nancys-photos-020Last night I had the pleasure of attending a class at the renowned Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health in NYC ( one of the only health supportive professional cooking schools that I know of.  Last Christmas my brother and sister in law were kind enough to give me a generous gift certificate to this school.  One of the classes that I signed up for took place last night.  The class was called Fresh from the Farmer’s Market Vegan Desserts and was led by the esteemed Fran Costigan who is lauded as being a pioneer in the movement of organic and vegan desserts and baked goods.  You can learn more about her on her website (  She is also an author and has written very popular books.  In any case, I was lucky enough to snap up a spot in one of her classes. 

I arrived at the Natural Gourmet School located in 21st St. between 5th and 6th avenues about 15 minutes before the class was slated to start (6:30) after I made a pit-stop at Whole Foods to pick up some coconut milk yogurt that I had heard about.  I arrived, checked in, and perused some books authored by some of the NG’s staff, students, graduates, and other pioneers in the areas of food and health.  Then I headed up with a few other students to really the first professional kitchen I have ever been in.  Pots and pans gleamed in the open lightness of the “kitchen stadium” and food processors/bowls stood at the ready to be used.  There were three professional stoves (I think) and long aluminum prep tables with bar stools set up.  There were also about 6 Natural Gourmet students or possibly stagiaires (who apply to donate their time assisting in classes in exchange for a tuition free chef’s training program) helping out as well.  There was tea, water, olives, carrots, and hummus for us to snack on before we began.  In total there were 9 people in the class.  Fran welcomed us all and then went around the room so we could introduce ourselves and let her know what our experience was with vegan baking.  Vegan baking and vegan cooking is when you do not use any dairy/eggs/animal products in your preparation of food.  We also used natural sweeteners (no refined white sugar) and mostly whole grain flours (minimal white flour).

  Some of the group were experienced bakers but wanted to explore vegan baking.  Others care for family members with food allergies and sensitivities.  One guy I believe said he had a vegan/vegetarian cafe in Brooklyn and there was another girl who is currently in the full time chef’s training program.  We were a varied group.  Fran explained what we would be making and how the kitchen ran.  We briefly went through the recipes where she stressed many times to READ THE RECIPE THROUGH (MORE THAN ONCE) BEFORE BEGINNING and GATHER ALL YOUR INGREDIENTS (MISE EN PLACE) BEFORE STARTING TO COOK.  We broke into four groups and were given two recipes to complete before class was over as we were going to sample the goodies also.

My group consisted of two other lovely girls of who I cannot remember their names.  One it turns out that we sort of know each other through the dye studio in SoHo that I used to work in.  The other one was the full time chef’s training student.  We were give the task of making a Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Cinnamon Cream with Candied Pecans and Cranberry Coulis which would be a 9″ 2 layer cake.  We also made the Juicy Fresh and Dried Fruit Wheat Free Crumble (gluten free too).  Fran moved around the room assisting as needed and jumping in to help as well. Fran has eyes in the back of her head (like my parents) and could practically sense when help was needed in order to avert disaster.  The assistants were awesome in helping us as well.   Something new that I learned was that heating pumpkin or squash puree (for pie/cake) with spices and the appropriate sweetener really makes it more flavorful.  I will be deploying this when I make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving this year.  Thanks Fran! 

Our cake turned out a little uneven (we had mixed the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients without fully chilling one of the wet components).  Fran warned us that our cake might turn out a bit heavy.  In the end it was a little dense but in a good (and not too sweet) comforting way.  The cake leaned and hovered like the Tower of Pisa and some nuts slid off but no matter!  The maple cinnamon cream/frosting and the candied pecans were divine and addictive!  The cranberry coulis balanced it out with a sharpness that counteracted the sweetness beautifully.  Our crumble also turned out very well.  One of the things you do when you work with dried fruit (un-sulphured) is that you must cook it in liquid to plump it up.  Somtimes you need more liquid than other times.  Our fruit was pretty dry wo we used about 11/2 times more liquid than called for.  In the end it cooked up beautifully and tasted amazing.  When we finished preparing our desserts, we assembled them and set them up for display (a few to pics) and then the tasting and socializing began.  Teacher, assistants, and students intermingled, tasted, and sang high praises to each others’ efforts in producing a dessert smorgasbord.

I dashed out to make a train but I will be returning to take more of Fran’s classes and classes in general at this amazing resource in NYC.

Some of the other things that were made tonight were:

1. Carrot Beet Cake (don’t knock it till you make it) with Orange Ginger Cream, Candied Carrot and Beet Shred, and Chocolate Orange Drizzle
2.  Warm Apple Strudel with Ginger Cream (mmm for breakfast)
3.  Apple Quince Shortcakes with Maple Caramel Cream with Chunky Apple Quince Cream
4.  Spice Cake Shortcake Parfaits wth Fruit Compote and Warm Lemon Sauce