This must be a frequent query, because she hands me a list of upcoming cooking workshops, and I join innkeeper Sherry McKenney’s next class, “Soups & Breads.”
Six of us make up this intimate class, which starts with wine and appetizers the evening of our arrival. Sherry provides an introduction, a Murphin Ridge apron and a folder of recipes. We linger over dinner by the fire before retreating to our overnight lodging — a choice of rooms in the guesthouse or one of eight woodland cabins at this secluded West Union, Ohio, retreat in the Appalachian foothills.
The next morning, we gather in Sherry’s Cooking School Kitchen built specifically for her classes. Soon, we are slicing and dicing vegetables for soups and measuring flour for breads. Sherry guides us through a morning of preparing and cooking.
I pick up technical skills: the essentials of making stock, how to roll and tuck the ends of the faux French bread and the proper rocking motion for cutting veggies.
But I also enjoy Sherry’s philosophy lesson: “Cooking is more arts than sciences,” she says, leaving room for some creativity.
We make pistou, a mix of garlic, basil, Parmesan and Asiago cheeses, olive oil and parsley to top our minestrone soup. Tantalizing aromas fill the kitchen.
At noon, we sit down to a lunch of our own creation, three soups and two warm breads — a perfect meal for a wintry day. Although the onion bisque, named “Best of the City” byCincinnatimagazine, piqued my interest in the class, I decide the parsnip and fennel is my favorite. It’s an elegant soup with the fresh taste of lemon, served with chunks of crusty Cuban bread.
The cookie baking class, a 16-year tradition at the inn, draws a multigenerational group eager to bake holiday cookies. “We’ll make ’em, bake ’em and eat ’em,” says Joan Heitman, known as the inn’s cookie queen. Lunch (with cookies for dessert) follows the three-hour baking session, and you end up with a box of to-die-for goodies to take home.
But instead of heading out the door, I pick another seasonal cooking class, offered by Anthony Schulz, chef at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls.
Our group gathers on Friday evening for a glass of wine, dessert and a look at what we will be preparing the next day. We plan to meet in the restored 1840s buildings that house the inn’s kitchen and dining room. At this inn, we’ll be cooking for a crowd — we’re preparing the Saturday evening dinner for the inn’s other guests. We start the prep work at 2 p.m. and finish around 5 p.m.
Amid chatter and laughter, we get down to the serious business of preparing a four-course meal. Chef Anthony’s teaching style allows us to make mistakes so he can help us fix problems on the spot. As I try to pick up the finer points of making sauces from this graduate of the French Culinary Institute, I find I’ve added too much stock to my sauce. He suggests adding more of the other ingredients and reducing it until it’s the right consistency.
Finally, our crew sits down to the meal we helped prepare: butternut squash and apple soup, mixed greens with orange-cranberry vinaigrette, roasted squab with roasted root vegetables and caramelized apple Galette with vanilla bean ice cream. Chef Anthony returns for a wrap-up to discuss any questions or comments.
After yesterday’s workout in the kitchen, an appointment at the inn’s spa is in order. This spa, nestled in the pine trees in an 1840s-era log cabin, is dedicated to wellness. I opt for the Achy Joint Special combined with a reflexology treatment — nothing like getting your back massaged while dipping your hands and feet in hot paraffin.
Innkeeper Yvonne Martin has a relaxed take on her classes. There are no pre-scheduled courses; just call and make a reservation, and this experienced chef will customize the class for groups as small as four.
Classes run three to four hours, Sunday through Thursday with themed menus of Italian, Greek or German cuisine; appetizers and soups; traditional tea parties; cakes and desserts or cooking light and brunches.
For the popular Italian dinner class, students make two kinds of pasta, two sauces, salad and dessert. Participants learn new techniques in the kitchen, but also experience a little team and family bonding.
I take home from the culinary class experience a new appreciation for the preparation and organization that goes into every meal served at these country inns. As I pack, I tuck in recipes, an apron and memories of the fun of learning basic cooking techniques in the kitchens of these country inns.
Murphin Ridge Inn, 750 Murphin Ridge Road, West Union, Ohio; 877-687-7446, (937) 544-2263; murphinridgeinn.com
•Upcoming classes: Sweet Holiday Sweets, Dec. 10, 2008; Stew for Two, Jan. 27, 2009; Toast to the Roast, Feb. 24, 2009; Prelude to Spring Brunch, March 17, 2009.
•Upcoming classes: Holiday Cookie Baking Classes, Dec. 9 & 11; Cooking classes: Jan. 23 & 24, 2009; March 27 & 28, 2009; July 22, Sept. 11 & 12, 2009. Menus for the 2009 classes are seasonal. Call for details.
•When making reservations, request a class for Sun-Thu.White Oak Inn’s