Food Adventures

Monday, July 31, 2006

As I promised, I will continue to update this blog as I try out the recipes I studied this summer and continue to explore and enjoy the many facets of Italian food. Every time I return from Italy, I go through a period of adjustment during which I usually do not eat Italian food as nothing tastes as good as it does in Italy. This applies to cappuccino as well to the point where in the past I have had to switch to tea for a couple of weeks because coffee does not appeal.

Well, this year it is different: on Friday, barely 5 hours after I had landed in Chicago, Michael and I went to Frasca, our favorite vine bar. In the couple of months since Frasca opened, we have eaten there at least a dozen times and not only because it's 5 blocks from our house. I have shared with many of you my feelings for their bricked chicken with Tuscan white beans as well as the chocolate panna cotta and several other items. I started with a glass of their excellent proseco while also helping Michael with his flight of reds. We shared an appetizer plate with coppa, sopressata, pecorino and white bean/balsamic vinegar bruschetta and a flight or olive oil. Yes, Frasca has an olive oil flight with an Umbrian, Tuscan and Sicilian olive oil: light and sweet, peppery, and quite spicy, respectively. All three go really well with Frasca's freshly baked bread (which goes well with pretty much everything as well as on its own). Of course, we could not possibly leave Frasca without having the bricked chicken, so we made some room for it and, as always, it did not disappoint.

The Italian feast continued on Saturday morning, when we drove to Harwood Heights to have cornetti con crema. I have introduced some of you to my friends at Café di Maggio and their excellent pastries filled with pastry cream and if you have even glanced at this blog over the past month, you know how I feel about pastries with cream. Well, as if to make me feel better about no longer being in Italy, Rosario's cornetti this morning were better than they had ever been before. Both the pasties and the cream were super fresh and as we took the first bites, we were transported back to Italy. We could not talk, but did continue to make noises that were correctly interpreted as complete happiness. Our enjoyment was only enhanced by the excellent cappuccini Edita pulled.

I shared with Rosario some of my pictures and experiences and he was so excited about the pastries I had made in baking class that we agreed to organize a pastry party (featuring mainly bomboloni and cornetti); he and I will make the pastries together and all of you are invited to help us enjoy them. The day has not been set yet, but it will likely happen when it gets just a little cooler (late September or October). For those of you familiar with the concept of sagra, it will be a Sagra del Bombolone (if you're not familiar with sarga, here is a link that provides some info

The Italian feast continued all weekend, with lunches of rotolo, bruschetta, prosciutto, mozzarella di buffala, ciabatta, and a somewhat successful attempt on my part to recreate without a recipe a white bean Tuscan soup I had at Trattoria de Benci (the effort was only somewhat successful because the soup tasted good, but it was not quite as good as the one I had; no surprises there).

Today, I recreated my first recipe, the gnudi al burro a salvia (naked ravioli with butter and sage). Complete success! The hand-dipped ricotta at Whole Foods was too fresh to resist and decided to risk it and make the recipe even though I am still researching kitchen scales and had to eyeball the quantities (sorry Andrea!). My new (and very sharp!) knives did an excellent job of chopping the spinach really finely and in 20 minutes I had a very fragrant and most delicious lunch. Not too much flour on the outside of the gnudi this time. ;)

Already looking forward to trying my next recipe. Stay tuned for the report; I promise to be honest and report successes, partial successes, and utter failures. Next time, I will try to remember to take a picture of what I make before it's too late.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Well, the practical exams are now over and, as it happens at the end of every great learning experience, I feel I have barely scratched the surface. Now my desire to dedicate myself to Italian cooking is stronger than ever. The past month has been a life-altering experience: it has been humbling, but also encouraging, challenging, and utterly thrilling. Every time I have made a mistake, I have learned several things from it. Tasting my successes and mistakes has helped me develop a deeper appreciation for the art and science of cooking, the perfect blend of skill, knowledge and experience that produces sublime culinary experiences. Working with three of the most wonderful teachers (and personalities) I have ever met has taught me how new techniques and helped me develop my cooking intuitions. It has inspired me and made me even more passionate about food (I know you didn't think it was possible for me to get even more excited about food—I might have thought so, too—but it has happened).

