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Preparing a holiday meal can be a daunting task. This year's Wishbone U. students tackled the sweetest part of the feast first.

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 or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter at @roadeats.

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The students

Gail Allison, 54, St. Petersburg

Annie Russek, 48, and her daughter, Emily Russek, 13, St. Petersburg

Edward Lutz, 36, Tampa

Bob Solin, 87, Sun City Center

Christian Wells, 38, Temple Terrace

Kelly Baldwin, 30, Tampa

Wendy Loomas, 52, St. Petersburg

Chuck Sackett, 65, Valrico

Christina Chin, 22, Tampa

Alex Woodworth, 25, St. Pete Beach

Apron's Cooking School chefs

Rich Norris, head chef; Terry Gracie, sous chef; John Barbie, sous chef

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Almond Blondie Bars

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 cup unsalted butter, melted

2 cups all-purpose flour

-1/2 cup almond meal (ground almonds)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons almond extract

For the topping:

1 cup all-purpose flour

-1/2 cup light brown sugar

-1/2 cup almond meal

-1/2 cup unsalted butter, very cold

Kosher salt

-1/8 cup confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, beat eggs and sugar until lemon-colored. Add butter, flour, almond meal, salt and extract; mix well. Spread mixture into a greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare topping. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, light brown sugar and almond meal. Cut in cold butter, using two forks, or "pinch" in, using your fingertips. Topping should have the consistency of damp sand.

Remove base from oven and carefully sprinkle with topping. Over the topping, sprinkle a pinch of salt. Return to oven and continue to bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Allow pan to cool to room temperature. Cut into rectangle bars and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.

Makes 24 bars.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix

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Eggnog Ice Cream

You'll need an instant-read food thermometer and an ice cream maker for this recipe. The versions that have the frozen cylinders and don't need rock salt are the easiest to use.

1 cup whole milk

-1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

7 egg yolks

-3/4 cup sugar

2 cups heavy cream, chilled

3 tablespoons dark rum

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

-1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

In a 2-quart saucepan, bring milk and salt to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together yolks and sugar until pale yellow. Add about -1/4 cup of the hot milk to the yolk mixture to temper it. This will keep the egg from scrambling. Then slowly whisk in hot milk. Add milk mixture back into the pan and heat to 175 degrees. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Stir in cream, rum and vanilla. Chill to 40 degrees, using an ice-water bath or by refrigerating.

Freeze in ice cream maker, according to manufacturer's instructions; then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer for 2 hours. Soften slightly in refrigerator before serving, about 20 minutes.

Makes 1 quart.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix

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French Silk Pie

For the crust:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces, plus more for pan

-1/3 cup pecan halves

1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour

-1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

-1/4 teaspoon salt

For the filling:

12 tablespoons (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla exact

3 large pasteurized eggs

Whipped cream, for serving

Chocolate curls, for serving

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

For the crust, butter a 9-inch pie plate; set aside. Grind pecans in a food processor or chop finely with a knife. In a medium bowl, combine flour, pecans, sugar and salt. Cut in cold butter with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Press firmly into prepared pie plate. Bake until golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

For the filling, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. With machine running, gradually add melted chocolate and vanilla. Add eggs, one at a time, beating at medium speed for 5 minutes after each addition. Pour filling into cooled pie crust. Cover with plastic wrap and transfer to the refrigerator to cool for at least 4 hours and up to overnight. Just before serving, top pie with whipped cream and decorate with chocolate curls.

Note: Health officials recommend against eating raw eggs, which this recipe calls for. Pasteurized eggs have been heated to a level that will kill bacteria without cooking them.

Makes one 9-inch pie.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix

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Frosted Pumpkin Squares

4 eggs

1 cup vegetable oil

1-2/3 cups sugar

1 (16-ounce) can pumpkin

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

For the frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese

-1/2 cup butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a handheld or stand mixer, place eggs, oil, sugar and pumpkin; beat until smooth. Stir in flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Pour into an ungreased 12-1/2- by 17-1/2- by 1-inch jelly-roll pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For frosting, beat cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Add vanilla, and slowly add the confectioners' sugar to incorporate. Frost cake when slightly warm. Cut into squares and serve. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.

Makes 36 squares.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix

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White Chocolate Bread Pudding With Whiskey Caramel Sauce

A jar of premade caramel sauce may be substituted for the recipe. (Find it in the aisle of ice cream toppings.) Heat it gently over medium heat, then add -1/4 cup whiskey and stir to blend.

