This article features in the December/January issue of Cara Magazine, check it out online or on any Aer Lingus plane
I’m just minutes off the train from Dublin, but I already have a glass of wine in my hand and I feel like I’ve known my host, Sarah Baker, owner of Cloughjordan House and Cookery School, for years.
It turns out we went to the same school, so we’re reminiscing and trading stories about an influential Home Economics teacher we both had. Some tales from those school kitchens are legendary: Sarah’s heard the one about the student who threw an entire pan of spaghetti at the wall too (to test whether it was done, of course), and I’m happy to report that it wasn’t me.
It’s an interesting starting point for a trip that is to be all about food: eating food, discussing food and learning about food. It’s also a good introduction to the easygoing and good-humoured approach here at Cloughjordan House, where proprietors Sarah and Peter Baker and their teenage children provide a warm and very distinctively Irish form of good old-fashioned hospitality – think roaring peat fires; quirky wrought iron bathtub seating on the lawn for weddings; a well-stocked ‘honesty bar’ in the guests’ living room and vases of pretty wild flowers in the beautiful period bedrooms.
After a good night’s sleep, all of the cookery class students head down to the dining room for breakfast. We ready ourselves for the morning’s action – and size the other students up – over homemade bircher muesli; eggs from the farm, and fresh bread from Riot Rye artisan bakery, which is located in the adjacent EcoVillage.
After a quick walk around the farm, where we see the Baker’s herd of rare-breed Zwartbles sheep, a cowshed full of onions being carefully stored for the long winter months and a clutch of hens, we follow Peter over to the cookery school, a wheelbarrow of fresh produce from the allotments in front of him; the family’s dogs behind us.
The Cookery School is in the residence’s bright and breezily restored coach house, and while the dozen or so students get to know one another a little better over filter coffee and homemade lemon drizzle cake, Sarah and her assistant hand out aprons and recipe booklets for the morning ahead.
I notice the word ‘caramel’ in a recipe for Apple Upside-Down Cake, and begin to feel the fear. It’s the one thing I haven’t managed to make since my Home Ec days: every attempt since has ended up in the bin in a black, sticky, molten mess, alongside yet another “dodgy” sugar thermometer.
I suddenly don’t feel all that confident, and, in a desperate bid to stop my caramel burning to a tar in front of everyone, including my boyfriend, who I’ve been boasting to all morning about my cooking skills, I brazenly add several tablespoons more water to the sugar than Sarah’s recipe suggests. It doesn’t burn, but it begins to crystallize rapidly instead, which is almost as bad a fate for a caramel – and a would-be foodie’s pride – as burning.
Sarah senses something’s up and is immediately at my side, helping me to swirl the sugar into a caramel consistency rather than stirring it, tilting the pan from left to right, away from the heat. It works a treat – the caramel is suddenly, magically, golden brown, evenly coloured and smells rich and festive alongside the apples – which are from the Baker’s garden, of course.
After our morning of cooking, all of the students sit down together to enjoy the three-course meal that we’ve prepared. We’re all abuzz with the tips we’ve picked up, and, although my caramel was definitely the best, I notice I’m not the only student beaming with pride when the cakes are cut.
Sarah will be running a special Christmas cookery class on December 13 – see the Cloughjordan House website for details. Course and B&B: €165
SARAH’S CARAMEL UPSIDE-DOWN APPLE CAKE
200g caster sugar
3 large cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced
Zest of one orange
225g butter, softened
225g caster sugar
1 heaped tsp baking powder
Start with the caramel: place a 23cm round oven-proof pan over a high heat. Add the sugar and three tablespoons of water and cook without stirring until the sugar melts and turns a light golden brown. Lay the apple slices in a circular pattern on the caramel to cover the base of the pan and sprinkle it with a third of the orange zest.
For the cake, beat the butter, the remaining orange zest and the sugar until pale and fluffy. Sift together the flour and baking powder and gradually add a little flour with each egg until they’re completely incorporated. Spread the cake mixture over the apples and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly. Place a flat cake plate over the pan and wearing oven gloves, up-turn the cake onto the plate and remove the pan. At this point you should have a ‘lovely caramel apple topping’ according to Sarah, and, if you’ve followed her instructions, you will. Serve with whipped cream.
Recipe from Sarah Baker, Cloughjordan House