If you’re looking to polish your cooking or baking skills before the holidays, Santa Monica’s own Gourmandise School of Sweets & Savories is offering holiday-themed classes throughout December.

The school opened in Santa Monica Place in 2011 and reopened last year after a renovation that tripled its size. It’s known for hiring local chefs to teach a diverse range of cuisines, but this month, instructors are guiding students through recipes that are bound to impress your holiday guests.

I attended a preview of the Gourmandise School’s holiday classes, which range from $85 to $225. While I didn’t get the full hands-on experience — some classes last up to six hours — I did get a demonstration of a couple of recipes you can learn this holiday season.

A taste of tamales

I have long harbored a desire to make tamales, a traditional Christmas food among Central American families and one I seek out year-round. My perpetual tamales cravings originated in childhood, when my mom and I would hear the bells of the tamales cart in our neighborhood and run outside to stock up on delicious bundles of masa, pork and cheese.

Although we’re tamales enthusiasts — my mom was born in Mexico City to American parents and spent the first several years of her life there — we’ve never attempted to make them ourselves. The process of making tamales is typically passed down from generation to generation, and we lack an ancestral connection to Mexico.

In the era of free online recipes, it would seem that one could simply Google and YouTube their way to a steaming pot of tamales. But making tamales requires days to prepare flavorful fillings and a small army of people to spread masa and tie corn husks, not to mention the ability to get the texture of the masa right and assemble the tamales so they cook correctly. The complexity of the process has successfully intimidated me out of attempting to make one of my favorite foods.

So when chef Michelle Lainez told us she would be demonstrating how to make tamales, I was excited to hear an expert demystify what seemed to be a daunting task. The former Border Grill chef, who now owns a catering company, will be teaching tamales classes at the Gourmandise School on Sunday, Dec. 1 and Sunday, Dec. 22. The school will offer husks, masa and lard for sale so attendees can make their own tamales at home.

Lainez started off the class with the foundation of the whole process: masa. For the purpose of the class, cheese and braised chicken fillings had been prepared ahead of time.

Lainez, who has roots in El Salvador, said she used to bring corn to a mill to make masa when she was growing up because the premade masa available in the United States didn’t have the texture she wanted. Today, she uses masa made by Masienda, a company that partners with farmers in Oaxaca who grow traditional maize.

“I’m obsessed with this masa,” Lainez said, inviting us to run the smooth, fine dough through our fingers. “It feels like silk, which means your tamal is going to feel silky, light and airy.”

To prepare the masa, Lainez poured it in a stand mixer with water and lard. She mixed it slowly with a paddle attachment for a few minutes until it resembled fluffy sand and added baking soda and salt.

She then slowly added room-temperature vegetable stock — at home, she boils four chickens to make schmaltz, she said — and beat it until it took on the texture of a “soft playdough.”

“Sometimes it’ll need more liquid, sometimes less,” she said. “It’s all by touch.”

Lainez took the masa and spread it in the center of the rough side of a corn husk, using three fingers to widen it. She spread an ounce of chicken in the center, leaving two fingers of masa on each side. Then, she pinched the flaps together, folded each side and tied it with two pieces of corn husk she had already knotted together.

“It should look like a little bundle — a present,” she said, arranging it in a large metal tub with several dozen of its brethren to steam for about 45 minutes.

Lainez brought out the tamales at the end of the class, after I had already enjoyed several choux puffs. But that didn’t stop me from wolfing down three of them, which were much smaller than what you would get from a restaurant or cart. The masa was beautifully airy, as Lainez had predicted, with a clear taste that complemented the juicy filling. As I boxed up another three to take home for breakfast the next day, I contemplated how I could convince my friends to assemble in my kitchen and fold dozens of corn husks with me.

“You need a team of people. It’s a three-day process,” Lainez told us. “You can’t just make one tamal — you have to make a lot.”

Cracking the croquembouche

A croquembouche is one of those show-stopping creations like Princesstårta or kek lapis Sarawak that regularly brings Great British Bake Off contestants to tears.

But watching Gourmandise School founder Clémence Gossett deftly assemble custard-filled, caramel-topped choux pastry puffs into a cone-shaped tower, you might start to think you can croque your bouche and eat it too. (Although that would be redundant, since croquembouche translates to “crunch in the mouth.”) Gossett will be teaching a croquembouche class on Monday, Dec. 30.

I enjoy baking — almost as much as I enjoy watching Bake Off — but I’ve never attempted anything more complicated than a pie. Gossett’s tutorial left me determined to attempt a croquembouche for the holidays, both because of the wow factor and because it would allow me to practice some baking building blocks I’ve been meaning to learn: choux pastry, custard and caramel.

Gossett explained those basic skills on a deep yet approachable level, like how your favorite science teacher described mitosis in a way that made you eager to look under a microscope. As she vigorously stirred choux paste in a pot on the stove, she told us exactly what makes cream puffs so, well, puffy.

“The beauty of cream puffs is they have no leaveners. They get big and hollow inside without yeast, baking powder or baking soda. The only thing that powers them is flour, steam and gluten,” she said. “The more we stir, the more gluten develops. In the oven, the water in the dough turns to steam and stretches the gluten proteins.”

Gossett took the dough off the stove, stirred in eggs and scooped the choux into a piping bag. She bent over a baking sheet and carefully squeezed the choux into domes, using her fingers to steady the tip of the bag and opening her hand after each squeeze to release pressure.

With the choux puffs in the oven, she set about making the pastry cream, a type of pipeable custard. That required more energetic whisking of milk, egg yolks, sugar and flour in a pot over medium heat.

“It’s important in baking not to be dainty,” she said. “Grab your instruments firmly as close to the head as possible.”

Gossett cautioned the class to judge the progress of recipes based on their own equipment and intuition.

“Medium heat never looks like what’s on your dial, because your dial doesn’t know the size of your pot or your stove. Always think of heat in relation to the size of your pan,” she said. “And be mindful of recipes that tell you timing, because the writer doesn’t know the size of your pot or the heat of your flame, so you want to use recipes that say “cook until it looks like this, or smells like this or feels like this”.

After the pastry cream cooled, Gossett poured it in a piping bag and injected it into the cream puffs. Then, she poured a little bit of sugar in a pot on the stove to make caramel.

“You wait until that sugar is golden, and then add a touch more. The wet sugar melts the dry sugar, which you add little by little,” she said. “But sugar doesn’t technically melt — it just changes structure. It’s made up of two molecules, and when you apply heat, those molecules separate.”

With all of the core components of the croquembouche complete, Gossett dipped the cream puffs in the caramel and connected them in a ring on top of a circle of nougatine, a hard caramel and almond confection she had made in advance. Then came another ring, and another, and another, until all that was left to do was pop a final cream puff on top of the cone that had formed.

Gossett dipped a fork in the remaining caramel and waved it back and forth at lightning speed over the counter to create caramel floss that would wrap around the cream puff construction.

Once the final strand was in place, she stepped back and we all admired the tower of pastry before reaching in to pluck a puff. Or, in my case, four.


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