TAMPA — There's likely to be a kitchen throw-down at the Baldwin home this Thanksgiving.
Dad Rex Baldwin was named "most ambitious" student in the Wishbone U. Thanksgiving cooking boot camp class of 2009 for the way he attacked and conquered the turkey and gravy. But since then, daughter Kelly has grown weary of his basting bluster.
"Every single time he cooks a holiday meal, or a family gathering meal, in addition to the excellent food, we all get our fill of his boasting," she wrote. " . . . I love my dad, and would love nothing better than to offer my own menu, and serve notice that he is not the ALL of the kitchen."
Who are we to squelch some good-hearted family competition? We couldn't resist inviting Kelly Baldwin, 30, of Tampa to join our eighth annual Wishbone U. class at Publix Super Markets' Apron's Cooking School in Citrus Park. To tweak the menu a bit this year, we focused on desserts. Sure, the turkey is the star, but a wonderful dessert is something they remember forever.
Maybe there will be peace in the Baldwin home after all — Dad can make the main dish and Kelly can wow everyone with her sweetness.
Last month, we gathered 11 Tampa Bay Times readers at Apron's to master some desserts that make pumpkin pie look quaint. There wasn't a dud among the five recipes, but students and observers especially liked the White Chocolate Bread Pudding With Whiskey Caramel Sauce (and the Eggnog Ice Cream and Almond Blondie Bars and French Silk Pie and . . .). We suspect the bread pudding will be the apres meal showstopper in lots of homes this holiday. Can't swing it for Thanksgiving? Tuck away the recipe for Christmas.
Chefs Rich Norris and Terry Gracie, along with John Barbie, shared their expertise and recipes in the three-hour class that ended with the group sampling their hard work around a long table set with white tablecloth and cloth napkins. Basically, they ate dessert for dinner, the seeds of a new holiday tradition sown at the communal table.
The Wishbone U. Class of 2012 included our oldest student ever, Bob Solin, 87, of Sun City Center. He has taken up cooking in the last year to help out Lillian, his wife of 64 years, who was injured in a fall.
"With my wife giving guidance, I have learned how to steam seafood and make a pretty good meatloaf," he wrote. "I am fortunate to have above-average health and a strong desire to learn more about making meals."
Solin joined the rest of the class for the marathon standing and stirring session and proclaimed all the dishes "delish" at the end of the class.
This year's class ranged from cooks with tales of amazingly bad skills to people who simply wanted to up their game this year. Christina Chin, 22, of Tampa was so nervous that we'd find out just how lousy a cook she is, she almost didn't show up, she said. She swallowed her pride and tied on an apron because this is the first year she won't be going home to Texas for the holiday. Time to face her fears.
"Being able to cook might also help save my relationship in case my boyfriend ever gets tired of dating a girl who is helpless in the kitchen," she wrote.
Nearly all of the more than 100 people who wrote to the Times to apply for a spot in the class mentioned that they wanted to be better cooks for the benefit of someone else. Alex Woodworth, 25, of St. Pete Beach was no different. His mother's birthday often falls close to Thanksgiving, sometimes on the same day, and he wants to avoid the sad celebrations of the past, like when his grandfather brought a frozen pumpkin pie to the table still in the box — and still frozen.
"Teach me how to cook her something," he wrote. We hope we did, Alex.
Rounding out the class were students with desperate, touching or just plain funny stories. Among them:
• Wendy Loomas, 52, of St. Petersburg has never made Thanksgiving dinner, but figures it's never too late to learn. "My sons are teenagers, halfway out the door to new lives, and I'd like to start something new that will get them home on holidays."
• If Chuck Sackett, 65, of Valrico can bring his humor into the kitchen, he'll be able to handle any dilemma he finds there. Learning to cook, he writes, is on his to-do list now that he's retired. "Since I'm afraid of heights, get motion sickness on the ground and am basically boring — ask the kids — my thimble list includes learning to cook, learning to play the guitar and learning to paint."
• Christian Wells, 38, of Temple Terrace spends his days as an archaeology professor at University of South Florida and his free time cooking. Not surprisingly, he takes an academic approach, studying how food connects cultures. Last Thanksgiving, he re-created a Mayan pavo en mole — turkey mole — which his children hated. "I need to learn some new desserts, fast," he wrote.
• Gail Allison, 54, of St. Petersburg has a pleasant conundrum. She always lived in a home with a tiny kitchen, "no bigger than 2 square feet," she claims. But now the family has moved to a bigger house with kitchen bells and whistles she doesn't know how to use. "I think it's my turn" to gather the family and let them come into the kitchen, she wrote.
• Annie Russek, 48, and daughter, Emily, 13, of St. Petersburg were the first mother-daughter team invited to Wishbone U. Mom has fond memories of homemade pie and yeast rolls made by her mother but unfortunately she didn't pay much attention as a teenager to what was going on in the kitchen. Her parents died in a house fire when she was 18 and so much was lost, including the chance for mother-daughter cooking lessons and all the family recipes. "I would love for (Emily) to have memories of her and I baking together. And for that I need your guidance," Russek wrote.
Her story pulled our heartstrings mightily, especially at this time of year when family plays such an important role. We were also smitten with a beautifully handwritten letter from Zachary Lutz, 9, of Tampa. Lutz was writing on behalf of his father, Edward Lutz, 36, newly single and trying to cook more.
"We encourage him to do better," Zachary wrote. "I wish he could learn to be as good a cook or better than my grandma."
Well, Zachary, have him make you a batch of Almond Blondie Bars this Thanksgiving. We think Grandma would approve.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter at @roadeats.