Andrea Trapani opened our eyes to what a huge difference technique makes even in the simplest of dishes and his perfect blend of guidance and letting us learn from our mistakes has been a tremendous learning experience. I will never forget the day my cooking partners are and I tasted our zucchini sformato with self-satisfaction only to find out that we had undercooked the roux ("don't undercook the roux" became one of our mottoes, together with "don't undercook the onions," "don't boil the rice in risotto," and "salt more"). His patience, grace, and unique sense of humor make him an extraordinary instructor and role model. As I watched him handle an avalanche of questions (most of which we had asked multiple times) with a smile, I thought of how fortunate we have been to have the opportunity to work with him. He intimidated us, but also made us try harder and do better. We wanted our dishes to be perfect, and even though they rarely were, his critiques were fair and exactly what we needed to learn.

Marcella Ansaldo's passion about food captured us from the very first day. Her inspired and insightful descriptions of the regions and their products transported us to those regions for three hours a day and inspired us to taste new things and experiment with new cooking methods. Her encouragement to communicate with the foods we were cooking and use our sense made us laugh, but also helped us cook better. She helped us overcome our discomfort about eyeballing things and not always using the scale, but gradually we stopped wanting to use the scale. We could make a pasta dough by feel and taste how much vinegar and sugar we needed for an agrodolce. She helped us feel confident and her enthusiasm about tasting our food and finding something to praise about every dish helped us figure out what flavors we like best and not be a slave to the recipe.

And then, there was Andrea Bianchini who often teased us about our technique and resisted our efforts to get him to tell us exactly how much time short pastry should spend in the oven and at exactly what temperature. We admired his skill and experience, but also his ability to change a recipe that we thought was already perfect and make into something even better. How can something as good as a great crème brulee be made even better? By infusing the cream with lavender, orange and fennel, or star anice. It takes crème brulee into a whole new galaxy and makes you want to discover other flavors. His ability to 'save' things we had thought ruined and get us back on track astounded us and his insistence on perfection in everything from chocolate to pastry cream did not stop him from praising our less than perfect products (like my overcooked pastry cream in the practical exam).

With teacher like this, even the worst of days—when I had been on my feet for 10+ hours, cooking in temperatures well over 100 degrees and frustrated that what I was making was not turning out better than it was—were a thrill. At the end of each day, I felt elated and excited, ready for another day of cooking and learning. I only wish I had had more time to prepare the recipes outside of class for practice, but I am inspired to do that in my own kitchen (keep visiting this website for reports of how the recipes turn out).

Today, we were all strangely nervous about the practical exams even though grades are not really important to any of us. We kept second-guessing ourselves and tasting and retasting to make sure we had seasoned the dishes properly. We kept trying to remember how we had made things in class and, of course, our recollections often differed significantly. After all the fretting, we all did very well and got high praise. In the baking class, we got to choose what we would make for the final. You won't be surprised to hear that I chose to make pastry cream. I was a little hesitant about choosing a recipe that is relative easy, but it turned out to be a good choice, especially since after the instructor and I had tasted it and talked about it, all of my classmates got to enjoy it as well.

I enjoyed my cooking school experience so much that after all the exams, I stayed to help with a class for a group of high school students. Helping with those classes has been a tremendous learning experience since I get to teach the recipes to others and explain them. I also have to make things interesting as high school students are not necessarily interested in making their own diner on a trip to Florence. Tonight, I was in charge of the pasta making stations and the pasta, so it was flattering to hear that some of the students pronounced the sauce the best pasta sauce they had ever had. It's the little things!

Here is a picture of me in my cooking attire and one of me and my cooking partner, Greta, being silly one day in class.

After I leave Apicius, I want a glass of wine, so I stop by a trattoria in my neighborhood that I know has some really good wines by the glass (not an easy thing to find as most restaurants serve the house wine and only bottles of other wines). I get a glass of my favorite wine and some crostini toscani (pieces of bread with chicken liver pate). This is the second time I have had their chicken liver crostini and I still think they're the best I have ever had. The pate is very smooth and rich, with the perfect amount of salt. It goes wonderfully with my glass of wine. The doors and windows of the trattoria are wide open and I can hear Benigni read Dante in Piazza Santa Croce. A perfect moment: a warm summer night in Firenze, Benigni, Dante, fantastic food and wine (pause to appreciate for a moment this blend of experiences).

