I'm panicking over chicken.
After an hour of preparation, I've successfully butterflied and stuffed a chicken breast with fresh basil, sautéed mushrooms, and gourmet cheese. It looks like a dish from Bon Appetit. Now, I've reached the critical moment -- rolling the meat into a log.
My chicken breast rips mid-turn, its contents seeping from the hole. My heart sinks and I curse a little too loudly. I didn't expect to be so attached to a carcass.
"If it rips, just keep going," the instructor, Cynthia, says. "It'll turn out fine and still be delicious."
I'm getting the ultimate field to farm culinary experience at From the Farm Cooking School, located two hours east of Toronto in Prince Edward County. Personal chef and food writer Cynthia Peters teaches classes on the art of seasonal cooking from her 1830's heritage farmhouse. Local food products are incorporated in the recipes and culinary tours of local farms, producers, and wineries are often part of the day's adventure. The school is an ideal getaway for foodies and city-dwellers seeking a rural refuge.
Arriving at the school, it feels like pioneer cooking class, but with electricity and wine for its pupils. Water is pumped from a well, and the pine floors and rustic relics give the house a country bumpkin charm. I'm relieved that the kitchen has twenty-first century equipment -- no churning butter by hand today.
We gather around the dining room table with steaming cups of coffee and pass around maple sugar powder to taste. As we review the menus, we take notes and get ready to cook six gourmet dishes using maple syrup as a key ingredient. The premise is to provide easy entertaining solutions that we can replicate at home.
"Wine will be served later on," Cynthia says. "I just like people to get through their knife work first."
Since it's a hands-on class, we don our aprons and enter the kitchen, ready to attack our recipes like soldiers on the front line.
I get my hands dirty making Sweet Potato Gratin -- a gourmet version of scalloped potatoes. I blend the potato slices with shallots, butter cubes, artisan cheese, fresh thyme, and maple syrup. Sometime in between, Cynthia demonstrates how to properly slice a shallot, de-vein a garlic clove, and sauté mushrooms. I'm learning that I knew nothing about the culinary arts until now. We stuff baking cups with the mixture and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
"Don't worry if you overdo it," Cynthia says, "I'm a believer that you can never add too much cheese."
Next are the appetizers. I've always avoided working with phyllo pastry because it's so delicate. I quickly get over this phobia making maple cheddar & apple bundles. We prepare the ingredients for the filling -- sautéed apples and onions mixed with maple syrup, eggs, chives, and cheese. I sample a piece of the maple cheddar and swoon.
When the filling is ready, I dust a piece of phyllo with melted butter, spoon filling onto the dough, and roll into triangles. It's actually easy! Even if the dough tears, I take Cynthia's advice to "just keep going" until the job is done. It doesn't have to look pretty to be tasty.
Cynthia shows us how to make Maple Ice Cream from scratch. I'm intrigued by the addition of Vanilla Bean Paste -- a pure and natural ingredient that's ideal for ice creams, custards, and cakes. Flecks of vanilla bean seeds are grated into sweet syrup, giving it a stronger flavour than the vanilla extract sold in the supermarket.
Before we can say Monterey Jack, lunch is served. We sit down with local Prince Edward County wines and toast our culinary success. Then we feast on our creations. The food is delectable -- even my "flawed" chicken gets grunts of approval from my fellow foodies.