Cookie Novices Learn From The Pros
A seasoned pie baker looking for some help with cookies. A chef’s sister willing to make the drive from Bridgeport. A second generation cake maker with dreams for an independent business. A new grandfather, a serial sous chef, and a self-proclaimed anti-cook who hasn’t made a meal since last year.
Friday night, these were the six who gathered for an inaugural baking class at the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), a job training and teaching incubator in the city’s Newhallville neighborhood. After opening its teaching kitchen in 2016, ConnCAT has continued its mission of teaching unemployed and underemployed New Haveners with its Orchid Cafe, open since April of this year.
The idea comes from public interest in the cafe and its chefs, said ConnCAT Communications Specialist Tammy Chapman. Typically, the cafe is open weekdays only, drawing diners who work in the nearby Science Park and Winchester Lofts buildings from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. But a survey three months ago suggested that cafe patrons were interested in two things: increased hours, and a chance to learn cooking from some of the chefs who were learning themselves.
The hours are still tricky: ConnCAT staffs the cafe with its culinary students, of which there have now been three cohorts. But there aren’t enough hours in the day for them to be there for three meals a day, and take their classes.
Getting to know the chefs, though, is an easier feat for the center—so ConnCAT decided to pilot classes a few weeks ago. The first one came out of a fundraiser that it held, in which baking was one of the prizes.
“We’d love to do more of these sessions,” said Chapman, fixing participants up with name tags and disposable aprons. Chefs Stanley Hair and Joseph “Joe” Williams directed attendees to two sinks, both running taps with water so hot it was steaming.
Eyeing the group, Williams expertly divided attendees in to three teams, strangers who would spend the next two hours bonding as they creamed butter, measured out sugar and vanilla, and piped stiff dough onto their baking sheets.
He directed the group to three glinting KitchenAid mixers accented with silver and red. It was go time. The first assignment: Spritz cookies with berry jam, derived from the Alsatian Spritzgebäck that have become a popular holiday treat.
Teams measured out ingredients carefully, weighing out sugar and butter, salt, vanilla, flour and fruity jams in red and blue. At one station, librarian-turned-baker Daniel Mugaburu joked to baking partner Tom Breen that he “can’t even cook water without burning it,” hesitating as he placed a cup of butter on the scale, and watched it waver between seven and eight ounces.
Two other teams had considerable more luck: Orchid Cafe regulars Kevin Hart and Heather White flew through assembly, ready to pop their cookies in the oven before the other groups had finished, and waiting patiently when they were told it wasn't time yet.
So did Cameo Johnson and Sharmae Williams, a semi-professional baker and savory cook who is also Hair's sister. In front of them, Hair and Joe Williams (no relation) bounced from station to station, preheating two industrial ovens as they fielded any rogue questions.
“I told him [Hair] I want learn some of the things he do,” said Williams. “I wanna see him in his world.”
Before teams began to mix their ingredients, all six participants gathered around Hair to watch one of two demos. Standing carefully over a mixer, Hair talked through a process that he said has become a sort of second nature: creaming half a pound of butter and cup of white sugar to become the cookie’s shortbread base.
As he added in unbleached flour, speaking over the mechanized hum of his mixer, Mugaburu leaned in, studying how Hair flipped switches off, then on again, as he added the white powder in stages. Working the stiff dough into a piping bag, Hair squeezed out long, spiral shapes. Mugaburu raised his eyebrows quizzically as a smattering of oohs and aaahhs drifted over the room.
“You ready?” Hair said to the group, showing off two dimples as he grinned. A murmur of mmmhmmms ran through the group.
But maybe the answer was more complicated. As participants headed back to their workstations, Mugaburu and Breen struggled to switch their mixer on. When they had (an outlet wasn’t working), the two worked methodically, but subbed splenda for sugar, mixing a batter so stiff it would fit in a piping bag, but not make it out of the scalloped nozzle. Declaring the consistency and look similar to “squirrel droppings,” the two pulled Hair over, asking him for help. As he attempted to squeeze the pastry bag, his hands shook, vibrating against the bag’s stiffness.
Not all participants had so much trouble. In the time that piping took, Hart and White had skipped ahead in the directions, and were adding thumbprints to their cookies, into which a small mount of jam would be spooned. As they worked out a system—Hart held the edges of the sheet and White spooned—the two bonded over the Orchid Cafe, at which they both eat several times a week.
As White mentioned that the lesson was her first outing without colleagues—she is a new transplant from the Washington, D.C. area—she regaled Hart, and then the room, with tales of how famous ConnCAT’s peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwich had become around her office.
A counter away, Williams and Johnson had also worked out a sort of assembly line as they piped. The owner of Cameo’s Crazy Cakes & Treats, Johnson took the lead, laying ribbon-like spirals of cookie dough in her wake. She won entry into the class when someone donated a ticket in her name, and said she felt “lucky to be” there, as her three kids played at home. But Johnson comes from a long line of cooks: she learned by watching her mom, who is now a student in the program. When her mom has finished, they and her aunt plan on going into business together.
The two leaned gingerly over a baking sheet, Johnson squeezing the piping bag as Williams held the sheet still. Fat, buttery dough spirals with scalloped edges appeared on the sheets. Wetting their gloves, they worked together to place a thumbprint in the center of each cookie, spooning jam into the shallow wells as they formed. Williams, who is from South Carolina and makes a semi-famous fried chicken and baked ziti, said she was getting the hang of it—but still might let Hair bake for family gatherings.
That was okay with Hair, still helping Breen and Mugaburu with the last of their spritz cookies. As they added the last doll of blackberry jam, the kitchen transformed again, this time into a line leading to the ovens.
Hair and Joe Williams worked together to lift the trays into the ovens, flicking on a light so attendees could watch them start to sweat and brown. Behind him, the purr of a timer sounded like bated breath.