Forget visions of sugar plums — pistachio-cranberry icebox cookies are the new stuff of holiday dreams.
At the restaurant Chow on Tuesday evening, three dozen local residents gathered for a Christmas-themed installment of restaurant owner and head chef Denise Appel’s monthly Chef’s Table series, where she demonstrates cooking techniques over a light dinner. Normally a trendy Asian bistro, the Chapel Street restaurant conjured a more down-home holiday spirit, replacing sake-tinis with warm apple cider, and dim sum with freshly baked gourmet cookies, assorted cheeses and wine. As the attendees hungrily waited for cookies to emerge from the oven, several guests agreed the downturning economy could not spoil the festive mood.
Though Appel usually cooks at the Chef’s Tables, this month’s event featured the assistant pastry chef Mike Hafford. For $33 each, guests sampled five different types of Hafford’s cookies — including raspberry linzer cookies, white chocolate thin mints and espresso biscotti — while the chef demonstrated the recipes and shared baking tips. As he rolled dough in front of an audience of couples and groups of friends, Hafford offered tips — “big mixers present problems for little recipes” — and discussed his inspirations, which included Martha Stewart and Gourmet magazine.
Jill Pepe and Sharon Stockel, both teachers at Platt Technical High School in Milford, attended the Chef’s Table with friends. Pepe said if she could repeat her life, she would go to culinary school; now, she said, she spends her free time attending intimate cooking sessions such as Tuesday’s event.
“See, we come here and critique the food,” Pepe said laughingly of her and her friend’s night out. “Then we go home and try to cook them ourselves.”
Pepe and her friends sat at one of the tables surrounding the bar where Hafford mixed ingredients. A variety of cheeses, hummus and wine were laid out for guests to snack on before the cookie-baking began.
A video camera perched on a tripod relayed Hafford’s motions to a screen over his head, an intentional parallel to popular television food shows, according to Elizabeth Ciarlelli, the events manager at Chow.
“I think Food Network has a lot to do with people liking to see other people cook,” Ciarlelli said. “They want to capitalize on the fact that people are intrigued by how things are done. … It’s not just a wine tasting. You’re able to smell and taste all the food, and there is a dialogue.”
Appel, who also owns the upscale eatery Zinc next door, said she started Chef’s Table a year ago this month to maintain the link with the New Haven community she fostered through helping found the seasonal market CitySeed. After the market closed for the season in November, Appel said she wanted something to keep people coming back to the restaurant.
Ciarlelli said she is relatively unworried about the effects of the current recession on business because of the number of regular patrons of the restaurant.
“It remains to be seen,” Ciarlelli said of the restaurant’s future. “But people are always going to be coming out to dinner, unless they lose their jobs.”
Pepe and her friends are not letting economic problems prevent their social gatherings, they said. When asked how the recession will affect their attendance at events like Tuesday’s — the next of which will be held in January — they were adamant in their combined response: “We will still be here!”