Birthday cooking demo at Sweet Basil

My birthday was a few weeks ago so this post is a bit late. But the thing is, Sweet Basil is one of my favorite restaurants in the Boston area (it’s actually in Needham) and this cooking class taught by owner Dave was really fun and the food reminded me of why this place holds such a dear place in my heart. If you’ve never heard of Sweet Basil, you need to know of this place’s existence and I’m here to do just that!

Let’s back up though… cooking class? Birthday? What is she talking about??

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[My dad, mom and Adam]

The Newton Community Education offers many adult classes, including cooking demos from local chefs (side note: your local high school probably offers lots of adult education classes too… I took a photography class at Brookline High when I first got my dSLR and it definitely taught me all the basics I needed to no longer be intimidated with my camera). My dad found the one taught by Dave, which just happened to be on my birthday. The cooking demo was held at Sweet Basil and included a 4-course lunch.

Learning cooking tricks from a talented chef and enjoying delicious food is definitely one of my favorite ways to spend a day… and the perfect way to celebrate my birthday. I was so there! Smile

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[The place is adorable with a modern yet cozy feel. All the dishes and silverware are mismatched, as if you’re at someone’s very quirky home.]

Before he began his demo, Dave chatted up everyone and showed off his latest obsession – homemade vinegars. I think this one was plum. He’s always so passionate about the food, his restaurant, the neighborhood, the guests. Sweet Basil doesn’t take reservations so on most nights Dave “works the crowd” (aka greets the guests, tells some jokes, pours them some wine… it’s BYOB… and even brings snacks to the front of the restaurant and outside for those who are extra hungry. I seriously love this place!!

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There was no wait this time though. We dug into the most amazing pesto ever. I promise you. I crave the stuff. I’ve had it at many restaurants and have made my own. Nothing comes close to Sweet Basil’s version! (I have the Sweet Basil cookbook so I am determined to try making it this year!)

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Surprisingly, everything Dave demoed and we ate during the luncheon was different from the typical Sweet Basil menu, which actually made me love the place even more. It’s simple ingredients coming together in something seriously special.

Take this spring vegetable soup (potatoes, garlic, white wine, spinach, peas, broccoli, splash of heavy cream – toms + shrimp and shredded Asiago for garnish)

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It doesn’t look particularly appetizing, just a bunch of greens from what the eye can see, but it’s incredibly flavorful. There is garlic, there is cheese, body from potatoes and a touch of cream. Every single person licked their bowl clean. Adam asked me to make it very soon. I’m making it this week. Yes, that good Smile [PS – I have all the recipes and don’t want to post them here, but if you’d like to recreate any of these, email me!]

Random trick I learned? After steaming the green veggies, drop the whole colander of them into a big bowl of ice (it stops the cooking process and keeps the greens from turning brown). Then when you need the veggies again (in this case when you need to blend them), pick up the colander from the bowl and you’ve got all your veggies right there! I don’t know why I always dumped the veggies straight into the ice bowl before and then picked them out one by one. Such an obvious (yet genius) little trick!

Next up was a cute little amuse bouche of sorts. Crostini with lemon-herbed ricotta

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Toast the bread on ice side only to get that perfect crunchy yet chewy balance.

Chickpea fritters with cucumber-mint aioli, served over salad

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The chickpea fritters sounded like falafel but man, they were so much more than that! There were some caramelized onions in the mix (which bugged me so I only had one bite and then picked out a few chickpeas… they were yummy) but I still really appreciate the flavor. You toast the chickpeas first, then smash them slightly, so there are whole (crunchy) chickpeas in the mix which are just so much fun. I can’t wait to recreate these, sans onions! Open-mouthed smile

The last course was jaw-dropping gorgeous. Lamb chops served over parmesan bread pudding

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… topped with fresh figs. Dave was so excited about his shipment of fresh figs (which were particularly sweet and just perfect) that he decided to let them shine instead of messing with them. The quality of ingredients is so key!

