SOMERVILLE — Four women lean across stainless steel tables to watch as hot infused cream is poured over chocolate chips. “I use this time to stare at it longingly,” confectioner Caitlin Barry tells her students, who have paid $65 to learn to make holiday gifts from chocolate. As Barry whisks, Heather Schmidt explains the difference between regular cocoa and Dutch process. Barry interrupts when the chocolate mixture, called ganache, has come together, “That’s awesome,” she says. Schmidt quips back, “That’s technical speak.”
The students are in a class offered by City Chicks, founded last August by Schmidt, 37, who uses a shared industrial kitchen here. Experts like Barry help her teach everything from how to butcher a whole pig to how to style an easy, retro updo. Schmidt describes her curriculum as “21st century home ec.” “It’s about finding and learning the skills that your grandmother had and your mom had and applying them to your everyday life, your modern life,” she says.
From head to toe, Schmidt is a medley of modern and retro. Schmidt’s look — a tight gray cardigan, pencil skirt, high heels, and a hot pink apron trimmed with dangling pompoms — is reminiscent of a 1940s pinup model, except for colorful tattoos that decorate her arms down to the elbows. Her mom has pleaded with her to wear a chef’s jacket while teaching, but Schmidt isn’t having it. “This isn’t a fancy cooking show,” she tells her mother. “It’s different. It’s making it real.”
This modern-day domestic diva has worked in the food industry, “mostly in pastry,” for more than a decade. After serving as assistant pastry chef at Radius and Rialto and pastry chef at Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, she considered opening her own bakery. But, she says, she didn’t “want to get up at 4 in the morning anymore,” so she gave up on that idea. Instead, she started City Chicks, where she teaches most of the pastry classes. “It’s about empowering people to use their hands again,” she says.
First-time student Stephanie Yuhl licks chocolate off her palms as she declares her plan to come back to City Chicks at least once a month. Yuhl, a 46-year-old mom from Worcester, has attended only one cooking class before, to celebrate her mother’s 75th birthday in Atlanta. She learned how to “chiffonade your blah, blah, blah,” but she never again attempted the meal from that class. In this class, students are learning Caitlin Barry’s recipes for Earl Gray truffles, hot cocoa with homemade marshmallows, and chocolate whiskey cakes baked in jelly jars. “I plan to make these for teacher gifts for Christmas this year,” says Yuhl.
Like with everything else she teaches, Barry recommends that her students not worry if the whiskey cakes turn out a little messy. “You’re showing up to the party with cake in a jar,” she reminds them. “You’re doing pretty good.”
Schmidt is thrilled with her partnership with Barry and other locals, including at least three non-chicks: butcher Vadim Akimenko, chef Brian Sway, and “expert canner” Ken Cmar. In fact, only the name of her new business leaves Schmidt less than satisfied. “I feel like it alienates men,” she says. To solve that problem, she’ll soon hold classes under the name Homemade Modern, but the focus will be the same: “Using our hands, using real food, and making it work in our modern-day lives.”
City Chicks, www.citychicks