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Pasta-Making Classes Go Head-to-Head

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Nov 30, 2010 10:00PM

Playing Santa to a foodie this year? Us, too. Cooking classes make great gifts, but in a city where many different restaurants and cooking schools offer classes aimed at educating the home cook, how do you choose wisely?

Take pasta. You can learn to make it from scratch at two of Chicago's popular "recreational" cooking schools, the Chopping Block and Cooking Fools. To help you make an informed purchase for your fellow-foodie, we did some fieldwork at both spots. Got our hands doughy. And after exhausting ourselves pummeling gluten into submission - compounded by marathon-grade carbo-loading at a duo of post-class feasts - we've recovered enough to debrief on the recon.

Cooking Fools, located in Wicker Park, offers "Basic Pasta Making Techniques" ($75/person) at various times and days throughout the week. (Schedule here.) The Chopping Block's "Pasta Workshop" classes are $65 apiece and held at both its Lincoln Square and Merchandise Mart branches. (Class info here.)

Each has its pros and cons. Both schools teach the traditional, by-hand method for making pasta dough. Only Cooking Fools goes further, also demonstrating a much faster, cleaner approach that employs a food processor - a huge time-saver for those who'll make fresh pasta regularly. That said, the Chopping Block class covers more dishes and is far more hands-on; students do almost all the cooking, including sauces, minus some prep. The current C.B. menu: white lasagna, spinach fettuccine alla carbonara and butternut squash-filled tortellini in brown butter and sage. The C.F. menu: pappardelle alla vodka and spinach-ricotta ravioli (the instructors demo the sauces and the ravioli's cheese filling, and cook the pasta for you).

Both venues boast excellent instructors. While the C.F. teachers were more technically rigorous and dispensed more advice, the class focused quite narrowly on pasta. We felt we took a bigger bite out of Italian cuisine, and cooking in general, at the C.B. A few more C.B. perks: more roaming assistants, wine available by the glass and the option of BYOB (C.F. sells only full bottles and BYOB is not allowed).

It may go without saying, but fresh pasta know-how is invaluable in the kitchen: it costs you pennies on the dollar compared to boxed noodles and, more importantly, it outshines the dry stuff in flavor and texture. It's one of those essential skills your foodie friends should have up their aprons. Cooking Fools stresses the basics and does it well; the Chopping Block favors looseness and range - and perhaps ultimately offers a more inspiring experience.

Cooking Fools is located at 1916 West North Avenue. The Chopping Block is located at 222 West Merchandise Mart Plaza #107 and 4747 North Lincoln Avenue.