For Valentine’s day two years ago, Steve surprised me by buying us two seats in a cooking class at The Wooden Spoon in Andersonville. The class was actually the weekend before Valentine’s day since we had made reservations at a restaurant in the city we’d been wanting to try for a while on real V-Day. We had a wonderful time at the class, and not as wonderful a time at the restaurant. In general my experience being out on Valentine’s day has been that there are huge crowds out for the night, and the food quality lessens overall because the kitchen is trying to pump out many courses as quickly as possible for loads of people. But of course–who are we to actually change our actions based on experience? This didn’t stop us from making a reservation at a Michelin starred restaurant otherwise known for excellent food. That automatically means it’s exempt from potential holiday BS right?
Wrong-o. I have no doubt that this not-to-be-named restaurant is a fantastic place under normal circumstances that we fully intend to return to at some point but I think we’ve officially learned our lesson. We opted to stay in this year and I wanted to cook something meaningful. As relatively food obsessed people, we’ve had many meaningful meals, but making something from our previous Valentine’s day cooking class was obviously nostalgic and relevant.
Even though our dinner out the weekend before wasn’t great, the class was really fun and we made some fantastic food. The menu included: Salad of Fried Mozzarella with Arugula, Prosciutto, and Homemade Breadsticks, Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds, Pork Tenderloin Scaloppini with Roasted Potatoes and Grilled Asparagus, and Chocolate Mousse with Whipped Cream.
The class was completely full — a group of 10 or so couples, and different parts of different recipes were given to each couple to eventually create all the courses. As someone who cooks a lot, I was hoping to get assigned something that I had never done before and not end up doing some boring part of the meal like chopping 50 shallots and then standing there watching everyone else. Luckily, everyone was engaged the whole time, and everyone got a chance to do a lot of different things. My husband and I actually ended up making all of the pork tenderloin, which was great because I have leaned vegetarian for much of my adult life and have little experience with cooking meat. It did, however, require that we chop about 50 shallots.
Our instructor was very knowledgable and everyone in the class seemed to really enjoy themselves. The food was superb. Most everything was something I would make again, but the butternut squash soup was special. Yes, this was the very definition of butternut squash soup for me.
And in the case that you’re not as picky about your squash soups as I am, you might be wondering exactly what that is — I love butternut squash soup, but there are definitely bad versions. Some are so sweet that the squash flavor is gone, some are chunky instead of smooth, some bizarrely call for white onions (which are way too strong). As you could guess, all of these have been made by me previously. For some reason I could never find a recipe that had the exact balance of smooth/savory/creamy and with a hint of sweet flavor that made up the model in my mind for what it should be. This soup manages to hit all these notes perfectly.
Definitely do not skip the butter toasted pumpkin seeds – they add depth and richness (along with a drizzle of sour cream or Crème fraîche).
Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
As I mentioned above, the internet is loaded with butternut squash soup recipes and I have tried many of them — in my opinion they all pale in comparison to this one. You could lessen the cider by about 1/4 – 1/2 of a cup if you’re concerned about the sugar and I don’t think it would make a huge difference.
Lightly adapted from The Wooden Spoon in Chicago
For the Soup:
2 tablespoons of olive oil
3 tablespoons of butter
2.5 pounds of butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 6 cups)
3 medium leeks, diced (white and light green parts only)
2 small carrots, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
2 small Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 teaspoons of dried thyme
1 tablespoon of minced fresh sage leaves (or dry)
5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock (or use water)
1.25 cups of apple cider (I used Knudsen No Sugar Added)
3/4 cup of heavy cream or half & half
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
pinch of allspice
Creme Fraiche for garnish
For the Pumpkin Seeds:
1 cup of pumpkin seeds (Pepitas)
2 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
pinch of cayenne
Melt the butter and oil in a dutch oven or heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the squash, leeks, carrot, and celery. Saute until slightly softened, about 15 minutes, then mix in apples, thyme, and sage. Add the stock and cider and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and then cover and simmer until apples are tender, stirring occasionally (about 30 minutes). Let cool slightly before you attempt to puree the soup.
While the soup is cooling a bit, make the toasted pumpkin seeds. Heat the butter in a small skillet, then add the pumpkin seeds and cook over medium – medium-low heat until they are lightly browned and begin to pop. Transfer them to a paper towel to drain the excess butter. Mix the sugar, cinnamon, and cayenne together in a small bowl and then pour over the hot seeds. Stir to fully combine.
Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender and then return to the pan, or make your life much easier and use an immersion blender (seriously, just buy one already. It will improve your life, I promise). Stir in the heavy cream, cinnamon, cayenne, and allspice. Enjoy your soup with a sprinkling of seeds and a dollop of creme fraiche.