Tuesday 25 October 2016

Can't cook, won't cook: Can a cookery course save you from a microwave life?

At 46 years of age, Andrea Smith has never made a single meal from scratch. Can a cookery course save her from relying on the microwave?

Published 25/06/2015 | 02:30

Andrea Smith pictured with Professional Chef Lynda Booth and some of the ingrediants for her meal at the Dublin Cookery School in Blackrock.
Andrea Smith pictured with Professional Chef Lynda Booth and some of the ingrediants for her meal at the Dublin Cookery School in Blackrock.
Biddy's Apple Cake

I adore food and love going out to eat, which will hardly come as a surprise to any of you looking at my photo.

  • Go To

Just please don't talk to me about anything to do with how the food gets from the market to my belly (where, come to think of it, most of it seems to have taken up permanent residence) as the whole area of cooking, preparing and presenting food sends me straight to Snoresville.

I can't cook, and by that I mean that I have never actually cooked a meal in my entire 46 years on this planet, although I'm a dab hand at shoving things in the microwave.

I know it's weird, because you and I, my friend, are nothing these days unless we're committed foodies who spend our evenings julienning yams, spiralizing zucchini, or marinating moules mariniere, but quite frankly, I find the whole thing one big faff.

Food may be the new porn, but when it comes to the kitchen, I much prefer to skip the foreplay and get orgasmic over the main course - and the dessert, of course.

On that note, Jerry Hall's mother famously told her that "to keep a man, you must be a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom."

Whatever about the first and last elements, which come to think of it, I'm not too hot at either, could not being able to put together a candlelit supper be part of the reason that I'm still single at 46?

After all, isn't food the way to a man's heart?

Unlike the rest of you weirdos, who can't seem to get enough of them, I always skip past the recipes festooned all over magazines and papers, and fast-forward through the ubiquitous cooking segments on TV shows.

Unless I'm actually one of the hungry TV production staff looking on and making 'oohing' noises in studio, I really don't care if some random comedian in studio is 'helping' the guest chef to make a sriracha and vegetable frittata.

People often ask how I've managed to be such a serial avoider of the kitchen, but the seeds were sown when I chose science over home economics at school.

I was always a bit resentful coming out of the lab reeking of hydrochloride and bunsen burners, while other girls spilled out of the cookery room clutching their warm apple turnovers.

Things didn't improve when I went to college, and I blame being born a Dub for my plight.

While my culchie pals were heating beans and noodles on gas rings in the grotty student bedsits of the 80s, thus acquiring rudimentary culinary skills, I was coming home every evening to my mammy's lovely home-cooked meals.

Having never done the house share thing, I was still living at home at 32, a bit like Tripp, Matthew McConaughey's character in the 2006 film, Failure to Launch.

Which is how I found myself finally moving into my own house without a single clue of how to put together even one dish.

My poor mother tried to teach me, unsuccessfully, and she insisted I buy a really good cooker with a double oven for my new house, thinking I might develop an interest once I had my own kitchen.

That cooker cost just over a grand 14 years ago, and has been switched on precisely twice (by other people), officially making it the most expensive ornament in my house.

Maybe being a dud in the kitchen is the plight of the single woman, as it's much easier to microwave a ready meal, or have a bowl of cereal for dinner when you're catering for one.

I was quite happy to live like that, and I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids on TV3's Midday.

The jig was up last week when the panel and I discussed research that says that while people own an average of six cookery books, they only cook the same nine meals on a repetitive loop.

It didn't take long for my shameful little secret to come out on air, much to the horror of fellow panellist, Lynda Booth, director of Dublin Cookery School.

Clearly bewildered that someone my age could be quite so useless in the kitchen, she invited me out to her school to learn how to make one whole meal from start to finish. Quite fancying the notion of hosting a dinner party for my pals, since I regularly dine out on their hospitality but have never returned the favour, I accepted the challenge.

As I arrived to her lovely cookery school in Blackrock a couple of days later, I don't think Lynda was prepared for quite how remedial my culinary education would need to be.

Widely recognised as one of Ireland's best cookery teachers, she set up the school in 2007 and it was voted Best Irish Cookery School at the 2013 and 2015 Irish Restaurant Awards.