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I’ve never had a savory bread pudding and I can now say I’m a big fan. It was cheesy with a hint of rosemary – a rich and delicious side. [Btw, I am not really a lamb fan so I was more excited about the extras.]

The demo wasn’t that educational (I’m a bit of a geek so I knew a lot of what he was sharing with us) but it was such a fun experience and a delicious treat. If you’re ever in the area, make sure to stop by Sweet Basil. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed (the roasted beet and goat cheese salad is the best I’ve ever had… and yeah, that pesto. Mmm).

The dork that I am, I brought my cookbook copy and made Dave sign it. Nerd smile

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Oh I will enjoy it! Open-mouthed smile

Have you ever attended a cooking demo taught by a chef you admire?

*** PS – This wasn’t really a restaurant review given the special circumstances, but if you’re looking for local restaurant recommendations, check out my restaurant reviews page!

An evening of chocolate and wine pairings

Did you celebrate Valentine’s day yesterday? After last year’s overpriced dinner, Adam and I decided to move our own celebration to March 1. Random, I know, but February 14th has no real significance so moving it by 2 weeks seemed like a good alternative!

So yesterday was supposed to be just another Monday until I was offered press tickets to the chocolate and wine pairings tasting run by the Boston Chocolate School. I actually attended their chocolate truffle making class last year that I enjoyed, so I was excited about this one. Chocolate and wine are definitely at the top of my food chain!

The event was held at the College Club of Boston, which was a gorgeous space right in the heart of Back Bay. Definitely fancier than I was expecting!

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When we were finally guided to the dining room, I was also surprised to see a very elegant setting in front of us – complete with wine, chocolate and red tablecloth – perfect to get us all in Valentine’s Day mood (although definitely not the most flattering color for photos! Oh well. Winking smile ).

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Tim Brown walked us through the chocolate tasting process (check the shine of chocolate, listen to the snap, smell it, let the chocolate melt between your tongue and your palate, let some air in to let it oxidize… note any characteristics). We went from white to dark, noting the difference the cocoa solid content and even subtle regional differences (like south and north of Venezuela) have on chocolate taste, mouth feel, etc. Most chocolates tasted (except for white) were the El Rey chocolates which are very high quality (100% cocoa butter) and I really enjoyed them, but I have to admit – I couldn’t taste anything other than chocolate – no raspberry/smoke/tobacco notes (maybe coffee or caramel… but those characteristics could be applied to any chocolate in my opinion). Nope. It was chocolate. It was good chocolate – that’s it. Maybe I need to train my palate more. Clearly more chocolate tasting is required! Winking smile

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Harry Silverstein also talked to us about his chosen wine pairings. We started with a very sweet moscato paired with the white chocolate, eventually migrating to a sweet Shiraz (was not a fan!), then drier Merlot, Cabernet Savignon and finally a port, which was meant to stand up to the darkest chocolate. None of the wines really wowed me and I felt like letting the wine oxidize in your mouth (by letting some air in) actually intensified the taste of alcohol instead of bringing out the primary (fruit) and secondary (smoke, mineral, etc.) notes in the wine. Harry was really personable though and I think it’s a tough job satisfying everyone’s palates at once. I think, as weird as it may seem, the chocolate may have altered the wine taste (for me!) in a negative way. Apparently I’m a purist. I like to keep them separate (lesson learned!).

Overall, I enjoyed this tasting and learned some interesting things. Like the fact that in Europe chocolate must contain at least 98% cocoa butter to be classified as chocolate, while the US requires only 22% (the rest of the fat comes from much cheaper palm kernel oil, which has a much higher melting point than our body’s and thus leaves a waxy aftertaste)… that’s also why you may find that your favorite brand may have a different taste depending on whether it was produced (and sold) for US distribution or Europe.

I also learned that sweet wines have lower alcohol content because not all the sugar is allowed to ferment (and turn to alcohol). Tim and Harry shared many other chocolate and wine facts and I was happy to learn while munching and sipping away!

These babies came home with me…

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Can’t wait to try them!!

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Do you try to pair your wine with food (or chocolate)? Ever taken a “formal” class to learn from the experts?

