I have changed my name to Julia Child. Well, scratch that: I’ve changed it to Giada De Laurentiis. After the amazing 4.5+ hour cooking extravaganza my parents and I were able to partake in on the Friday night of our visit to Florence, I feel like I can whip egg whites and sugar into a mean meringue like no other. Slicing mushrooms? Psshhh…I do it in my sleep. Peeling tomatoes? Know it like the back of my hand.
But in all seriousness, we arrived at our meeting point around 5:15 pm (17:15 if you’re speaking typical-Italian military time) and from there walked with a representative of the cooking school across the River Arno until we reached our final destination: a very unsuspecting building with a modest sign,
When we first walked inside, we were greeted by 4 stainless steel workstations, all ingredients (more or less) measured out and divided into separate containers.
There were 13 people total in our group, and 2 chefs. We were lucky enough to snag the group of 5 so we got Chef Silvio all to ourselves — lucky us! The other 8 were divided into two groups of 4 and had to share a chef who bobbled back and forth between them. I was delighted: after the great but not fully as hands-on cooking experience I had with my classmates in Tivoli (check out the link for yummy homemade pasta recipes!), I was so ready to get my hands dirty in the kitchen — and actually prepare all of the items we’d be dining on that evening.
Upon further inspection (c’mon, I’m an aspiring journalist…I have to be at least a little nosy), I spied with my little eyes…
Zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms, fresh rosemary, garlic…
I don’t believe those six ingredients could combine to form anything but deliciousness. You?
(Don’t fresh tomatoes remind you of summer?)
Mmm…mushrooms and fresh rosemary. You really can’t beat the flavor combination of those two together.
Ohh…and I know what these are for:
The savoiardi (which resemble Italian ladyfingers but 2x as thick) were screaming out tiramisu to me. And I was lovin’ what that meant.
Throughout the cooking course, we worked on 4 dishes:
- Vegetable Millefoglie (a layered appetizer starring eggplant, zucchini, potato, fontina cheese, grated parmesan, evoo, & oregano)
2. Potato Gnocchi in a tomato & garlic sauce(with fresh basil)
3. Chicken Aretina* (chicken and white wine marinate together while they cook; as soon as the wine is evaporated, the mushrooms, garlic, zucchini, rosemary, and s&p jump in the pot and simmer…letting all those delicious flavors and textures mingle together into a dish that is truly beyond words)
4. Tiramisu (Savoirardi cookies are quickly dipped in coffee (a few drops of alcohol into the coffee is optional) and topped with a combination of mascarpone cheese and a sugar/egg yolk mixture that has been beaten into a meringue. Topped with cocoa powder, try convincing anyone — coffee lover or coffee hater — that this dish is anything less than perfection.)
*My favorite of the dishes
My dad was the star of our group. But note to self: Never follow my dad’s example and ask a chef (even if semi-joking) if it’s customary to sip a glass of wine while you cook. He will go off on a tangent about the dangers of cooking while drinking alcohol and…yeah…non va bene.
If no one messes with my dad’s concentration, no one will get hurt…
After the meringue was finished, we got to work preparing the tiramisu, which would be in individual servings — portioned out in our own little ramekins. (I have a fascination and love for all things mini/fun-sized.)
Once prepared, they were ready to get into il frigo (even if you don’t know a lick of Italian, I’m willing to bet you can figure that one out :))
We prepared the dessert first because it needed to chill for a couple of hours, but in my humble opinion, starting with dessert for any reason is just the way life should work, no? 😉
Next up: let’s get to work on the rest of the meal:
(Making the gnocchi)
(Well, unfortunately for my dad, from this point on he will never be able to use the excuse that he can’t cook…)
Alright — this is where I understand that life is not fair. My mom and I (and the other two, sweet women in our group) are slaving away chopping, peeling, dicing, julienning…and my father is the member of our little team that gets to taste-test.
What is that?! My only guess is that there’s some kind of bromance going on…
I have to be grateful to Silvio, though: he taught me how to go from presenting a food as ho-hum to wham-bam!
Our appetizers came out of the oven looking mouthwateringly delicious:
I snapped about 10-15 photos of this dish as soon as it came out of the oven…and then as Silvio added sprinkles of one herb…and then another…and then drizzled some olive oil around the dish…
It went from this: (still gorgeous, right?)
You know me and my affinity for all foods steaming hot — I was worried that, since we’d be preparing all of the dishes, they’d be cold/lukewarm/room-temp/anything-less-than-temperature-perfection when we finally sat down to eat them.
My mom’s response? “It’s a restaurant, Anna. I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”
That old adage is so true: Mama always knows best.
While we were involved in each step of the preparation of the 4 courses, Silvio and the other chef finished them off in terms of putting them into the oven, simmering them on the stove, roasting, etc., etc. We got to prepare the dishes and be served (in an underground wine cellar, no less). Now that’s living the dream.
