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Flour Power

Bev Shaffer takes the edge off of epicurian education.

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Chef Bev Shaffer knows there's more than one thing to do with a bottle of vodka.

"Slit two Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and pop them into the bottle," instructs the spoon-wielding expert. "Leave it alone for about three weeks, until it starts to smell really good. For seven bucks, you've got a big bottle of pure vanilla."

Shaffer has been slinging such tips over the past 16 years to more than 15,000 students, on her own and now at the Mustard Seed Cooking School, where she's been teaching for three years.

"I grew up in a cooking family," Shaffer says. "My mom was ethnic and cooked a lot. To me, cooking should be eclectic. I've done a lot of Tuscan cooking lately, and I also like Asian and Hungarian."

Shaffer got most of her teaching experience while she and her husband owned and operated the now-closed What's Cooking? school and store in Bath. Besides working culinary magic on local television stations, she's had national exposure as well. Chocolatier magazine ran a two-page spread on her award-winning Double Chocolate Raspberry Tart, and she contributed edible ornaments to the White House's "culinary" Christmas trees.

Shaffer pooh-poohs the idea that good cooking must be difficult, and that's the first thing she tells her students at the Mustard Seed. "There's nothing I hate more than making something sound more complicated than it is. My classes aren't intimidating -- people come to relax and have a good time."

Case in point: a recent "Chocolate Desserts of the Moment" class, in which about two dozen people plunked down 28 bucks apiece to watch Shaffer beat a biscotti batter, whip up a flourless chocolate cake, and assemble a bread pudding.

Then comes the pinnacle of the class, when one of Shaffer's assistants clears his throat and says, "Rows one and two may now come up for samples."

Relax and have a good time? Don't mind if I do.

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