Chocolate truffle workshop recap

Sorry guys, it’s been a long (but fun) weekend so my recaps have been a bit late. I hope you at least enjoyed my little condo tour! I also wanted to thank you for the kitchenless meal suggestions. They will all come in handy as I plan my meals for the upcoming weeks :)

Tonight I finally had a few minutes (or hours, who’s counting :lol: ) to share with you my thoughts on the truffle workshop my sister and I attended this past Saturday. We had a good time! I think the mugs of hot chocolate we received at the entrance set the right tone ;) Cheers…

The hot chocolate was one of the best I’ve had in my life! The “secret” is to use real quality chocolate instead of powder + sugar. This was 3 oz chocolate to 5 oz of milk. Clearly not low calorie, but in my opinion well worth it for as a special treat. :mrgreen:

Upon settling in, Valerie (our guide) told us about her chocolate background and then dug into the history of chocolate and an explanation of how chocolate is made. We covered the whole process from harvesting the cacao trees, picking the cacao pods, scooping out the beans, drying them, roasting them, breaking them into cacao nibs, grinding those then adding sugar (and sometimes milk) to create the creamy chocolate we all know and love (I probably missed a few steps, but you didn’t notice, right?).

We also played/tasted these little samples – (from top, clockwise) – cacao bean, cacao butter, cacao nibs, white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate.

Valerie mentioned that Hershey’s milk chocolate is about 60% vegetable oil! I do like a Hershey’s bar on occasion, knowing quite well that it’s a disgusting treat, but this really grossed me out. The only fat chocolate should have is cacao butter – no additional oil/fat should be added. Manufacturers like Hershey’s add the oil in order to “spread” the good stuff (i.e. actual cacao) across more product. I guess there is no surprise there… :???:

I found the nearly one hour lecture to be quite educational. For example, I didn’t know where cacao nibs came from. If you break the roasted bean open, it will be full of nibs! That was pretty cool to see. :grin: We also learned that cacao trees are very sensitive and susceptible to disease so chocolate growers have to be extremely delicate during the harvesting process. If one tree gets sick, the entire farm will be affected. Not only is it hard to sustain disease-free cacao trees, it also takes approx. 3 cacao pods (each containing approx. 20 cacao beans) to make 1 oz of chocolate! This is why good quality chocolate (with no fillers!) is quite expensive. I’m happy to support this industry on a daily basis. ;)

Once the lecture portion was done, Valerie finally moved on to showing us how to make truffles!! Inna was more than ready for this part. She was impatiently waiting to get her hands dirty ;)

Valerie showed us how to make chocolate ganache from scratch (so easy, it’s just cream and chocolate!) and then proceeded to make chocolates using candy molds or rolling the ganache into truffles.

And then it was our time to make some truffles! We were looking quite stylish in process, don’t you think?

Oh the excitement! :lol:

We started with (pre-made) chocolate ganache – (from left to right) – caramel, raspberry, whiskey.

… which we rolled into balls and decorated as we pleased.

These were our toppings options – cocoa powder, cacao nibs, tiny almond pieces

Molded chocolates Valerie previously made for show. So pretty!

Tempered chocolate for dipping. Man, having one of these machines at home would be real trouble :oops:

Dipping time!

A little decoration with white chocolate…

A little messy but so fun!!

Here are my truffles. I rolled the whiskey ones in cocoa powder, the caramel ones I dipped in semi-sweet chocolate and decorated them with a little white chocolate drizzle and the raspberry ganache I left just plain dipped.

That’s quite the loot!

Proud chocolate mama :lol:

Valerie and I:

The workshop was really fun! I wish it was a little longer because I really did enjoy the educational portion but then felt like we were a bit rushed at the end. Sharing one tempered chocolate machine with not enough dipping forks/spoons also was a bit stressful but we all went home with lots of yummy truffles so it was all good. :) The class is young and I think they need to figure out some logistics but overall I’d definitely recommend it. Next time I want a full hands-on experience. Anyone wanna join me? :D

Have you ever made molded chocolates or truffles?

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