Noe Valley Voice November 2003

Family Adventures Close to Home:
A Chef Is Born

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

"Who knows what a calzone is?" Roberta DesBoullions asks the trio of sleepy boys assembled for an Apron Strings cooking class on a sunny Saturday morning.

Dahren, 10, shyly raises his hand. "A stuffed pizza?"

Pierce, 11, points to a painting of cocoon-shaped figures that hangs in the cozy Noe Valley kitchen. "They look like that."

"Great," DesBouillons says. "So we know what we're making today. We're also making pizza from scratch."

DesBouillons leads the boys through the steps of preparing a workspace, reviewing the recipes, and gathering the ingredients to make the dough. She shows them how to create a spout in the flour bag and how to coax yeast to "life" with warm water.

The boys measure and pour with a cautiousness that would be more appropriate in a glass factory than a kitchen.

"Listen for a pop," DesBouillons says, showing the boys how to increase the mixer's speed as it kneads the dough. "That's how you know it's ready."

"Are you sure we'll hear it?" Dahren asks.

"You'll hear it," DesBouillons says. "Believe me."

On cue, the dough makes a satisfying pop and the startled boys jump away from the counter.

"Now that was a pop!" Alex laughs.

"Here's how you can tell that the dough is ready," DesBouillons says, pinching the skin on her upper arm and then comparing it to the dough. "They should feel about the same."

Alex sneaks a squeeze of Pierce's arm and then pokes the dough. "Yup," he says, swatting Pierce's fingers away from his own arm. "It's the same."

DesBouillons warms a bowl in the oven. "We'll give the dough a nice, warm place to rise up before we punch it down."

"Punch?" the chorus of boys asks. The prospect of punching completely erases their earlier tentativeness.

"But first, you need to make a second batch of dough, with no help from me."

The boys coach each other as their batch takes shape.

"Use the dry measuring cup for the flour," Alex says.

"Warm water for the yeast," Pierce remembers.

"Wait for the pop!" Dahren says.

"So what's next?" DesBouillons asks, as her charges review the day's recipe sheets.

"Presto!" shouts Dahren. He looks more closely at the sheet. "Oh, it's pesto."

The boys talk about their favorite cooking shows as they pluck the leaves from huge bunches of fresh basil.

"Emeril," Dahren declares.

"The Iron Chef," says Pierce.

"The Naked Chef!" says Alex, and the boys dissolve into giggles.

They taste the pine nuts before adding them to the food processor.

"They're exactly like peanuts," Pierce says.

Behind him, Alex is gulping water and trying to hide his grimace from DesBouillons. "I don't think so," he mutters.

DesBouillons whips the towel off the ball of dough like a magician revealing a great trick. The boys' eyes go wide as she reveals that the dough has doubled in size.

"Do we punch it now?" Pierce asks.

"You don't beat it up," DesBouillons laughs. She shows Pierce how to push his fist slowly into the dough to release the gas that builds up as the yeast ferments. The dough releases its gas with a sound that's familiar to any boy who has ever performed the armpit symphony.

"That wasn't me," Alex says, as everyone in the kitchen cracks up.

Next, DesBouillons demonstrates the correct way to handle a knife. "Choke up on it like you would a baseball bat," she says. "And curl your fingers back."

The boys share gory tales of cut fingers until DesBouillons directs them to the stovetop for a tutorial in roasting a pepper. Dahren worries as the pepper turns black in the flame.

"Are you sure this is right?" he asks, carefully turning the pepper with a pair of tongs. "Are we really going to eat this?"

DesBouillons assures him that everything will be fine, but he looks suspicious until she rubs away the black to reveal the bright red of a perfectly roasted pepper.

The ingredients prepared, DesBouillons takes the dough from the bowl and invites Dahren to punch it down this time.

"Will it make the noise again?" he asks.

"You bet," DesBouillons assures him.

For the young chefs, the sound is just as funny the second time around.

The boys stretch the dough into shape and arrange the pesto, peppers, sausages, and freshly grated mozzarella into smiley-faced pizzas and pregnant calzones. One perfectly spherical creation finds its way to the baking sheet.

"A baseball calzone!" Alex says.

As their food bakes, the boys scurry to set a proper table, complete with neatly folded napkins, filled water glasses, and DesBouillons' "best china"--a stack of paper plates. "We always eat what we make," she explains. "It's part of helping kids appreciate where food really comes from."

The chefs' families wander into the kitchen as lunch emerges from the oven.

"It's from scratch," Pierce points out as he passes his dad a second calzone. "All fresh stuff."

Alex beams as his father proclaims the dough "the best I've ever had outside of New York City."

"What's the best part of cooking?" DesBouillons asks the boys.

"Eating!" they call out.

"With people you love," DesBouillons smiles.

Stomachs full, the newly minted chefs, recipes in hand, hug DesBouillons, promising to return soon for more lessons.


Pizza Crust

1 teaspoon instant yeast

Pinch sugar

1-1/3 cups warm water

1/4 cup olive oil

3-3/4 cups flour

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

Mix dry ingredients into mixing bowl with paddle. On low speed, slowly add warm water and olive oil. Change to dough hook and mix on medium speed for approximately 3 minutes--until you hear the "pop." Place dough in oiled bowl and wrap; let rise in warm place for approximately 45 minutes or until almost doubled in size.

Punch dough down and shape into desired size. Cover with towel and let rise 30 minutes in warm location. Top with desired ingredients and bake in 450-degree oven until crust is golden brown (8 to 10 minutes).

Recipe makes four individual pizzas or two 10-inch pizzas.


2 cups fresh basil leaves

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup freshly grated parmesan or
romano cheese

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

Process in food processor or blender until smooth.


Apron Strings is a cooking school for children founded almost three years ago by Noe Valley resident Roberta DesBouillons. DesBouillons is a trained chef who after a long career in the food industry decided she wanted to "teach kids the magic one feels when you create a fresh meal." Her school offers a variety of after-school classes and Saturday workshops for boys and girls ages 10 and up. Some are held in Noe Valley and others at the First Unitarian Church on Franklin Street. Workshops start at $65. Private lessons and birthday party services can be arranged for any ages. For a complete calendar, check out the web site or call DesBouillons at 415-550-7976.

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