself, it was delicious.
Valerie’s home-kitchen class felt like a house party. Alexander’s soft-lit bistro setting gave it dinner theater ambience. So, what better for my next adventure than a combination of both? I’m off to The Good Life, a family-owned gourmet shop with a demonstration kitchen on Vanderbilt Beach Road. Their small weekly classes are lively and creative, running the gamut from Moroccan and Thai to Spanish and Hawaiian cuisine, with amusing themes like “Use Your Noodle” and “Little Black Dress.” Co-owner Scott Schwartz is confident that whichever one I choose, I’ll have fun, learn something and definitely not leave hungry.
Thanks to chefs Valerie Harsanyi and Alexander Bernard, I already knew that.
Valerie Harsanyi, Chef du Jour
3-hour in-home luncheon classes,
11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
6–8 participants, $40–$45.
Dinner classes available.
Alexander’s of Naples
8 classes per season, noon to 2 p.m., October through May.
35 participants, $45.
The Good Life
Weekly cooking classes,
6–8 p.m., year-round.
15 participants, $50.