In our new Student Spotlight series, we'll be featuring some of the star students who have used the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School to improve their cooking confidence. The School welcomes all types of cooks—from the true novice to the impressively experienced—into our digital test kitchen, where they’re greeted by familiar faces in one-of-a-kind videos and interactive exercises that go beyond the recipe.
Breaking Out of a Cooking Comfort Zone with the ATK Cooking School
America's Test Kitchen Cooking School is filled with passionate home cooks, and there’s nothing we enjoy more than learning about their cooking journeys. Today we’re spotlighting Maggie Adams, a cooking school student from Atlanta, Georgia, who caught our eye with her photos of her beautiful pastries (and her Playmobil sous chef, which was recently featured on the Playmobil Instagram account).
Culinary chops run in Maggie’s family, she says. Her mother was a fabulous cook but also a full-time lawyer, so she didn’t always have time to show off her skills or share them with her kids. (“But when she did, I certainly got the taste for really good food,” Maggie said.) So Maggie grew up making box mix brownies and slice-and-bake cookies with her brother, then went on to fend for herself in college. After an Alzheimer’s diagnosis prevented her mother from sharing her cooking expertise, Maggie was again left to her own devices in the kitchen. It took years of collecting recipes and a recent trip to Paris to motivate her to break out of her cooking comfort zone. She got to work with the cooking school classes earlier this year and didn’t waste any time recreating the croissants and baguettes she’d eaten in France. Now she’s an in-demand baker among her family and friends.
What inspired you to join the ATK Cooking School?
I went to Paris with my family over Thanksgiving break. I’ve been reading the Croissant recipe for years, but going there made me really want to be able to conquer it. Similarly, for years I’d always heard that biscuits are one of the hardest things to master. I then went step by step with the Tall and Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits and I’ve never looked back. It’s something I get asked to make at many family gatherings—Christmas Eve brunch, my children’s sleepover birthday parties, summer family gatherings in the mountains. And one of my favorite things to do is to ask a small child to join me in making them and let them experience the joy of creating from scratch.
Tell us about your cooking habits before joining the cooking school.
I was timid. I knew what really good food tasted like, and I would read recipes and cookbooks ‘til the cows came home. But there’s something about seeing it done—via the videos and pictures in the school—that makes it so totally clear. When making croissants, the words on the page don’t always quite line up with your brain as it does when seeing it. It’s so much more clear.
Another huge advantage of the videos is seeing the little things that don’t always make a mention in the recipe. When making baguettes, it says to loosely cover the dough with plastic wrap and let sit for 45 minutes. I almost panicked when the plastic wrap stuck to the top of my dough. I thought I’d ruined the whole thing. But then I watched the video again and saw how it stuck to theirs too! And they said it was okay.
Tell us a little bit about how your cooking habits have changed since joining the cooking school.
I’ve definitely gotten braver. I want to try more things and put myself out there more. I also realized that I can take one recipe and use the same technique with other things. I didn’t realize the lamination of croissants were really applicable to other types of pastries.
What has been the most useful skill you’ve learned?
Would you call it a skill to have learned courage in the kitchen? I made baguettes and had quite a few mistakes—primarily due to my baguettes being too long (hence getting squished by the aluminum pan placed over it, as well as falling off the stone!). But it was a great lesson in learning from mistakes. I also used a baking steel instead of my trusty stone and had some burning on the bottom. I tweaked everything for the next round of baguettes and it worked out beautifully (with still some room for improvement).
What is a recipe or technique that you were afraid to tackle that you feel comfortable with now?
Croissants and baguettes both. Those were two I could not stop thinking about in Paris.
What have you learned that surprised you the most?
How doable even the most complicated sounding recipes are. Once you make something twice, I think, you have more of a sense of the overall process and timing.
Have you shown off your new skills? If so, how?
I recently made six batches of croissants to bring on a trip to the mountains with our neighbors. They'd all been watching my pictures I've posted on Instagram and Facebook and have been begging to be taste testers. There were 32 people, nine dogs, and 130 croissants. The croissants got a great response. Everyone ooh'd and aah'd, which is my favorite part.
How has the cooking school changed the way you think about food or cooking?
I feel a bit like I’ve been given a secret. Cooking is often thought of as an art—which it is in many respects—but it is also a science, where like doing a science experiment, following the steps clearly, you can watch the explosion happen.
I love feeling challenged by food and with the school feeling a sense of true accomplishment. Cooking well is really easier than a lot of people think, but it does take time to learn to get better.
I am super grateful for the cooking school and ATK for taking the time to really perfect their recipes and also for the Facebook group of ATK, CI, and CC. They are such an amazing support group and source of inspiration. They are great with ideas on what could have gone wrong, suggestions for menus, and support for whatever anyone is cooking!
Bakery-Style Pastries Online Cooking ClassMaster the key techniques for making flaky, buttery, melt-in-your mouth pastries at home with our popular Bakery-Style Pastries class, available a la carte for just $9.99—no additional membership required and no big commitment of your time or money. Just anytime, anywhere access to the class.
What cooking skill do you want to improve upon? Let us know in the comments! And to hear more about our students' cooking experiences, check out these stories:
- Making the Leap from Nurse to Chef (with a Little Help from the ATK Cooking School)
- Taking the First Step to a Lifetime of Better Cooking with the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School
- Conquering Fears and Embracing Mistakes: One Cooking School Student's Journey From Uninspired to Adventurous Home Cook