Blogs > Cooking from Scratch

Chef Stacy believes that cooking from scratch and using the best ingredients are the secrets to preparing delicious and memorable meals. She has created dozens of classes for the home chef and teaches students how to master culinary techniques and recipes in just one session. Read on to see what she's dishing up for The Oakland Press today....

Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Ounce of Prevention

I often hear people say, “Baking is a science”, and I can’t necessarily disagree, not in totality, anyway. Baking is somewhat different than the other culinary arts because of the temperamental nature of ingredients, how they all come together, and the environment you’re using to create your latest masterpiece. Unfortunately, a lot of times, people let the specifics of baking intimidate them, instead of using them to their advantage.

Like any other cooking technique, taking on a baking project isn’t as hard as most people think. Good ingredients, utilizing the right tools, organization and careful execution are all you need to be able to create some of your most favorite desserts.

In a previous post, ‘A Recipe is Only a Guideline’, I explained that there are only 5 basic cooking techniques, all which will be discussed in greater length in posts to come. Baking is similar; there are a handful of basic baking techniques that once understood and conquered yield very delicious results. However, when baking, you do need to rely on a recipe more than you would when making a batch of soup, since most baking recipes are really formulas.

Even a 6 year old could make a batch of cookie dough, with some assistance of course. What many people don’t realize is that a simple batch of cookie dough is an example of one of the most common applications of one of the basics – the creaming method. You’ve done it countless times, “cream the butter and sugar together…..”

The creaming method, though seemingly elementary, is not elementary at all. A lot of really important things on a molecular level happen when employing this tactic for a simple batch of chocolate chip cookies, a cheesecake, or pound cake.
See below for the steps of the creaming method.

Combine fat, sugar, salt in a mixing bowl with the paddle attachment
Blend to a smooth paste.
Stop the mixer, take it apart, and use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl, and the paddle attachment. Reassemble.
Add eggs, vanilla (if using) gradually and blend in thoroughly.
Scrape between EACH ADDITION.
Add dry ingredients gradually
Scrape between EACH ADDITION.
Continue to mix, but do not over-mix
Shape into cookies or fill pans with batter
Bake according to the recipe’s time and temperature suggestion

Though it seems very straightforward, most people make three very common but serious mistakes when employing the creaming method:
1). The ingredients are not at room temperature – butter and other dairy products should be at room temperature to achieve optimal results. If your ingredients are too cold, the butter and sugar will not cream together easily, and you will have to use too much speed and mix for too long of a time in order to get them to come together. Both of these tactics will affect the texture of the final product.

Another very practical reason to ensure that ingredients are at room temperature is for appearance and taste. When making cheesecake, if your cream cheese and eggs are not at the right temperature, you will see visible lumps in your cheesecake because the temperature inhibits the combining of ingredients.

2). Cooks seldom cream the butter and sugar correctly – Most people stop the creaming process too early. When determining the correct point at which to stop creaming butter and sugar together, you should look for the color and the texture of the sugar. If the color isn’t very light, and the granules of sugar are still visible and large, the mixture is not creamed enough.

3). Cooks often do not scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, or the paddle attachment of the mixer – This is the most common and serious error that many make when using the creaming method. It is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that every time you introduce another ingredient to the mixture, you MUST stop the mixer, take it apart, scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and the attachment. Then, put it back together and continue. YOU MUST DO THIS AFTER EACH ADDITION, NO EXCEPTIONS!

Electing to disregard this laborious and critical step leads to terrible results. Since the bowl wasn’t properly scraped, the ingredients never have a chance to come together completely. I’ve taught more than one class where I emphatically and passionately expressed the need to follow the scraping guidelines, and have been met with raised eyebrows and doubt.

Without fail, those neglecting the additional effort to follow this procedure are met with the best teacher of all – experience (a recipe gone wrong). Dough that looked promising and “normal” emerges from the oven as cookies that are misshapen and, the last four or six cookies are always FLAT and CRISPY. Since the dough wasn’t properly mixed, the cookies on the bottom of the bowl are always different than the ones from the middle and the top.

To make the creaming method a little easier, consider purchasing a Beater Blade. This unique and helpful tool is designed with silicone scrapers which scrape the bowl as the mixer is running. While stopping and scraping the bowl is still necessary, the Beater Blade makes the process easier, and reduces the number of times you have to stop the machine.

