Salt Lake City—Thanksgiving can be the absolute worst holiday for the novice chef. When do you start meddling with the turkey? How do you make a flaky pie crust or a flavorful filling? What can you do to make sure people clean their plates—and not into the trash can?
Salt Lake Culinary Center, the only cooking school for the home chef in the Salt Lake area, has the answer. The center has offered various themed classes for people to bone up on their holiday cooking skills, from offering a start-to-finish Thanksgiving 101 class, to a croissants class, to Wednesday’s pie-making extravaganza, Pie Day.
“Thanksgiving 101 was where you make Thanksgiving from start to finish and learn all about everything you would need to do to pull off a thanksgiving in your home,” said chef instructor Amy Christensen, who added that the center also offers fundamental cooking classes that showcase sauces or appetizers. Pie Day, however, is different from anything else Salt Lake Culinary Center offers.
For Pie Day, Salt Lake Culinary Center’s three kitchens are all utilized. Some 12-14 students come in for one of the two courses (one from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., another from 1-4 p.m.) and first learn from a demonstration. Christensen drew everyone to the demo-kitchen, where she showed how to make a pie crust from scratch. She explained the role gluten plays in a pie’s crust—how, if overworked, your pie can taste dense like a bagel instead of flakey and light—and showed what to look for and how to troubleshoot during each step. The butter must be cold. The ice water should be incorporated under a watchful eye: too much and there’s no escaping your sticky dough. She then showed how to properly roll out the dough, how to place it, and even various tricks for how to decorate it.
After the demonstration comes the independent practice portion of the day. The novice pastry chefs are split up (and sometimes paired up) depending on how much pie dough they need (fruit pies need dough for the shell and the top; custard and cream pies only need the crust). Attendees could sign up for one of eight pie choices: pumpkin, pecan, apple, cherry, triple berry, chocolate cream, coconut cream, or banana cream.
Three instructors wandered through the center’s kitchens to lend a hand and a professional eye to participants. Any time someone flounders, a chef is there to help troubleshoot everything, from the crust to the filling to the decorations on top. At the end, participants take home their pies, and another Thanksgiving item is scratched off the list.
“You don’t have to go to the grocery store. You don’t have to clean the kitchen. You don’t have to do all that,” said Christensen. “This is about the people, about the experience, about learning and taking home, about making tomorrow easier—they’ll go home and their kitchen is clean.”
For Christensen, Pie Day is a longstanding tradition in her family. Her great grandmother began making pies at the age of five, at her family’s southern Utah bed and breakfast.
“Pie Day, in my family, is the day before Thanksgiving—it’s a bigger holiday than Thanksgiving,” said Christensen. “It’s not just about the pies or about the baking. It’s number one about the people you’re there with or sharing with. For me, it’s been learning from my great grandmother, learning from my grandmother, learning from my mom, having my sisters there and sharing that experience with them.”
Having people interact is a big part of Pie Day and the cooking classes at Salt Lake Culinary Center in general. With everyone needing a different amount of pie dough, participants were sometimes paired together to make use of each other’s dough. The workspace is large, but everyone works side-by-side, chatting throughout the process. During the center’s usual cooking classes, which often teach a full meal: appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert, Christensen said she loves seeing people transform from strangers into friends.
“I think magic happens here. People come in, and our classes are limited to 12 or fewer people here. They spend a couple hours cooking together, virtually strangers… they’ll sit down at the end to have the food that they made,” said Christensen. “They’ll go through the whole thing and they sit down like they’re old friends… you know when you’re in a restaurant and you’re with friends you haven’t seen in a long time, and you can just take up that table for hours? That’s the kind of thing that happens—and they came in strangers in the beginning.”
For those who missed Pie Day (or aren’t the Thanksgiving sort), Christensen said the center is looking to start making seasonal Pie or Dessert Days, so people can take treats home on holidays like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day.
“You’re not going to make a pumpkin pie in July—well, I would, because I love them,” laughed Christensen.
Salt Lake Culinary Center can be found online at www.saltlakeculinarycenter.com