Gourmet cooking classes, set in Northwoods

I am sitting at Amy Donaldson’s kitchen counter, watching her season, shred, steam and sauté my dinner. Fourteen others are doing the same.

“This is my once-a-month treat,” says Julie Palmer of Townsend.

“I don’t cook,” confesses Ann Maletzke, a neighbor.

“She’s not kidding,” adds her husband, Skip.

The audience howls. A little later, we’re invited to smell vanilla extract that comes from Mexico. “Mmmmm,” someone responds, after taking a sniff. “Now we need some Kahlua.” We settle for glasses of wine.

Horseshoe seating in a homelike setting means this night seems intimate. Amy is doing all the work; it is a blend of cooking advice, theater and monologue. “We have 26 chicks arriving in the mail soon,” she deadpans. “We’re naming them Kiev, Stew, Stock …”

A cooking class at Amy’s at Woodhaven – next to her home, a former lakeside bed and breakfast inn near Mountain (population 860, Oconto County) – is more about good food and laid-back conversation than intense culinary immersion. That makes it comfortable for sociable couples as well as groups of girlfriends.

“I tell my friends that we have this secret in the woods,” says Julie, who retired here from Chicago. “I have a standing reservation for all of Amy’s classes,” and she is not alone.

The chef offers monthly cooking classes, twice-monthly lunches, catering and private classes/dinners by appointment. The Ohio native, age 40, opted for this format after being frustrated with her traditional restaurant in Lakewood, 10 miles north.

“It was about paying people to stand around, waiting for someone to walk through the door,” Amy says. Not good, especially for a person who makes from-scratch cooking with fresh, local ingredients a priority.

“This is a blue-collar area,” customer Julie contends. “Outside of Amy’s, all we have is fried food,” and many of the locals tend to gravitate elsewhere only for special occasions.

“There’s a big split” when defining good food, Amy says. “In our 15 years here, we’ve seen a change in the type of person who retires to this area” and a slowly growing demand for menu diversity.

We meet in spring, when “Finds of the Forest” is her class theme. In the menu are morels, asparagus and rhubarb. The mushrooms turn into a ravioli filling and are added to a marsala-tarragon sauce for tenderloin steaks (topped with batter-fried slivers of chives).

“Rule number one: Don’t give out your morel finding spots or your morel-sharing friends,” Amy says. “The right time to pick is when the leaves on trees are the size of a mouse’s ear.”

A Dijon vinaigrette tops the asparagus. “Break them off wherever they want to snap easily,” the chef advises, as she prepares the spears. Missing from her menu plan are fiddleheads and ramps, because she “wasn’t able to find the proper ones” in the Northwoods by the time they were needed.

For dessert: simple elegance. Over pavlovas, similar to schaum torte shells, goes a vanilla-rhubarb sauce that is topped with whipped cream.

The chatty group of diners grows quiet, then contently ambles home.

Amy’s next cooking class is a chef’s demo, “Grilling on the Deck,” 4-7 p.m. July 29. The $35 fee includes the demo, dinner and recipes but not alcohol. Sometimes a class – such as pasta making – turns the students into active participants.

For more about Amy’s at Woodhaven, 16330 Thelen Rd., Mountain: www.amysatwoodhaven.com, 715-276-2665. The business is about 75 minutes northwest of Green Bay.

The chef also cooks lunch for the public at noon July 15; the cost is $15 and reservations are advised.

“Southern BBQ in the Northwoods,” July 10-12, is a culinary retreat at nearby Spur of the Moment Ranch that includes catfish and soul food prepared at Amy’s, in additional to a meal prepared over a pit fire outdoors. Cost is $195 to $365 for two people, depending upon ranch accommodations (campsites to neatly furnished cabins).

The culinary theme there Oct. 23-25 is “Oktoberfest German Affair.”

For more about the ranch, 14221 Helen Lane, Mountain: www.spurofthemomentranch.org, 800-644-8783. Bring your horse, to ride adjacent trails; corrals are available.

Amy’s also partners with the Crystal Bell Inn, 4226 River St., Wabeno, for special events. The B&B, which has eight guest bedrooms, often attracts craft groups who appreciate innkeeper Mike and Donna Ver Voort’s transformation of a third-floor ballroom into a communal work space.

Expect reasonable rates and eclectic décor. One example: A brightly colored outdoor conveyor transports coolers, sewing machines and other food/craft fixin’s from ground level to workroom, so you don’t wear out the staircase or your legs. For more: www.thecrystalbell.com, 877-473-2250.

Thanks go to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, which arranged my lodging and cooking class access.