To buy a Beater Blade, come to Holiday Market and one of their friendly and helpful associates will get one for you. Just tell them you read about it in the Mirepoix Cooking School blog.

To receive recipes from the Mirepoix Cooking School, including the pound cake that was featured on WXYZ Channel 7 in our cooking segment this morning, become a fan of Mirepoix on Facebook.

For more information about our classes and to register for a class, visit

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Tools of the Trade - Cook Like a Chef

Cooks Tools

So many times I overhear our students say, “wow! This is so much easier – these knives are so sharp!” Often, people avoid cooking because cooking can be a lot of work, yielding average results when you don’t have the right pieces of equipment. Worse, allowing your equipment to go into disrepair, which happens almost exclusively with the cutlery that people buy because they don’t know how to care for it.

I am often asked by students which types of knives to buy, if they should splurge on a really expensive set of pans, and why certain pieces of cooking equipment are so expensive. I’ve been answering this question for over 15 years.

One of my first jobs was as a sales clerk at a very high-end kitchenwares store. I started working there in high school and stayed in their employ until I went to culinary school. People would come in and browse the toasters, marveling at their very expensive price tag. “Why would I spend so much on a toaster/blender/food processor?”

It was then that I had the opportunity to teach people about the very important difference between price and cost. Paying more for quality, better functionality, or more efficient design often means that in the long run, you won’t have to replace your equipment as often.

My mother has had the same Kitchen Aid stand mixer since I was in high school, over 15 years ago. For my high school graduation, some very generous friends gave me a gift certificate that I used to buy a Kitchen Aid food processor, and the motor still runs like a dream. My food processor is over 12 years old. I paid $150 for it. Cost per year is about $10. For a piece of equipment that produces excellent results, time after time, and makes cooking easier, I suggest that such an expenditure is a good investment.

Wouldn’t we all like to go on a shopping spree and fill our kitchens with the little tools and gadgets that make our culinary efforts more enjoyable? I know I could easily and very happily spend about $5000 on some really nice things in no time at all! Truth be told – maybe even $10,000 if I were shopping for a grill too! But the truth is, when it comes to kitchen gadgets and equipment, there are three basic categories.

Essential: Essential kitchen items are the items that you must invest in to see the best results and, most importantly, will aide in proper cooking technique. Knives, an excellent quality food processor, etc.

Nice-to-have, but not essential: This category is for the appliances and tools that would be nice to have, but you could make do without them. An example of this would be a Vita Mix blender or a certain mixing attachment.

Unneccessary, Non-sensical and downright ridiculous: Onion goggles and their ilk. I am amazed at the idea of such ridiculous “tools”. As someone who has worked in the unruly and impolite world of professional cooking, my advice to you is that you should avoid such outrageous gadgets. If it were me, I would take this into consideration: if you were working in a professional kitchen, anything that would indicate that you are no match for some sulfurous onions or shallots would invite an embarrassing string of events to which you would want no part of, and should be avoided.

Just sayin.

My goal as an educator and writer is to discuss the basic foundations of good cooking, and selecting the proper tools and appliances are necessary to make good tasting and properly cooked food. In tandem, caring for these items is also very necessary. Don’t invest and then neglect.

If you would like to learn more about the types of tools you need to have, how to care for them, AND have a chance to use them yourself, sign up for our class “Cooks Tools” at the Mirepoix Cooking School. The class is April 3. In this hands-on class, you will have the opportunity to cook with the appliances that we deem essential and decide if they are right for you.

Also, be sure to tune in to Channel 7 WXYZ this Sunday morning between 8 & 9 am to watch my cooking segment. I will be demonstrating a tool that I really like called “The BeaterBlade”.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cooking 101 - A Recipe is ONLY a Guideline

One of the first things chefs-in-training learn in culinary school is “a recipe is only a guideline”. We think of a recipe as an outline, a list of ingredients, a starting point. So many people are inhibited and hesitant in the kitchen because they think they can’t cook without the perfect recipe. Others follow recipes carefully only to deliver another disappointing meal to the table because the recipe was poorly written or not tested. Worse, some meals wind up in the garbage can because the cook didn’t know how to fix what went wrong.