To add to the enjoyment, I am looking through the cookbook I got. It includes recipes from my three teachers and as I am admiring some of the best food photos I have seen, the owner of the trattoria comes over and asks about the cookbook. He wants to look at a picture of one of Andrea Trapani's dishes. He admires it and even shows it to the chef. They're looking through the rest of the book and talking about the chefs they recognize and they admire Andrea Trapani's recipes; it turns out they know of Andrea, my instructor for Tradition of Italian Food, and tell me he is quite famous. We have an animated conversation about Italian food and cooking schools and as I am leaving, I promise to come back next year. This trattoria, Pallottino, has been a real find: affordable, pleasant, and—as they say here—si mangia molto bene.


My last morning in Florence—a heavenly bombolone and another life-altering cappuccino. Then a visit to the markets, as always mesmerized by the million things I wish I could take home. It takes all my willpower not to buy the sweet-smelling melons and peaches, the picture-perfect figs, the pastries and fresh schiacciata sandwiches smiling at me, the wonderful crusty loaves of Tuscan bread, the fresh porcini. I say good-bye to all of these wonderful things that linger in my imagination no matter where I am and promise to come back soon.

I stop by my favorite bakery in Via Guelfa and get some of my favorite cheese biscuits to snack on later, exert the last of my willpower and only buy 4 bottles of balsamic vinegar, surrender to the temptation to buy truffle honey even though I know it is impossible to find in Chicago the kind of pecorino cheese it goes best with, stop by my favorite bar in the market where they not only have a Rancilio machine, but also use Illy coffee for another coffee and then pay my last visit to Mario's, a loud and lively place in the San Lorenzo market where you share tables with strangers and cannot go wrong no matter what you order. When I have coffee at my favorite bars, I say good-bye to the baristas who already know my order and they wish me a good trip. I tell them I hope to be back soon. The thought of not being able to enjoy real cappuccino and macchiato makes me sad, but I comfort myself with the thought that with some more practice, I might be able to coax Silvia and Rocky Rancilio (as my espresso machine and grinder are affectionately known) into producing a decent shot of espresso. I know that it's impossible to reproduce the Florentine atmosphere that makes every cup of coffee a drop of bliss, but I hope to infuse my espresso with a unique hint of Chicago.

Finally, here is the view from my balcony. This is what I have woken up to for the past month. I will miss it.

And the Florentine sunset on my last day.

Ciao, Firenze! Hope to see you again very soon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

At the bar this morning, I overhear two men discussing the benefits of sugar for the brain. As one of them is pouring sugar liberally in his small cappuccino, he turns to the other one and explains that the brain needs sugar. The cappuccino, of course, will serve to wash down the sweet pastry covered in powder sugar. No Atkins diet! This is just one of the reasons why I love this country!

In the morning class, we make tiramisu and an orange cake with chocolate sauce. It's interesting that we make tiramisu, probably the most famous Italian dessert worldwide—on our last day of cooking. I had not really missed tiramisu, but it was good to make (and taste!) one. In the next class, we proceed to make a fritto misto, a collection of fried everything: veal liver, carrots, lamb brain, sage, zucchini, balls of semolina cooked in milk. It all tastes delicious (yes, even the brain), but it's difficult to appreciate it on a day when the temperature is over 100F and the humidity seems equally high. In the afternoon, we go to Andrea Bianchini's chocolate shop for our last day of baking class. The shop is across town from the school, so I have to run in the rain (the first rain I have seen so far in Firenze), all the while making sure I don't slip and fall on the stones since the bottoms of my tennis shoes seem to be covered with grease. I arrive drenched, but we do get to taste some divine chocolate. We learn the technique of tasting chocolate: take a small bite of chocolate (well, if you can ever take a small bite of chocolate), spread it all over your mouth with the tongue, take in some air through your mouth and pay attention to what happens in the back of your mouth as you're swallowing the chocolate. Yum! My favorite is the milk chocolate with sea salt. We taste Palomino, a very rare Venezuelan chocolate, produced by a single estate, but we all prefer the other types of dark chocolate as the Palomino tastes somewhat acidic. We get an intro of the process of producing chocolate and even make some bars as I try not to lean against the 18,000 euro pieces of equipment.

In the evening, we go to a party in honor of two of the chefs from the school whose cookbook just came out. For each recipe, the two chefs present their own interpretations of a classic Tuscan recipe. The design and photos are gorgeous and it's hard to believe that the book was designed by students. The photos make the food jump off the page.

The last day of class is over and tomorrow and the day after we take our exams: first a written one and then a practical one. I can't believe this cooking adventure is almost over and I am sad to leave this magical city and the wonderful school. But I am glad to come home and put to use what I have learned and share the outcomes with you.

