Last weekend Mr Cake and I had the pleasure of heading up the Kapiti Coast to spend the day learning Ruth Pretty's best casual entertaining recipes and tips. The first obstacle was getting there - you may know that Mr Cake and I don't have a car, being the city rats we are, and so if we need to get out of town we hire one for the day. Normally this is all well and good, but, as it happens, it doesn't work out so well when you book to collect your car from the Auckland Airport branch of the rental car company, if, say, you happen to be located in Wellington City. And then you waltz up to the counter and ask for your keys, and they tell you they don't have your booking, you discover what's happened, and ask if they have any cars free and they don't. Uh-oh...
Fortunately, after a taxi drive to the airport (15 minutes in the wrong direction) we did manage to get a car and were merrily on our way. Thank goodness for that! We arrived in the nick of time, and in fact with just enough time to spare that we were able to have a coffee and some of Ruth's lovely fruit salad before the class commenced.
There were about 30 in the class, and it was a reasonably diverse group - we were among the youngest but there were a range of ages, and there were plenty of men, which impressed me as these things are often overrun by womenfolk and I hate to think we're scaring them out of the kitchen!
Ruth is very friendly and welcomed us all with a story about the now world famous Peka Peka penguin - Peka Peka Beach is just down the road from Ruth's place at Springfield, so it was apparently the buzz of the community. She also told us that the class was conjured with the Rugby World Cup in mind - the food is of the variety that tastes great but is perfect for more casual gatherings, where everyone has their eyes glued to the telly and doesn't want to go near the dinner table.
I was thrilled to learn that among the array of dishes we'd be shown (full folder of recipes provided) was snapper pie with parmesan crumble topping - a canape version of this was enough for me to rave about with fellow bloggers Delaney, Jo and Laura at the Wellington on a Plate media launch, so having the power to replicate it at home is rather intoxicating.
At one point Ruth brought up the KFC Double Down - I can't recall why - and I had the dubious honour of being the only person in the class to have had one (or perhaps the only one brave enough to admit it!) - this photo depicts, I think, her despair at my uncouthness. ;-) (I don't regret it at all, by the way! And Ruth's assistant had tried it too and didn't seem too scarred by the experience)
As well as the snapper pie we were also shown lamb shank, kumara and coriander vol au vents, and Ruth explained that the recipe had to use exactly three lamb shanks as she has three pugs and it just wouldn't be fair otherwise!
Though the dishes were complex in flavour Ruth's explanations made everything seem perfectly sensible, and the recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. She also gave myriad useful tips throughout the day - the expertise of many years in the catering business has made her a fount of wisdom - and I learnt plenty. As an example, I hadn't previously known to cook roux sauce until it smelt nutty - or that browning tomato paste before adding other ingredients would take the acidic edge off it. I find useful little tidbits like this that can be used in everyday cooking one of the most valuable parts of this kind of class.
Even though we'd already been spoiled with a pre-class morning tea the table in the garden room was replenished (cranberry baklava, yum!) for a break mid-way through. This also gave us an opportunity to browse the treasures packed into the shop - you don't even have to go to Springfield to do that, but there is a delight in discovering gadgets tucked away in corners (and the shop very much has that treasure trove feel) that can't quite be replicated with online shopping.
When we returned to the kitchen it was on with the show - still lots to get through! There were eleven dishes on our lunch menu, most with multiple components, and though a couple weren't demonstrated Ruth talked us through them when they were served and I definitely felt like I'd be able to make all of them myself at home.
About half an hour before the class part of the day ended we got our first taste of the demo food. The first item on the menu was an astonishingly good piece of kiwifruit, served with olive oil, szechwan pepper and salt. The description I'm about to give makes no sense to me, but it tasted buttery - the flavour was smooth and completely belied the simplicity of the ingredients list.
Meanwhile Ruth whipped up her green goddess dressing and some meatballs with a citrus glaze. I have to confess it became much harder to concentrate once the food started circulating. ;-)
These lovely wee plates of orzo salad with smoked salmon hosted the green goddess dressing. The salmon was beautiful and the orzo lovely with it but the star here is definitely the dressing, by a long shot. The main ingredient (in case you can't tell!) is avocado, and it's beautifully creamy and only gently avocado-y - I thought the combination was great, but Mr Cake isn't a big salmon fan and it's easy to see that you could switch the salmon out for something else without losing the character of the dish. Though we had appetiser-sized portions this would be a great lunch... But we have other things on our lunch menu!
The meatballs, which were venison, were good - very moist and quite soft, which is often not the way of the meatball. The citrus glaze was a great addition but I'm afraid these paled next to some of the other offerings of the day.
Once we'd eaten our little nibbles we were sent back to the shop/garden room so the kitchen could be set up for lunch, and when we returned...
Each place setting hosted a different plate, napkin and napkin ring, which created a delightfully homely effect, despite being in the middle of a commercial kitchen - it really felt like a big festive family dinner.
The first item passed around were these candied sesame walnuts - very scrummy, fantastic party food. We had a couple of other wee nibbles and then - the moment I'd been waiting for - the snapper pie!
Mr Cake got to be mother for the table for the snapper pie - somewhat amusingly, as one of the minority gender. I must confess that my eyes were bigger than my stomach and I really ate more of this that I ought to have - not a good start when there are still four courses to come. ;-) It was incredible, though, overloaded with fish, with a creamy, slightly lemony sauce and that beautiful parmesan crumble on top.
The vol au vents were also scrummy, though the snapper was a hard act to follow - and I never would have guessed mushy peas could be delicious, but they were - fresh and an excellent accompaniment for the rich lamb and pastry.
I loved being able to see the tilted mirror above the counter as we ate lunch - it gave a birds' eye view of the preparations and allowed me to watch the smoothly oiled catering machine at work. These grilled cheese, red onion pickle and pulled short rib sandwiches would make a perfect late night snack - in fact, this is what the recipe was written for.
By this point we were all beginning to struggle with belly space, and I knew the dessert would be worth holding out for, so I only ate half of my sandwich (it was delicious, but what can I say? Sometimes something's gotta give!), and I was quite pleased at that choice. This is why:
The tiramisu was absolutely stunning - rich and creamy and fruity - and I would happily have gone back for seconds (if I hadn't just tried about 8 other dishes I reckon thirds wouldn't have been out of the question!).
However, the overall star of the day for me remained the snapper pie. You know that's a pretty big call for me, knowing how much I love my dessert, and the tiramisu is firmly on my to-make list too, but the snapper pie was just unbeatable. Have you ever had to shuffle your stomach priorities for an unexpectedly good dish? And have you ever done something silly like booking a rental car from the wrong city?
The Ruth Pretty Cooking School is located at 41 School Road, Springfield, Te Horo, and classes run most weekends from February to December. See www.ruthpretty.co.nz for details of current classes and availability. Mr and Mrs Cake attended the Cooking School as guests of Ruth Pretty.