When you learn and start developing the basic tenants of cooking (which you can do at a Mirepoix Cooking School class), your eyes are opened to an entirely different culinary experience. Armed with practical knowledge and experience, and guided by a professional, you can learn to develop your palate and cook from instinct, instead of by the book.

I don’t expect people to know formulas and ingredient quantities from memory. Instead, I’m selling you on the idea that the recipe can be altered to a certain degree. For instance, every time a batch of guacamole is made, even if it is followed to the letter, it turns out different every time. Depending on the ripeness of the avocados, the acid in the lime or lemon juice, the ripeness of the tomato, the same recipe will yield different results because the food is FRESH .

Or, if your recipe calls for 4 scallions, but 6 come in a bunch – use 6. The chances that you are going to need 2 scallions tomorrow is slim, and what can you really do with 2 scallions anyway? Of course, you can’t do this with ingredients like flour in a baking recipe, but once you learn the fundamentals, you have the confidence to make these types of decisions.

Since the Mirepoix Cooking School’s mission is to teach people to cook and think like professional chefs, another one of our goals is to develop your palate. Being a good cook is about having sound intuition and following your instincts based on what you’ve learned. Knowing how to taste food is incredibly important, which is why we provide tasting spoons – we want you to taste your food as you make it.

Since there are only 5 basic cooking methods, I believe that once you master them, there is no more need to be so “recipe dependant”. In fact, I have been known to make my chefs teach without a recipe packet for their reference. Bold statement, but I say it because they, trained chefs, should be able to look at the list of ingredients in the recipe and repeat the method to their group because they are so grounded in the foundations of proper cooking technique.

By no means are we saying the recipes aren’t important, or that we want you to disregard them or plow ahead without any instruction. What we are saying is that we don’t want you to think that the recipe is gospel. Let’s face it – some recipes are written badly, some haven’t been tested, some don’t MAKE SENSE! Read the recipe and ask us your questions.

So – start with the guideline and go from there. Taste your food! Ask questions, practice . As you develop your skills, take chances and try something new. Build your confidence in the kitchen by developing your palate and broaden your knowledge of basic cooking technique. The worst thing that can happen is that you ruin it beyond repair. It’s just food! When you take the fear out of food is when the fun can really begin.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Foundations of Good Cooking

“Why did you pick such an odd/pretentious/difficult-to-pronounce name for your cooking school?” It’s a question I’ve been asked more than once. When I explain that a ‘mirepoix’ (mihr- PWAH) is a combination of carrots, onions and celery, I sometimes get a look, that if spoken aloud would say, “So what’s so special about that?”

The Mirepoix Cooking School mission statement is “to teach people to cook and think like professional chefs”. When we set about deciding the direction we would take, what would separate us from all of the other cooking class programs offered in Southeastern Michigan, it was important to me that Mirepoix be a technique driven school. Since a mirepoix is a foundational combination of ingredients, it seemed a perfect fit, since one of our primary goals is to teach the foundations of good cooking.

Another interesting thing about a mirepoix is that it has a specific ratio: 1 part carrot, 1 part celery and 2 parts onion. Onion plays a very important role in a recipe, even more so than the other two foundational ingredients. It seems, though, that when it comes to onions, there are two very distinct camps – those who love them, and those who hate them. I mean, really HATE them.

I find that most of the time, when someone says they “hate” a particular ingredient, dish, or cuisine, most of the time it is because they have been a victim of bad cooking technique, which, without exception will produce bad food.

There are several types of onions, and each of them have a distinct flavor, which should help the chef determine which onion to use in each of their recipes. There are also other members of the onion family – the shallot, scallion and leek, which also have their own distinct flavor profiles, and should be used accordingly.

Most people identify onions by color and by sweetness. Yellow, Spanish, White, Red and Vidalia, are the most common light colored onions. White onions are commonly used in Mexican cuisine and have a sharp flavor. Yellow onions are more mild in flavor and can even be sweet. Vidalia onions are named for Vidalia, Georgia, where this particular variety thrives. Vidalia onions are sweet and excellent for caramelizing. Lastly, Red onions can be cooked, but have a nice flavor when eaten raw.