P.S. All this week, Roberto Benigni is reading Dante in the square in front of my apartment. Aaaah, Firenze in the summer!

Friday, July 21, 2006

First of all, here are some pictures of things I made this week

Semolina cake with chocolate ganache

Pasta with broccoli

Stuffed apple

Marquis moka

pasta caprese and lamb Roman style

Chocolate cake

Another week of culinary adventures is over. It has been fun and exciting, full of interesting dishes: stuffed squid (with carrots, leeks, and bread crumbs)—pronounced perfect by Andrea—carrot soufflé (less than perfect), sole with bitter orange sauce, pork with apples and, on the sweeter side, apple tart, lemon cake, Bavarian cream, and a variety of cakes. Our baking instructor (whose name is also Andrea) has had us make a number of the cakes that are sold in his chocolate shop and it's been quite a bit of fun. When we make recipes such as Bavarian cream or Italian meringue, which in and of themselves are not terrible exciting, we go a couple of steps further and actually use them in cakes, learning how to layer and combine flavors and textures. Of course, the funnest part of the exercise is tasting our creations, which even when they don't look perfect taste unbelievably good.

I have also made several different types of pasta, including orecchiette, which are quite difficult to make well. We were all so slow at it, that I was starting to fear we would starve (we had not eaten for at least 2 hours!), but fortunately, Marcella showed us how to make a similar shape that is easier to make because you roll it on a towel (to give it texture), instead of trying to shape it around your thumb and then flip it inside out on your index finger. We dressed the pasta with broccoli, garlic, olive oil and anchovies and had a wonderful meal.

So, this week among other things I have learned how to clean and cook squid and also skin and fillet sole, two things I was surprisingly successful at. In one of the classes, we used the sole fillets to make pasta. Yes, you did read correctly, we made pasta dough using raw sole, bread crumbs, and parmiggiano and then ran it through a ricer (!!!) and dropped it into boiling fish stock we had prepared from scratch (let's just say we cleaned and gutted a lot of fish that day). I must admit that this has been my least favorite dish so far; the combination of fish stock and fish pasta on a very hot day just didn't excite my taste buds that much. But the experience was fun.

In addition to cooking in class, this week I also helped out with classes four tourist groups. Many agencies bring groups to the school for a Tuscan meal and I got to help the chefs cook and serve the meal. The groups were mostly high school students, who tended to have most fun with making fresh pasta. I would be assigned to a group of 4-5 students and would walk them through the recipe and help them make it (I would actually do most of the work, especially if the recipe was a dessert and the eggs needed to be beaten). Different groups make different courses and at the end of the evening, they all have a 4 course dinner that they have helped prepare. Most find it fun, even though they are not very interested in cooking. One girl from Texas was shocked to discover that pasta is actually made fresh; she had never thought about how pasta is made.

Next week, we have exams on Tuesday and Wednesday, so Monday is the only day of real cooking. The practical exams are on Wednesday, but we will be making recipes we have made in the classes, so nothing new.

Florence is warming up again and today it's over 100F. Some might think that would stop me from eating pastries stuffed with cream for breakfast and washing them down with a couple of cappuccinos, but I have a job to do and I will continue to sacrifice myself for the sake of pastry research.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, July 17, 2006

As many of you know, I really like my coffee and I am becoming quite particular about it. So, even in Italy, where it’s hard to have bad coffee, I prefer some coffee shops to others. On the weekends, I tend to go to a coffee shop close to the apartment that uses the same brand espresso maker (Rancilio) as our espresso machine at home. I am partial to my Rancilio Silvia and now I enjoy visiting her much bigger relative and testing the coffee. They have not disappointed me yet although they look at me strangely when I ask for my second cappuccino. What can I say, one is just not enough. They don’t even know that after my two cappuccini I usually have a macchiato before 9 am.

I am very happy it’s Monday today also because I had not had a bombolone in 2 days: on Saturday morning, I went to the usual pastry shop, but it turns out they don’t make bomboloni on Saturdays. Since they are closed on Sunday, I was forced to go to a different place and, of course, the bomboloni are not nearly as good. So, as you can guess by now, I suffered some because of that and could barely wait to get out of bed this morning to have a bombolone. the barista was surprised once again that I wanted a second cappuccino, but no one bats an eyelash when the two ladies who are there every morning have 3 pastries a piece and then take several more to go. One morning, the barista was saying to one of them that she was going to get sick from all the pastries she eats and she said, “I will worry about that if I get sick.”

