So, you’re Italiano, or you wannabe Italiano and now you can be Italiano, or at least feel a little Italiano?! (Okay that didn’t sound right.)
I don’t know where this year went. I lost my job back in February and simultaneously committed to two international weddings that I would not have wanted to miss for the world and I made sure that I didn’t. Buying my tickets was a little less than an organized or a properly planned event as I ended up flying round trip Florence (with an unexpected delayed flight and last minute layover in Zurich) only to turn around a day and a half later and fly to Koh Samui, Thailand. You’ll settle for 10 layovers while traveling on a “funemployed” budget. Although, my jetlag is still killing me one week later.
I had been to Florence about three times in my life already. There was something about this city and a couple of other places I encountered through my travels that I feel are… allergic to me. Something always happens where I never get to experience the city properly. My earliest memory of Firenze was during a Sophomore year school trip to Italy. Our Italian (language) teacher had an affinity for Florence to say the least and decided to use the Matawan High School’s Foreign Language Department’s budget to fund her trip back in time to re-live her “glory days” of “Male-Ragazzo’s” and her studies abroad. So for ten days straight, there we were hobbling around Europe and following her trail in a foreign country as little hormonally crazed 16 year old monsters. Needless to say this trip had it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. There was minimal use of the language studies for our benefit, but a lot of curse words learned and implemented quickly. Back then we had the American dollar to our advantage for shopping, eating and of course sightseeing. The only problem was, we were 16. It wasn’t until ten years later that I actually knew the names of all of the Piazzas and Duomos I haphazardly photographed with Kodak throw-aways, and slapped into peel and paste albums in 1998.
Florence then appeared accidently in one or two more itineraries to follow as layovers or points of transfer. Finally, I had a full night there with my mom in 2008 at the tail end of my graduation gift; two weeks abroad with my mom, grandmother, and of course my Aunt Laura. After 7 Italian cities, it was then that I got a whiff of extra virgin olive oil mid-air while walking out of the train station bags-in-hand, that I realized this place is special. One night wasn’t going to be enough time to eat! Grandma and Aunt Laura ended up retiring early since it had been a very long and overly-stimulating trip. Mom and I were lucky enough to experience the local “aperitivo” which at the time I found to be a rather shockingly large buffet for a “happy hour.” I can’t even remember where it was, but my Mom and I ended up having dinner at the same restaurant and had a really nice picture taken of us on the Ponte Vecchio beforehand.
Fast forward to 2012 (4 years later): This trip to Italy was not only special because I got to see one of my good friends get married, but it was my first time abroad with my childhood friend Gabby. I was excited to see the city properly, in that we were going to be spending more than 24 hours there as adults. Our friends arranged for a luxurious stay at Salvatore Ferragamo’s Gallery Hotel Art before we ventured out into the Tuscan countryside for the wedding. In efforts to make this an extra memorable experience, we were brainstorming about activities a couple days before leaving.
I was thinking about this blog and what could make for some fun additions to it. When I thought of the possibility of taking a cooking class Gabby was instantly on board. The next obstacle was the issue of financing it. It appears that the whole entire world wants to take cooking classes in Florence (Go figure), and unless you are enrolling for culinary school you can really break your bank doing so. Most of the cooking classes I found during my search ranged anywhere from 200 to 500 euros. The packages did not really seem to differ in any respects besides, the more you paid the more romantic the scenery you cooked in. Gabby and I may have been joking about this being our honeymoon, but we were willing to skimp on the Tuscan sun setting on our elementary home-made ravioli.
So the day began with a super early rise. I was a bit hung-over (like no joke), and as Gabby and I grabbed our suitcases from our glorified hostel, Althea Rooms, we dragged them across the city center and literally over the river (but not through the woods…and definitely not to grandmother’s house), and I cursed that bottle of prosecco and countless cocktails from yesterday’s aperitivo and nightclub session at “FLO”. Gallery Art Hotel’s staff kindly showed us to our room, so we ditched our bags and ran to meet up with our group. We scarfed some of the delightful hotel breakfast, and dared to bring espresso “to go” on our journey. They seemed excited to chase us into our taxi with two coffees. I’m convinced they keep cups on-hand at breakfast solely for Americanos, and I don’t mean the beverage.
As soon as we arrived I instantly recognized Giovanni, our particularly stylish Italian Chef/Professore from someone else’s blog. He rounded up the troops as our espressos started to kick in, and we couldn’t take the suspense much longer. We began our walk to our first stop, Central Market. There wasn’t very much time to shop, so if you were looking for a thorough tour of the market it’s necessary to go back on your own personal time. The group was definitely too intimate for anyone on their own agenda.
