Tomorrow’s chefs learn the art of slicing and dicing

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Marge Schinnerer, owner of Just Cakes in Bethesda, shows Callie Cohen, center, 7, how to grate a lemon into lemon zest, as Callie's sister Emily, left, 9, and Ariana Savramis, 8, look on during a summer cooking class for children at Just Cakes in Bethesda.

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Jim Champagne, 9, watches an egg being broken into the batter for a batch of blueberry almond cookies during a summer cooking class for children at Just Cakes in Bethesda.

‘‘We’re making dough without a bowl,” announces chef Stephen Scholz, as each of nine youngsters plunges a fork into a beaten egg surrounded by a circle of white flour spread on a stainless steel worktable at Just Cakes in Bethesda.

Making pasta the old-fashioned way, many of the already flour-covered young chefs are quick learners, creating smooth elastic balls. Others can’t resist mashing and mangling the sticky stuff between their fingers and on their white aprons.

And when Scholz explains that ‘‘the dough should look like a baby’s bottom,” the kids can’t help reacting with rounds of ‘‘yuck,” ‘‘gross” and ‘‘Don’t say that!”

This bakery may specialize in ‘‘celebration cakes,” but throughout the summer, the shop adds weekly cooking classes for wannabe chefs, ages 7 to 16. They can sign up for Just Desserts or All About Asia. This week, Scholz and Just Cakes owner Marge Schinnerer are offering an Italian cooking lesson.

As the two chefs help the four boys and five girls resolve their culinary concerns, a couple of boys start throwing pasta baseballs into the air.

‘‘They learned to make pizza yesterday,” Scholz explains.

To prove their expertise, these professional pitchers quickly flatten their dough and begin showing off their pie-throwing techniques. When a pie lands on the concrete floor, the group members quickly learn that the five-second rule doesn’t apply in this kitchen. Into the trash it goes. Washing hands and cleaning counters also are part of the curriculum.

As the kids continue to knead, slice, pound and mix, the chefs offer other culinary tidbits.

‘‘Flour and water make gluten, the sticky stuff you want for pizza dough and pasta, but not what you want for cakes,” Scholz explains to the chatty boys and subdued girls.

Pounding a chicken breast, Schinnerer jokingly suggests, ‘‘Pretend you’re hitting your sister or brother.” As for breading the bird, ‘‘Always use one hand for the dry ingredients, and the other for the wet ingredients,” Scholz adds. Probably the most useful advice they learn today involves the fine art of cracking an egg with one hand.

‘‘First, you make a firm crack, then pinch the egg, then make a peace sign and spread your fingers apart and the egg should come out,” Scholz explains, as the students line up for a turn. And OK, maybe a few stray shells do end up in the bowl, but Scholz quickly fishes them out without a word.

While Pillsbury still may be the bakery ingredient of choice for many of the young chefs, clearly Ben Magliato is the group’s expert.

‘‘My dad and grandpa cook every night,” he says. ‘‘My parents grow zucchini, not for the vegetable, but for the flower. They dip it in batter, and then cook it.”

Ben and a few others may border on being pint-sized gourmets, but Schinnerer is careful to keep it simple, taking many dishes from the recipe books of the Food Network’s Rachel Ray. And while some of the kids are familiar with this cute cook, they all know and love Chef Emeril and his trademark ‘‘bam.”

By noon, the bam-loving class will sit down in the bakery’s dining room for a luncheon of chicken parmesan with a marinara sauce that the young chefs made yesterday, fresh pasta, fried zucchini brought in fresh this morning from a camper’s vegetable garden, and almond and blueberry cookies.

Schinnerer is a self-taught baker who started off making five versions of pound cake. Leaving her Darnestown home just before dawn, she baked her goodies at a professional kitchen in Silver Spring. Word spread quickly, and soon she was shipping orders throughout the country. When her home started overflowing with shipping supplies, Schinnerer’s husband suggested she open a bakery.

Almost three years ago, Just Cakes was christened on a side street between Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. Just as Schinnerer was preparing to open the shop, she became reacquainted with Scholz, who attended Sidwell Friends with her daughter. He had just completed studies at the New England Culinary School, where he learned the savory side of cooking along with the baking arts. Hankering to become a wedding cake designer, Scholz came on board. Now the crew consists of bakery chefs and one decorator. While Schinnerer wants these confections to be beautiful, she insists they taste as good as they look.

From the beginning, Schinnerer offered adult cake decorating parties, but with four children of her own, she wanted to teach the younger generation to love cooking, too. And if patience is what you need when teaching youngsters, these chefs have this quality squared. Scholz brings out a chef’s knife and helps the students cut pasta. He holds the knife as the child depresses the handle to make the cuts.

As the students start preparing the cookie batter with KitchenAid mixers, Scholz proudly points out the bakery’s Hobart, ‘‘the Ferrari of mixers,” then walks over to the oven, a Vulcon, which, he says, retails for about $10,000.

Duly impressed by these numbers, a few kids take a moment to slide through a bit of the flour that has fallen to the floor to check out the machines.

As Schinnerer starts dumping the handmade pasta into the boiling water, she implores the students to remember that the ‘‘water should taste like the sea [Mediterranean], so don’t forget to salt it.”

But not like yesterday, she continues, when, while cooking the carrots, it seems too many people threw in the salt and said veggies ‘‘tasted like the Dead Sea.”

Even chefs make mistakes.

For information about classes or cake orders, call 301-718-5111, e-mail or visit