Last night, I was at the school until 9:30 or so, helping out with a class for a group of about 50 American high school students and their teachers. It took a while to get the students to actually do work, but they were very excited about rolling out the pasta, so they ended p really enjoying their dinner of tagliatelle with tomato sauce, Italian meatloaf (with hard boiled eggs inside) and a Florentine schiacciata. They said it was the best meal they had had since arriving. I think part of the appeal was one of the chefs, who they considered good looking. Everyone wanted a picture of him or a picture with him and he was graceful enough to humor them all.

Anyway, the menu for the day consisted of some pretty delicious things: the morning started with asparagus risotto and duchess potatoes (mashed potatoes piped though a pastry bag into different shapes and then baked). I am disappointed to report that even though I make risotto on a regular basis at home and make it quite well, this time it did not turn out o.k. It was the worst risotto I had ever made and I choose to blame the silly electric stove and the fact that the temperature is never quite hot enough. The instructor pronounced the rice boiled and he was right, the consistency was just not right. The good news is that the seasoning was perfect, so we did something right. I am the only person in the group who likes quite a bit of salt, so no matter who I work with, we always have a discussion about salt. And of the most points Andrea makes most frequently is that there isn’t enough seasoning. Andrea also mentioned that in Italy food is salted more than in any other European country (or the U.S.). So now, my cooking partners let me salt the food and we do well. More luck with the risotto next time.

Also on the menu today a lamb dish from Lazio (the region where Rome is) and gnocchi alla romana (discs of semolina flour cooked in hot milk with some butter and parmesan; the discs are layered in a pan, sprinkled with more parmiggiano and butter and baked). What a wonderful lunch! For dessert: flourless chocolate cake as it is made in the chocolate shop of our teacher. One group made it plain and the other with hot peppers, rosemary and salt. Both were absolutely divine!

Well, I must get to bed now because tomorrow morning will be here very soon and there is a world of bomboloni and cappuccino waiting for me out there.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Here are some World Cup vistory pictures

First, a tense crowd, then celebrations

Today was a short day at school, but well worth attending. We made maltagliati (egg pasta cut into irregular shapes, literally 'badly cut') with a tomato-based sauce with cannellini beans, red peppers, and basil. My partner, Greta, and I had not evaporated the wine enough, so our sauce was a little acidic. Our other dish, stuffed zucchini, was pronounced 'perfect' by the instructor. This was high praise, considering that he always has suggestions for improvement. The zucchini were boiled and then hollowed and filled with a mix of zucchini pulp, ham, ricotta, egg, and pamiggiano. We could barely wait for the zucchini to get out of the oven, they smelled so good. As with any yummy recipe, they were gone in no time.

The meal we prepared in class was only topped by a wonderful dinner. It was Beth's last day in Firenze, and she wanted to have porcini mushrooms, so we went to Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco in Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno river). The Osteria specializes in cinghiale (wild boar), probably my favorite meat, but I had also noticed porcini on the menu, so we were hoping to try both. When I mentioned that they also serve fried zucchini flowers, Beth immediately suggested that we try those, too. Of course, it does not take anything to convince me to eat fried zucchini flowers.

Cinghiale Bianco is a very cozy and pleasant restaurant and the staff are very friendly and helpful. We had to wait a little while for a table, but that gave us a chance to stand on one of the bridges and watch the sun set over the river, a unforgettable sight. Our dinner was worth the wait, It was by far, the best meal I have had in Italy yet: it contained several things that we had not had and everything was prepared perfectly. We started with the fried zucchini flowers and fell in love at first bite. The flowers had been dipped in a think batter and were very light and crispy. I had never had zucchini flowers and was surprised by their sweet flavor. They were a perfect start to a meal that include cinghiale served with polenta and my first truffles ever, served over taglierini. The moment the waitress put the plate with the pasta and truffles in front of me, I knew I was going to taste something outstanding. The truffles that had been generously shaved over the pasta gave the most unbelievable smell that was only topped by the smooth, rich flavor. Those of you who have had truffles know what I mean; those of you who have not had truffles, I suggest you seek them out and try them as soon as possible. I am not sure how I have lived this far without having truffles. I must go back to this place before I leave because not knowing when I might be able to have truffles next would be too painful.