Here Giovanni showed us how to select and prepare our ingredients “Italiano Style”. We looked at various produce, Italian cheeses, and lots of olive oil and balsamic vinegars from the region.
Finally, we made a lengthy stop at the meat counter where we witnessed the slaughtering, I mean “preparation” of different cuts of meat from all kinds of different animals.
(WARNING: You might not appreciate this part if you are at all squeamish, vegetarian, or any sort of an animal activist.)
Afterwards, a girl that was very knowledgeable about the region of Tuscany prepared a tasting of local olive oils, biscotti and preserves at her Firenze Souvenir shop. She introduced us to the Italian ritual of dunking biscotti in Vin Santo, a sweet dessert “holy wine” typically made in Tuscany from the Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. Now for anyone that has spent years in hospitality like myself, I trust that you’ve run into our little crunchy friends and their boozey accompaniment…Historically used during mass, it can vary in color and sweetness and it is available all over Italy. We also learned a bit about the origin of biscotti, which is traced back to the Roman Legions. The word “biscotto” derives from “bis” (latin for twice) and “coctum”(which later became “cotto”) meaning cooked, were a convenient and durable snack for traveling long journeys. During the Renaissance period, bakers realized biscotti had the perfect consistency for soaking up the wine, and hence a tradition was born.
After dipping our biscotti in Vin Santo I could tell the rest of the class was on board with my thoughts…”When are we going to start cooking so we can eat?” We left the market after about an hour, and reached our venue after a ten minute walk. The front of the building was quite misleading. It was desolate and grim considering that the facility was better than average inside. As it turns out they hold these classes in the space of a former restaurant. I enjoyed the vibe of it because it had everything we needed minus the sterile cold feeling of a proper culinary classroom kitchen. Once again, not the romantic villa with the sun setting on our ravioli…but it had everything we needed and some very entertaining professors (and students) to guide the way!
Fellow Students from Philadelphia…
PeanutPimpMama & Gabby…(ready to get this party started)
The very first thing we cooked was our dessert since it needed time to chill and settle. What other dessert would have been more suited to a cooking class in Italy than Tiramisu? So, it began… First we separated our egg whites and yolks into different bowls. Now, I must admit that I had a completely different idea of how this part of the class was going to be broken up. I assumed that everyone would have their own set of ingredients, or at least their own mixing bowl and “community ingredients” to divide. Instead the professor spoke a bit, and then set up enough ingredients and bowls so that each section of the winged table had their own sample to work with. In retrospect, I think it was smarter to do it this way since cooking a coursed meal alone can take up to 4-5 hours, let alone for 25 people. We passed the bowl along while rigorously whipping the egg whites (whisk in hand) at a violently rapid pace until they firmed. We knew that we had reached the appropriate consistency when we flipped the bowl and the egg whites stayed right in place.
The second step for the tiramisu: Dealing with the yolks… After the sugar was added and whisked to the right consistency, we added a container of mascarpone cheese (2000 grams=4.5 pounds) and combined that with our egg yolk mélange a.k.a. zabaglione (sans liquere) since we were cooking with “les buh-bays“. Last but not least, our fluffy egg whites were folded into the mix as pictured above.
Then it was time to get the lady fingers involved…
Everyone in the class was given their own glass dessert cup thankfully, and a ration of 4 lady fingers. Now with all of our Mise en place, it was time to start building!
This was the easy part. We coated the bowls with a light layer of cocoa powder, then added a couple table spoons of the zabaglione, and finally dusted it with more cocoa. After the lady fingers were dunked in the “un-coffee liqueur” they were placed on the first layer side by side. After repeating this a couple of times, we achieved a beautiful layered presentation!
Pictured above is the finished product with a nice angle of the layering. I would like to think that mine was the prettiest out of the 25 that were stowed away in the refrigeration unit, but I’ll just have to leave that open to interpretation…
Next step: We rounded up our ingredients for the exciting part! Pasta pasta pasta!
I feel like these pictures do not serve any justice to all of the Mama’s that have slaved over the stoves of Italy in the last century. Obviously the beginning of the process was easy. We were each given our 1.5 cups of flour, salt, olive oil and one egg to start. Placing ingredients directly onto the table, the first step was to create a well in the middle of our mound of flour. Second, the egg was placed in the well with the oil. Third, we took a fork and began to mix the egg in the center, slowly including a bit of flour from the edges as we continued to mix. Once the majority was blended together with the fork, we then began to knead our concoction into a little dough ball. This required occasional sprinkles of extra flour on the table so the dough would not stick, and would slowly become the right consistency to press into flat noodles. You would think this would take five minutes but it actually took about 25 minutes just to mix, knead, and roll.
