“This is not your typical cooking class,” says Barbara Swell, the kitchen pixie who’s just poured us each a cup of tea and tied on a brightly patterned vintage apron. “It’s more like being in Grandma’s kitchen,” she continues, and so begins “Lost Art of Pie,” part of a series of cooking classes Swell conducts in a 1940s-era log cabin in East Asheville.
Three students sit on stools (there were supposed to be eight of us, but the rest of the class was frightened off by icy conditions), surrounded by retro cooking instruments and a 1928 Home Comfort wood stove. It feels like we’ve “stepped into another world,” as one of my classmates puts it.
I notice that it is somewhat like being in my Grandma’s kitchen, with one exception: The women in my family, Grandma and me included, are vexed by an inability to bake. Maybe Barbara can do something about that, I think.
“The goal here is to learn how to cook without measuring stuff,” she says while swiftly constructing a cranberry flip pie. “When you’re measuring, you’re really not paying attention to what you’re making.”
I agree wholeheartedly, but what Barbara is doing is not exactly what I regard as cooking. Instead, it’s some sort of alchemy with flour, butter and eggs. (Forgo measuring the baking powder? What if the pie crust puffs up so much the oven explodes?)
As the pie lecture continues, we start from the crust up. “Some people like to use Crisco in their crust,” Barbara notes.
“Ewww,” we respond in chorus.
“Yes, I know,” Barbara replies, looking sad for a moment. Then she brightens and displays some of her vintage crust-making toys. For the cranberry flip pie, we’ll need some walnuts. Out comes a hand-held nut grinder, and we emit somewhat girlish noises of delight as we get in touch with our inner bakers. When I get to play with an old eggbeater and a whisk that spins remarkably quickly with a pump of the handle, I’m smitten.
Barbara Swell is to baking what the late Bob Ross was to painting, at least in the sense that everything seems so effortless for her and comes together in an instant. (I almost expect to hear her talk about “happy little pies,” a la Ross.) After about 15 minutes of tossing ingredients around (including the time we spent oohing and aahing over obscure old kitchen doodads), Barbara announces with twinkling eyes and a swing of her nearly waist-length braids, “OK! Now we’re going to stick this in the oven.” Suddenly, a fully formed pie is happily baking away; and yet, there’s nearly no sign at Barbara’s spic-and-span workspace that anything has happened. We are in awe.
Next, it’s our turn to get to work. We learn to use an old-timey machine that cores, peels and slices apples just by impaling the fruit on a spit and turning the crank. One woman calls the device “liberating,” but I’m nervous about trying it out because I’ve just mixed the innards of a sour-cherry/amaretto pie without measuring the ingredients. (Concerned that someone will choke on filling made too gelatinous by what must surely have been too much corn starch, I pray that someone knows the Heimlich maneuver.)
I try out the machine and promptly maul the apple. If there were any doubts about my baking ineptitude, they’ve surely been quashed by now.
The cored apples go whole into a pan and are stuffed with sugar, spices, butter, nuts and raisins. Then, they each get a nip of rum (as does one of my classmates, who accepts a bit in her tea – now this is my kind of class!). Barbara tucks the apples, “one for each person,” she reminds us, under a blanket of buttery pie dough, and into the oven they go.
Next, we practice rolling out a crust, then learn how to make a lattice top for the sour-cherry pie. While the other students take turns pinching the edges of the crust and weaving the dough together, I content myself with the oldest, tiniest record player I’ve ever seen. I throw on an old Van Morrison record, and then we get to the business of making our own crust from scratch. (Turns out “Moondance” is excellent crust-making music.)
Since I’ve bumbled through every exercise so far, I concentrate especially hard on this one. As I start to scoop flour out with the measuring cup, I remember Barbara’s advice to pour the flour from the bag instead, so that it doesn’t get compacted and prevent an accurate measurement. I study the recipe for “Barb’s Butter Crust” carefully, working some of the butter in with my fingers to make a mixture that looks like coarse crumbs (for tenderness, says the recipe), then use the pastry cutter for the rest (for flakiness, I’m told). I flick in just the right amount of water and stir with the fork.
When I press it all into a ball, I can tell immediately that my project is successful, and Barbara’s beaming face confirms it.
Feeding the senses
It isn’t simply her students’ epiphanies that make Barbara, who has authored several cookbooks, want to give these classes in this old log cabin – though that certainly must be one of the motivating factors. When I asked her why she did it, at first she made a little joke about just needing to get out of the house (she lives in a house that’s on the same property as the cabin). Later, she elaborated for me.
“The setting for the log cabin cooking classes reflects a time when the pace of life was slower, and ‘quick food’ meant you bought the chicken already cleaned and plucked,” she said. “My hope is that cooking-class participants will leave reminded that food is not just about eating, it’s about nourishing the body and relationships, and taking the time to feed the senses and enjoy the process of cooking as well as sharing meals with those you care for.”
Log Cabin Cooking
Barbara Swell holds her Cabin Cooking Classes, which feature heirloom recipes made using retro kitchen gear, year-round. The costs of the classes range from $25 to $35, which includes a materials fee. Class sizes are limited to eight; register by calling 298-2270, or visit www.nativegroundmusic.com for more information. Upcoming classes include:
Jan. 21 – Blackout!: Cooking on the hearth when the power goes out
Jan. 26 – Home Comfort: A wood cookstove comfort-food feast
Feb. 4 – Pot Pies: The ultimate winter warming food
Feb. 9 – Granny’s Biscuits: Plus scones, rolled crescents and other bakeables