After our sublime dinner, we decided to walk around for a while and stumbled upon a concert in the Piazza della Signoria. The band sounded very interesting: the beat was Latin and they sang in a southern dialect. The music was very interesting, so we sat down at one of the restaurants and enjoyed their performance. The Piazza was full of people of all ages and everyone was moving to the beat. It was fascinating to be in front of a building like the Pallazzo Vecchio and be listening to a concert of popular music.

As we walked home after midnight, Firenze did not seem to be ready to go to sleep. There were people everywhere and it didn't look like anyone (but us) was going to bed soon.

Friday, July 14, 2006

As I mentioned in my last post, I am continuing to research the quality of pastries in Florence and, at this particular time, I am focusing on bomboloni con crema (doughnuts with pastry cream). This morning, I decided to try a pastry shop recommended by a trusted source—I dolci di Patrizio Cosi. Well, Patrizio needs to rethink his doughnuts, since the one I had had not risen well and was certainly not cooked enough: it was very pale and too soft and after the very first enthusiastic bite I knew that this place was no competition for Robioli, the place where I usually eat doughnuts with cream in the morning. The other pastries looked o.k., even though the brioche (or cornetti) were somewhat wrinkled. A note is probably in order here about brioche or cornetti are. Italian brioche or cornetto (the words are interchangeable) is almost the equivalent of a French croissant. The dough is slightly different (a little less butter), but they are still buttery, flakey, multi-layered pastries, either empty or filled with chocolate, jam or pastry cream (my personal favorite).

O.k., now that I have provided an update on my pastry research, we can move on to other things. I think I might have mentioned a couple of (hundred) times that the classrooms are quite hot and that when the AC is not working, they are even hotter. All of us (including the instructors) have done our fair share of complaining about the temperature and wishing the rooms were cooler. Well, be careful what you wish for! Today, there was a group of people in our classroom, so we had to use one of the demo classrooms. The demo classrooms are much smaller and less well equipped than the regular ones. They are also freezing!!! The temperature today was 18C (sorry I don't have a conversion table available right now, but trust me that IS cold). After we turned the AC down and the temp climbed to 25C, it was still freezing, so we had to open a window to let some warm air in!

In more interesting news: we discussed Sardinia today and learned some interesting facts about this somewhat isolated island between Corsica and Sicily (much closer to the former). We also made some wonderful Sardinian dishes, including a dessert with pecorino, the most famous Sardinian cheese (there is also a pecorino romano, made around Rome, mostly by Sardinians). I am not eager to visit Sardinia and taste the wonderful things we learned about, except the cheese with live worms. We made mussel soup—mussels in wine and tomato broth served over toasted bread rubbed with garlic—and ravioli stuffed with a mixture of pecorino and lemon peel, fried and drizzled with honey. Yum!!!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Another couple of firsts: an Italian guy stopped me on the street to ask me for directions to the library. Yes, he wanted ME to tell HIM how to get there. I didn't even have to stop and think where the library is.

Another first, less positive that the first one: the day before Michael left, we went to an osteria close to the apartment to have lunch. It was empty, but the menu looked decent, so we decided to give it a try. We ordered two glasses of red wine and thought we were dreaming when the waitress approached our table with a bottle of wine that looked like it had been kept in the fridge. Indeed, the wine was cold! This is the very first time I had been served cold red wine in Italy and I hope never to repeat the experience. Needless to say, the wine was also bad, so I am not sure the temperature made much of a difference, but still.

More about cooking school: I think I mentioned earlier that the kitchens at the school don't have AC. Well, that's what we all thought because we could not feel any remotely cool air. It turns out, we were wrong and we only discovered this today, when the AC was actually broke. We spent the morning making hot soups in a kitchen that felt like it had been constructed on the surface of the Sun. The fact that there were 12 or so burners on for a couple of hours didn't help much. Andrea, our instructor, would tell us what to do and then go sit outside (in the sun!). I didn't think I was going to be able to taste the cannellini beans and shrimp soup, especially since we had to blend the beans and the shrimp (!!!), which gave the soup the consistency of a jar of baby food. I am no lover of cooking with shrimp stock and there was certainly a great deal of that in this soup in addition to the blended soup. Think soup on a hot day! The other soup, zuppa di farro (spelt), was also thick and hearty, but at least it had a tomato base, so it was slightly less heavy (at least in my opinion). When tasting time came, I was able to taste the bean and shrimp soup Greta and I made, but could not bring myself to taste the other three. The farro soup was much easier to handle even on a hot day and I enjoyed several spoonfuls.