Pictured above is your desired dough-ball look. When you are done kneading, you wrap your balls in plastic wrap and let them sit for 30-40 minutes until they are ready to be pressed into noodles. (Yeah, that’s right I just said that!)
After our dough balls were placed on a rack in the kitchen to settle, our professor came out to show us the basic ingredients of a bolognese sauce consisting of sausage, ground beef, carrots, celery and onion. We saved a lot of time during this part of the class by heading into the kitchen to watch the preparation together since there was only one large stove and 25 of us. The professors also put together some bruschetta to accompany our lunch while we weren’t looking. (sneaky) The bruschetta was a very simple traditional recipe: toasted bread, tomato, olive oil, salt, pepper and basil.
Now normally in this modern age one would have a pasta machine, but not this class! We did it the old fashioned way with rolling pins! Luckily everyone got their ball of dough back, or someone elses ball, and their very own rolling pin. The first thing we worked on after rolling our dough out to the desired circular flat shape were the noodles. We folded the dough into a strip, and cut slices approximately one inch wide to make ribbon-like noodles otherwise known as “Pappardelle”. The second noodle we created was our ravioli. We made sure that the folded dough was just as thick as our small cup which we used as a tool to press out our circular ravioli noodles. After pressing out our cheese filled pockets, we crimped the edges with our forks for decorative flare…
Pictured Above: Gabby displays her four ravioli pouches filled with ricotta cheese. PeanutPimpMama makes five raviolis instead of the suggested four. (She has always had trouble listening to instructions) Last but not least, the Pappardelle noodles.
While we were not entirely responsible, the finished project was Bellisimo! As I mentioned earlier, they snuck off and made the bruschetta behind our backs and showed us how they would assemble the bolognese sauce. Everything was really delicious though! The bolognese sauce was raved about, and I got special treatment with my very own vegetarian dish! To replace the bolognese, they gave me a white wine sauce with shallots and sage. For a garnish they topped it off with five ricotta scoops and a generous sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese. Between my pappardelle and ravioli, I was totally cheesed out by the end of the afternoon. The professors were incredibly thoughtful in preparing the additional vegetarian dish for just myself, but it had an extremely similar flavor to the ravioli. I would have preferred a simple tomato sauce at that point. We expected a wine tasting, but they were not very enthusiastic about it with children in the room. Yeah, those children… However they did place a lovely bottle of Chianti on each table to drink with our freshly prepared meal. We made sure they were all gone before we left! PeanutPimpMama operates on a “No drink left behind” policy, and there is no alcohol abuse allowed in Italy.
Graduation was a bit emotional as we parted ways…no seriously after 5 hours you got to know people! I highly suggest doing something like this if you are traveling alone and looking to make friends, as a couple (and just sick of looking at each other all day) or as a group function if there are enough of you to reserve a private group class! Obviously our group was filled with mostly Americans, as I think the local Italians pretty much have these recipes “down pat”. But in all honesty, we shared a lot of laughs together and this package gave you the “biggest bang for the buck” as far as I was concerned. Have a good think about the last time you actually made raviolis…seems so simple yet so many people have never done it!
Aprons are available for sale as souvenirs, and the Professors sign off on cute little diplomas to take home along with booklets containing recipes used in class allowing you to “Be Italiano” on your own time. Sadly, I lost my recipe booklet somewhere during the ” International Wedding Shuffle”. In fact, I think I lost Gabby’s as well. PDF anyone?
I’m so excited about all of the unborn ravioli in my near future. Think of all the filling possiblities!
Until Next Time…
To Book Your Own Class: www.florencetown.com or www.city-discovery.com
For roughly $100 dollars and change…The Wannabe Italiano Cooking Class Included:
- Local market tour-Introduction to local foods and delecacies
- Lunch (You cook it, you eat it!)
- Hands-on cooking class-(mostly)
- Wine tasting (Not really, they give you one standard Chianti to drink with your lunch)
- Small groups (and not so small groups)
- Total duration 5 hours
- Meeting point – Local office: Via Calzaiuoli at 10.00am
- All year around except Sundays, April 25, May 1st, June 2nd, June 24/25.