When selecting an onion, inspect it for any rotten or soft spots. Store onions in a cool, dry, dark place. Onions will keep for a couple weeks if stored properly. The older the onion, the more pungent the flavor will be.

Another excellent, but lesser utilized flavoring agent is a shallot. Shallots have a unique flavor that is milder and more delicate than that of onions, and adds a subtle nuance to your recipe. Think of a shallot like a more subtle and sophisticated flavor enhancement. In his wildly offensive, though incredibly accurate book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes the shallot in one of my favorite chapters, How to Cook Like a Pro.

“Before butter, my friends -- the humble shallot... You almost never see this item in a home kitchen, but in our world they're an essential ingredient. Shallots are one of the things -- a basic prep item in every mise-en-place -- that makes restaurant food taste different from your food.”

Leeks are one of my favorite ingredients. Many people avoid using leeks because they are unfamiliar with how to clean them, chop them and cook them. Leeks have a thick stalk and resemble a very large scallion (also known as green onion). Their flavor is more delicate than scallions, and have a more refined flavor. Leeks are delicious when braised, quickly sautéed, or even creamed.

After selecting the leeks, make sure you clean them properly! Leeks are notorious for hiding lots of sand, grit and dirt deep inside their tightly bound leaves. To clean a leek, simply trim off the root end and about 1/4 inch of the white base. Remove any ragged, coarse outer leaves and discard.

Next, trim each of the darkest portions of the leaves down to the light green, more tender portion, leaving about 2 inches of green. Slice them into 2-inch lengths and soak in a bowl of cold water. Swish them in the water to remove dirt, drain, refill bowl, and swish again until no more dirt is released. Drain and dry. Slice as your recipe indicates.

Scallions, also known as green onions, are very commonly used ingredients, appearing most often in dips and other uncooked preparations. Scallions have a mild, pleasant flavor, and a nice crunchy texture when sliced and used as a garnish.

To learn more about the proper way to clean, cut, and cook onions, leeks, and shallots, register for our Knife Skills 1.0 & 2.0 classes at the Mirepoix Cooking School. Also, join us on Facebook for weekly recipe updates and other tips and techniques. This week’s recipe is a delicious Leek tart that is simple to prepare and impressive when served at an Easter or Mother’s Day brunch.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Step Into Spring with the Refreshing Flavor of Lemon

Limon, limone, limone, lemon. Perhaps the most popular citrus fruit, the lemon is prized internationally for its flavor and versatility. It is unclear where this brightly colored gem originated, though it is widely thought to hail from India. Lemons have a rich history in Italy, Egypt, Spain, and America.

There are at least 15 different varieties of lemons, with Lisbon and the Eureka being the most common. These two varieties are so common, it is often hard to discern the difference between them.

Lemons have a bright yellow exterior, and a thick white pith underneath the skin. The pith is extremely bitter and has an unpleasant taste. The yellow skin is often removed for zest, which is used to flavor many recipes.

When zesting a lemon, remove only the thin yellow skin, avoiding the bitter pith under the skin. There are several ways to zest a lemon. One method is to use a vegetable peeler, and then julienne, chop, or mince the skin. Another way is to use a tool called a zester. These come in different sizes. A box grater is also a useful, though awkward tool when zesting. Finally, a microplane grater is the easiest tool to use for this task. Once you have removed the zest from the lemon, it can be used to flavor cookies, cakes, pies, salad dressings, marinades and more.

When extracting the juice from a lemon, simply roll the whole lemon back and forth on a countertop to soften up the pulp. By doing this, the flesh is essentially breaking down, making it easier to get the maximum amount of juice from the lemon.

Lemons are also a delicious flavoring agent when they are preserved. Preserved lemons are a popular ingredient in Mediterranean cooking. Available in some specialty stores, preserved lemons can be purchased, but you can also make them in your own kitchen, if you have the time. When making preserved lemons, it is important to keep all sanitation issues in mind, to avoid dangerous food borne illnesses that are a result of improper preserving methods.

Lemons brighten many dishes with their color and their flavor. Consider pairing lemon with asparagus, artichokes, shrimp, almost any kind of seafood, chicken, pork, and berries.

To try some creative recipies featuring lemons, including how to make your own preserved lemons, register for our "Taste of Spring - Lemon" hands-on cooking class on May 22.