After making our appetizers look like stunning works of art, we grabbed our plates full of these gorgeous masterpieces and headed down to our dining spot for the night:
One of the bottles of wine sitting behind my dad and I was truly meant for him:
Did I mention my dad is obsessed with the word allora? (It translates into then.) Contrary to my continuous efforts to teach him the proper pronuncation and moment at which to use it, he says allara, allura, basically everything BUT allora. Allora…
We sat down at a table with our cooking “team” — it’s only natural, after all…to sit down together and enjoy the meal you created with each other. We all agreed the vegetable millefoglie blew the ball outta the park. Not only was this easy-peasy to make (simply rotating the ingredients to layer on top of one another, adding a bit of s&p and evoo, and sticking a toothpick slanted through the finished product to ensure it stays put in the oven!), but it would work as both a wow-worthy appetizer for a casual dinner party with friends and as a side-dish to an elegant holiday family feast. (Or, if you’re like me, you could make 3 or 4 of these for yourself and eat those — and only those — for a fantastic, veggie-based dinner!) My goal this summer is to teach Andrew how to make these…and to get him to like eggplant, if he doesn’t already 🙂
Plate clean. Please bring out course #2, Silvio!
Made by simply combining potatoes and all-purpose flour, the actual texture of the gnocchi was very soft and tender, not at all the al dente of which the Italians over here have grown me so accustomed. However, when I mentioned this to Silvio, he grew angry. Gnocchi are supposed to be tender, not al dente. (Whoops. As far as I was concerned, our family was on strike 2. Don’t mention wine, don’t mention too-soft gnocchi. Mom, you better not blow it for us.)
All texture aside, the gnocchi paired wonderfully with the tomato & garlic sauce. Fresh tomatoes and many cloves of garlic blended together to create a sweet sauce with a punch from my all-time favorite herb (well, at least while I’m living in Italy): basil. Let’s just say this dish went over well at our table: we kept feeding my dad little serving after serving…he was the only man at the table so we made him eat up 😉
Now for the crème de la crème: it’s Chicken Aretina time!
Perhaps this dish was elevated in my mind because it contained mushrooms (and mushrooms & I are likethis), but this dish couldn’t be easier:
Chicken Aretina (Pollo all’Aretina)
- 1/2 of a medium sized chicken
- Flour, as needed
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 medium-sized zucchini, sliced
- 1 cup of white mushrooms, finely sliced
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- salt & pepper, to taste
- Clean and wash the chicken. Cut into pieces and flour lightly.
- Cook the chicken in the butter until golden brown on all sides.
- Sprinkle on the wine and cook until evaporated.
- Add the mushrooms, garlic, zucchini, rosemary, s&p; reduce heat to simmer and cook uncovered for 25 minutes.
The tender, falling-off-the-bone chicken, meaty-textured & woodsy mushrooms, and aromatic, pine-like taste of the rosemary just work together.
This guy was proud (of us). Can you tell?
By evidence of the following photograph, Silvio wasn’t the only one really enjoying this meal:
Last but certainly not least (such a great phrase) — tiramisu!
Does it suffice to say this bowl was licked clean? (Well, not actually licked. I couldn’t be that impolite in front of my teammates.)
If you’ve never made tiramisu, or want a quick, easy version…definitely give this one a try. It’d be fun to make for friends, with friends, for people who you want to be your friends…I think you get my point.
Tiramisu (Makes 6 servings)
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 cup mascarpone cheese
- Savoiardi cookies (if you can’t find these at your local grocery or Italian-specialty store, you can substitute in ladyfingers)
- Cocoa powder
- Whip together some of the sugar and the egg yolks until well mixed.
- Beat egg whites and the remaining sugar with a mixer until firm and shiny.
- Add the mascarpone cheese to the sugar/egg yolk mixture.
- Once incorporated, gently fold your egg white mixture into the mascarpone base.
- Quickly (it’s important to do this quickly so the Savoiardi don’t get too soggy) dip the savoiardi cookies in the coffee to wet, being sure not to soak them. Layer the cookies and cream in small ramekins beginning with the cookie and finishing with the cream.
- Sprinkle the top with cocoa powder.
- Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving.
Celebrating our successes, clearly.
We had so much fun — the tips and techniques we learned for the kitchen were invaluable, the camaraderie with our fellow cooks was both serious and light-hearted, the dishes exceeded my expectations, and Silvio was a true gem. Alas, if only the stars had been aligned for us (I kid): he mentioned to us that he had “a date with my future ex-girlfriend.” Classic, Silvio. Classic.
As the group was departing, I said goodbye. He replied, “I’ll wait for you Anna. Come back.”
“Sure,” I told him…
“If it’s free, that is.”