You never know what to expect when you sign up for a cooking class. How much cooking will you do? Who will attend and what will they want from the class? How will the personality of the chef influence the experience? What if you could cut down on all those variables by gathering a group of friends with common food interests and visiting the home of a chef whose only motive is to ensure you have a good time and eat well? It would be a fabulous experience – wouldn’t it?
Recently, eight CTBites contributors had just such a fabulous culinary experience with chef, teacher and cookbook author Leticia Moreinos Schwartz at one of her in-home Brazilian cooking classes. From the moment we arrived, Leticia’s warm, effervescent greeting and genuine smile set a relaxed, but enthusiastic tone. Her excitement to share her native Brazilian cuisine was infectious and quickly put to rest any questions we might have had about what was in store.
Our evening began with Ciapirinha, a Brazilian cocktail made with alcohol from distilled sugar cane and served over limes muddled with sugar. Leticia was not only gracious enough to accommodate our last minute request for Ciapirinhas, but accompanied our cocktail course with Pao de Queijo, warm golf-ball sized spheres of bread with a delicious creamy cheese center. As she was explaining that Pao de Queijo is one of Brazil’s favorite savory snacks, it was apparent that her welcome couldn’t have been more complete. We were all in: hearts, minds and stomachs.
Our menu was a collaborative effort with Leticia sending initial menu options, and after receiving our feedback, designing the final selections: Meat Croquette with Red Pepper Pesto, Shrimp and Yucca Stew and Coffee Souffle with Dulce de Leche Sauce. She designed our class as a cooking demonstration, but will structure an evening to include as much or as little hands-on cooking you’d like. Leticia was very comfortable with our participation and welcomed us to jump in – which we did - whenever the spirit moved us.
Leticia prepared ingredients beforehand and organized them on trays, by dish, ready to be used as needed. The timing and order of what she prepared in front of us was planned thoughtfully so she could converse, instruct, cook and enjoy the evening. She began by making the Dulce de Leche and pastry cream for the soufflés, so they would be ready in time for the dessert course. As she scooped individual egg yolks from a bowl with a cupped hand and tossed each gently between her fingers to separate the yellow globes from their clingy white companions, Leticia imparted cooking tips: “eggs separate better when they are cold, but whisk better at room temperature; sugar will burn egg yolks, so whisk them as soon as they’re combined.”
When a few of us helped to stir the veal stock and flour roux and sauté the ground beef for the Croquette de Carne com Pesto Vermelho (Meat Croquette with Red Pepper Pesto), Leticia talked about her native Brazil and the three cultural influences on its cuisine: Portuguese, Amazonian Indian and African. Her recipes draw on these influences and when it makes sense, she injects French techniques she learned while training at The French Culinary Institute and working in New York at Le Cirque 2000, La Grenouille, La Caravelle and Payard Patisserie and Bistro. We saw examples of these influences and Leticia’s special alchemy in the Red Pepper and Brazil Nut Pesto that accompanied the Croquettes. The pesto was inspired by Piri Piri, a fiery sauce common in Portugal and a staple condiment in many East African stews (the Portuguese colonized Mozambique as well as Brazil), but adapted using Brazil Nuts and reducing the heat of the chili peppers.
The croquettes were deliciously crisp on the outside and wonderfully creamy inside. I’m not a huge fan of fried food and marveled at the absence of grease on my fingers after finishing my croquettes. Leticia revealed her secrets: don’t skimp on the flour dredging, the egg dipping or the bread crumb coating; be sure the oil is new and at the right temperature and do not crowd the pan.
Our next dish introduced Palm Oil and Yucca to the group; both ingredients were the basis for an amazing Bobo de Camarao (Shrimp Stew in Yucca and Coconut Sauce). The sauce was flavorful and beautifully balanced with a bright top-note of nutmeg. Yucca, an uber-starchy root vegetable, was mashed and along with the coconut milk created a luxuriously creamy sauce.
We were all beyond food-happy by this point, when Leticia brandished a kitchen-torch and scorched the sugar topping on mini Avocado Crème Brulees, another menu surprise. Avocados, she explained, are used almost exclusively for desserts in Brazil. The crème brulee was made simply from condensed milk, avocados and lemon juice, and it silenced the crowd upon the first bite (except for some food-related expletives). We could have ended the night right there, until Leticia pulled from the oven 10 beautiful caramel colored puffs of Coffee Soufflé, drawing more oohs and ahhs from the crowd. She sliced into their centers, which seemed a shame, but then bathed each gash with the Dulce de Leche. The sauce flowed through the delicate and airy soufflé and the combination was heavenly. The next sound I was aware of was the tinkling of spoons against the bottoms of nine empty ramekins.
A cooking class with Leticia is so much more than your average culinary experience. We had stove-side seats to a classically trained, experienced chef, who couldn’t have been more charming or unassuming. Leticia’s kitchen was built with the intention of sharing her native cuisine and her culinary talents and she moves through it with the comfort and finesse of someone who knows and loves what she is doing. The center of the long room is dominated by an island that easily accommodated all eight of us along one side and the two ends and allowed for steady conversation. Slightly off-center is a single burner where Leticia whisked, sautéed and boiled the dishes we enjoyed, enabling her to put the focus on the food, the cooking, and what we wanted from both. Leticia brings all her knowledge and passion to the table and creates a seamless experience, all of which she manages with aplomb.
Surprisingly, Leticia’s first career was in private banking. Thankfully, she left banking to pursue her passion and moved to New York in 1997 to study at the French Culinary Institute. Although doing what she loved in renowned NYC restaurants, Leticia told us she felt “lost in the world of cooking” and yearned to go back to her Brazilian roots. We are fortunate that her decisions led her to teaching - in her home as well as at The French Culinary Institute and The Institute of Culinary Education in New York – and that when Leticia found her niche, it happened to be right here in our backyard.
Leticia’s first cookbook, The Brazilian Kitchen: 100 Classic and Contemporary Recipes for the Home Cook was published in February and her work has been featured in local and national media outlets, including Fine Cooking Magazine and NBC's LX TV. You can learn more about Leticia and her cooking classes at her website: www.chefleticia.com
Chef Leticia, 11 Tannery Lane South, Weston, CT, 203.847.4244