In spite of living in a one-bedroom apartment, my boyfriend and I try to entertain as much as we can. Three or four times a year, we host a big giant shitshow where I invite people to bring Champagne from a shelf that you have to bend down to reach, and basically trash the place, civilly speaking. I usually spend the day before a party prepping, but you get a little cocky after doing it enough times, and for our holiday party last December, I didn’t start cooking in earnest until about three hours before guest arrival. That was dumb.
I don’t mind if people see me frantically perspire, but I want at least something plated before anyone shows up. (If I’ve once again bitten off more than I can chew, then they should have something to chew, too.) My repertoire for big, sloppy gatherings is as immutable as it is unhealthful, mostly bacon, homemade cookies, cheese and charcuterie, a couple of frittatas, and something seasonal so it isn’t entirely predictable. One handy trick is to always have something that looks much harder to make than it is, so this Christmas, I made a ganache and rolled it into truffles that I dusted with cocoa.
On the whole, they were delicious — but also absolutely hideous. (If I’ve ever wrapped a gift for you, you know my fingers lack a certain finesse.) I was rushing, so misshapen lumps were probably inevitable, but several truffles also had a grainy texture that annoyed me. Since part of my job involves picking apart other people’s cooking, it’s only fair to savagely tear myself to shreds.
So when Civic Kitchen opened in January and invited me and my boyfriend to sign up for a class, I jumped at “Custards, Curds, and Ganache,” that I might embiggen my ganache panache.
I had no expectations of what the actual kitchen would be like, although I was reasonably certain it wouldn’t have blurry figures scurrying in the background like you see on TV cooking programs. It does not, and the space at 2961 Mission St. is handsome, having taken years to build out. Taught by pastry chef Sasha Crehan and Civic Kitchen co-founder and lead cooking instructor Jen Nurse, Custards, Curds, and Ganache was part of their “Learn to Bake Series,” for which four other students had signed up. People fret about class size in America’s schools, but unlike the 25 other children jockeying for the teacher’s attention when we were learning about subjects and predicates, learning to make lemon curd or salted butter caramel sauce with only a few other people is very helpful.
“Our standard classes will always be maxed out at the 12 to 14 level, even though the kitchen is large,” Nurse told me, noting each session runs between $25 and $145. “We find that that’s the sweet spot for being able to spend that time and give that attention that’s needed in a hands-on intensive class.”
The Civic Kitchen can hold up to 65 people for private events and chef pop-ups, however. That night was the second class in the baking series, and after rolling out the pie and tart doughs the students had made and frozen the week before, everybody chose a different type of pie filling to create a finished dessert. (I got ganache, partly because by choosing an easier one I felt like I wasn’t stealing something from a fully enrolled student.)
If you’re averse to public embarrassment, know that Crehan and Nurse are exactly the right type of pedagogues, gently correcting errors in such a way that they make you feel like you sidestepped disaster but without the shame of having displeased a temperamental master chef. I hadn’t rolled out dough in years, so it was a good reminder of the exactitude that baking demands. I’d never used pie weights before, either, and watching how uncooked beans gingerly dumped into a pie crust outperform a gadget from Williams-Sonoma was illustrative. (It’s always refreshing to hear someone with expertise discourage newbies from making unnecessary expenditures.)
I could probably have Googled “how to make a smooth ganache” and gotten a finished product that looked much the same as the dessert I made. But, as Nurse notes, there’s no substitute for learning from a live person.
“I use the internet all the time, even for cooking-related things,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s enough.”
Nurse’s husband Chris Bonomo is Civic Kitchen’s general manager, although his portfolio includes more than just a little dishwashing. A co-founder of specialty shop The Japanese Pantry, Bonomo’s culinary interests show up in a retail area toward the front of the space. He’s an importer of “amazing ingredients that just don’t see the light of day over here,” he says.
“We’re teaching a whole series of classes around those ingredients, one ingredient at a time,” Bonomo adds, starting with a dashi class.
Teaching people relatively advanced skills might sound intimidating to San Franciscans with tiny kitchens and a penchant for ordering from Uber Eats. But as a couple who’ve successfully gotten their teenage children to surprise them with lemon ricotta pancakes on Sundays, they have high hopes that people can learn. Even though certain basic things, like how to boil water properly, tend to elude many people — a simmer is not a boil and if you dump a whole box of pasta into water that’s just bubbling around the edges, you’ll regret it — Nurse is adamant that by acquiring 10 basic skills, you really know how to do 10,000 things.
“Just having a core set of skills enables you to do everything,” she says. “In the baking classes, we’ll have someone who’s never made pie crust before, and by the third or fourth classes they’re turning out macarons. It’s all about gaining confidence a little bit at a time.”
At around the three-quarter mark in the four-hour class, we sat down to dinner at a long table, which included a butternut squash soup and a salad of radicchio, walnuts, squash, and pickled onions — plus wine. People chatted amiably in that getting-to-know-you way, and then it was time for the reveal: a ganache tart, a banana cream pie, and lemon curd prepared two different ways. Deciding how many of the six desserts to cut a sliver from is never easy — I’m a glutton, so three for me — but after a round of mutual congratulations at our hard work, we packed up clamshell boxes to take the extras home. They didn’t last 24 hours in our fridge.
It was like earning a merit badge — and you would never have a feeling of satisfaction that profound had you just gone on foodnetwork.com.
“Cooking is not difficult,” Nurse said. “It just takes a little know-how and practice. You just need someone to hold your hand a little bit — in my view, anyway.”
The Civic Kitchen, 2961 Mission St., $25-$145, civickitchensf.com