Prior to that, she spent a decade travelling and cooking around the world, working in simple bistros to Michelin two-star restaurants.

The afternoon progressed a little in the manner of the BBC gameshow, The Generation Game, where an expert would execute a task to perfection, and the hapless contestant would then attempt to follow suit and usually fail dismally.

Lynda patiently demonstrated and talked me through every step of putting together my starter of onion, prosciutto and Gubbeen cheese tart, and even though she was too polite to say it, I think she was secretly aghast that I hadn't a clue what any of the terminology meant.

Sweat the onions? The only thing sweating in that kitchen was my big, purple face, as I tried to learn how to chop veg without severing any of my fingers.

Poor Lynda tried to teach me the correct way of holding my hands while using a knife, so that it didn't end in a trip to A&E.

She was a great teacher, and even if I was one of the worst people to ever set foot in her kitchen, she never let on. I think our lovely photographer Frank was even shocked that a middle-aged woman could be quite as clueless as I was, as it turns out that he's quite the Jamie Oliver in the kitchen.

Anyway, I got through the tart-making with a lot of help, and then it was time to for it to go into the oven, and even the simple transferring from the pizza paddle was challenging. It's a hazardous occupation, this cooking lark, I mused, with all the potential to burn, cut or generally maim oneself at every turn.

We moved on to the main course, which was pan-seared sea bass fillet with cherry tomatoes, chorizo, and rocket and pistachio pesto.

After teaching me how to remove the bones, she demonstrated how to lightly score the skin, but I cack-handedly cut right through the entire flesh and severed the fillet into pieces.

She had planned for me to make my own rocket and pistachio pesto, but having seen just how terrible I was, she diplomatically suggested that I might buy a ready-made one if I was planning to make this dish again.

The worst part was trying to use two sizzling pans at the same time. My head was frazzled as I tried to juggle and mind the two of them, and I was more Frank Spencer than Fanny Craddock, in truth.

While we worked away in one kitchen, students of the school were busy whipping up concoctions in other parts, with a skill and ease that I could only envy.

Most were in the middle of a professional three-month certificate course and planned to make a career from it, although the school also offers a wide range of day, evening, week and month-long classes as well.

I suppose the difference between me and the students was that they obviously already possessed a love and aptitude for cooking and were able to handle the basic elements prior to coming in, whereas I really needed to start off in a cookery kindergarten.

Lynda says that anyone can learn to cook though and that it's great fun, and even though I was completely out of my comfort zone and uncharacteristically nervous about every task, I can see how you'd get real satisfaction out of producing a meal that people enjoyed.

We finished up with the best part - dessert - a simple but gorgeous apple dish called Biddy's Apple Cake.

I actually quite enjoyed making that one. And then I got to fulfil my lifelong ambition, and left the school clutching my very own homemade savoury tart and apple pie in boxes.

I called in to visit my parents, and they couldn't have looked more surprised if I had arrived in with an engagement ring sparkling on my left hand.

"Maybe there's hope for you yet," said my mother, hopefully, as she sampled the cake and declared it to be "delicious."

I don't think Nigella needs to look over her shoulder yet, but maybe, just maybe, the oven might get cranked into action one day soon. If it does, you're all invited!

Visit Dublin Cookery School at dublincookeryschool.ie.

Biddy's Apple Cake

(Serves 6-8)


220g caster sugar

110g self-raising flour

110g ground almonds

1 tsp baking powder

3 eggs, beaten

140g butter, melted

2 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into slices or chunks

Flaked almonds, to decorate


20cm springform pan with removable base


Preheat the oven to 160°C, 140°C Fan, 325°F, Gas 3

Line the cake tin with a circle of bakewell/parchment paper on the base. Butter and flour the sides of the cake tin and shake out the excess

Mix the sugar, flour, ground almonds and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the beaten eggs and melted butter and stir well

Put one third of the batter into the cake tin. Place a layer of apples over the batter and then spoon the rest of the batter on top

Sprinkle the surface with flaked almonds

Bake in the oven for about 50-55 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean

Irish Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Life