8 ounces (4 large) croissants, cut into 1-inch pieces

3 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

-1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

10 ounces good-quality white chocolate (such as Lindt or Ghirardelli), coarsely chopped

7 large egg yolks

2 large eggs

For the sauce:

1-1/2 cups sugar

-1/2 cup water

-1/4 cup butter, chilled and diced

-1/4 cup whiskey

-1/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

Arrange bread cubes on baking sheet. Bake until light golden and dry, about 10 minutes. Transfer from baking sheet to rack; cool completely. Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Combine whipping cream, 1 cup milk, vanilla and -1/2 cup sugar in large heavy saucepan. Bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Add white chocolate and stir until melted and smooth. Whisk yolks and eggs in large bowl to blend. Gradually whisk into warm chocolate mixture.

Place bread cubes in 2-quart glass baking dish. Add half of chocolate mixture. Press bread cubes into chocolate mixture. Let stand 15 minutes. Gently mix in remaining chocolate mixture. Cover dish with foil.

Bake pudding 45 minutes. Uncover and bake until top is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer pudding to rack and cool slightly.

While pudding is baking, make the sauce. Combine sugar and water in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat; cook until sugar dissolves, stirring as little as possible. Cook an additional 15 minutes or until golden (do not stir). Remove from heat. Carefully add butter, stirring constantly with a whisk (mixture will be hot and will bubble vigorously). Cool slightly and stir in whiskey and cream. (Do not add whiskey over heat.)

Drizzle sauce on bread pudding to serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: Apron's Cooking School, Publix

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Tips from the chefs

During the three-hour Wishbone U. Thanksgiving cooking boot camp, chefs Rich Norris and Terry Gracie imparted their culinary wisdom for each recipe. Their tips:

For French Silk Pie:

- Don't overwork nuts in the food processor; otherwise, your finely ground nuts will turn into nut butter.

- It's important to soften butter to room temperature so that it mixes well with the sugar, often the first step in dessert baking. This process is called creaming.

- Using unsalted butter allows the cook to control the salt content.

- The eggs in the filling are uncooked, which can be a health hazard because there is a chance they can be contaminated with salmonella. Look for pasteurized eggs to avoid this danger.

- Crack eggs on counter rather than side of pan to prevent shell pieces from slipping into the mix.

- Instructions sometimes call for eggs to be mixed in one at time. This is done to incorporate them fully.

- Adding vanilla at the end of mixing process retains flavor.

For White Chocolate Bread Pudding:

- It's important to dry out bread cubes - for this recipe, torn croissants - because dry bread absorbs more butter, cream and sugar than moist cubes.

- If the recipe doesn't specify the size of an egg, use large. When there are a number of eggs, jumbos or extra-larges could throw off the balance.

- When making the cream for the bread pudding, don't allow the mixture to boil because it will burn quickly or possibly curdle. It's all right if there are bubbles and you see steam. Stir frequently so mixture doesn't scorch bottom of pan.

- Use all the same brand of chocolate. Don't mix and match because the different formulas might not work well together.

- The key to great bread pudding is to let it sit in the cream sauce for 15 minutes before placing in oven.

- Bake on a sheet pan to avoid overflow in the oven.

For Eggnog Ice Cream:

- Tempering is a process that keeps an egg from scrambling when hot liquid is added. Stir in some of the hot mixture, which raises the temperature of the eggs. Then slowly add the rest of the hot liquid with whisking.

- When making a cream or custard mixture, the liquid is ready when it coats a spoon.

- Use fresh grated nutmeg in recipes that call for nutmeg. Whole nutmegs last for quite a long time and are more flavorful than already ground.

- When taking the temperature of a mixture in a saucepan, do not rest the thermometer on the bottom or the reading will be high.

For Almond Blondie BarS:

- If using a nonstick spray to grease pan, spray right before you add batter. Otherwise, the spray will slip down the sides and make the coating uneven. The chefs prefer butter and flour.

- Measure flour by sprinkling it into cups or gently dip and sweep so that you don't use more flour than necessary. Excess flour will make your baked goods dry.

- Almond meal, or almond flour, is expensive. Store in the freezer to extend its life and to prevent it from going rancid.

- When making a crumble topping, keep butter very cold until right before incorporating. Also, make sure to leave some of the butter chunks in the mix.

For FROSTED Pumpkin Squares:

- Combine dry ingredients and then wet separately to make sure there are no pockets of unmixed ingredients.

- Two cups flour sifted is different than two cups sifted flour. In the first, the flour is sifted after it's measured and in the second, it's sifted before.

- When cutting the frosted bars, use a towel to wipe the knife after every cut. This will keep the bars looking nice.

On the Web:To see a video of this year's Thanksgiving cooking boot camp, go to