When I went to the bar between classes to have an espresso, I was wondering why people were complaining that it was too hot (today was the hottest day in Florence since I arrived). To me, being outside, in the sun, felt cool compared to the sweltering kitchen.

In the afternoon, the AC was back on, but we could barely feel it as we proceeded to make polenta (the kind that takes a good 30 or so minutes of constant stirring on the stove) and then fry it. Just to make things heavier on this hot day, we also fried up some cheese. It tasted marvelous, which cause me to taste it repeatedly in between bites of fried polenta and polenta with cheese. What a cheesy afternoon!

If you thought that would be enough frying for one day, you'd be surprised to hear that in baking class, we friend up some doughnuts and also some fritters. Now, as I might have mentioned, I love my bomboloni con crema (doughnuts with cream would be the translation, but that really doesn't do justice to these soft, freshly-fried pillows of perfectly raised dough filled with the most delicious pastry cream). Well, today was my lucky day because I learned how to make them! We also made some fritters traditionally served at carnival time, but that part of the lesson was much less interesting. Making the bomboloni, on the other hand, was a whole lot of fun—from making and kneading the dough by hand to the sweet smell of yeast that filled the room once we punched the dough down. It seemed unfair to wait for them to rise for 15 minutes, but the wait was worth it. I had the honor of piping the cream into the hot, fluffy doughnuts, and could barely take a picture of the finished product before arms extended all the way across the table and the bomboloni disappeared from the plate. This was the only thing we had made this far in any class that disappeared and in less than 30 seconds. The kitchen turned quiet and all you could hear were moans as my classmates and I smiles blissfully while enjoying our creations. The fritters felt neglected, I am sure.

Tomorrow morning, I continue the search for the second best bombolone in Florence since nothing can top the once we made today. On the agenda: a visit to the Dolci di Patrizio Cosi' pasty shop in the Santa Croce neighborhood with two trusted co-researchers. Stay tuned for the research results.

Other pictures of some of the more interesting dishes we have made so far:
Pasta with squid ink

Brutti ma buoni

Almond cake

Turkey roll

Eggplant and pecorino with honey

Ravioli with beat and ricotta filling



Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Another day started with my current favorite breakfast: bombolone con crema (a fresh doughnut with pastry cream) and two excellent cappuccinos. The folks at the pastry shop think it's a little strange that I ask for another cappuccino after I have finished the first one, but they indulge me and I am grateful.

Another exciting day at Apicius with several excellent recipes. My favorite for the day is the garbanzo soup with beet greens. It's light and fresh-tasting while also being quite filling. These days I don't eat too much that's green (except for the basil on my bruschetta), so having soup with greens was a nice change of pace. The eggplant timbale (filled with parmiggiano, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and eggplant) was interesting to make, but it did not excite my taste buds that much. In the regional Italian cooking class, we talked about Lombardy and made risotto all Milanese and costoletta alla Milanese (a veal chop breaded and fried in butter). Yes, you guessed right: both o these dishes were a little heavy for a day when the temperature in the kitchen was easily 115, but it was good to learn the traditional way of making risotto alla Milanese (let's just say it includes bone marrow, in addition to quite a bit of butter).

If my taste buds were not excited by the timbale, they certainly woke up in baking class, where we made 5 different flavors of crème brulee (plain, lavender, orange and fennel, star anise, and coffee). What a feast! I was in charge of the star anise crème brulee and that one and the orange fennel one competed for the title of my favorite crème brulee so far. One ramekin of each might not have been enough to decide though, so get ready for some crème brulee tasting and experimentation when I get back. Plain crème brulee had thus far been more than satisfying, but all of a sudden, it tasted… well, plain.

Also on the menu in baking class—three flavors of panna cotta: plain, strawberry and orange. Once again, plain tastes a little plain. Strawberry came in as the favorite.

A new word for the day: retrolfatto (retroolfactory in English). The person who guesses the correct meaning will receive a valuable prize.

Thanks for all those who have posted comments. I look forward to hearing from you.

P.S. I promise to post some pictures as soon as I spend some time in the apartment and upload them to the computer. Thanks for the patience!

The day after Italy wins the World Cup: everyone is very tired and many students do not show up. Even the teachers are tired and cut us some slack. I get 5 hours of sleep the night after the World Cup finale, so it's hard to wake up, but with enough espresso I manage to do it. Of course, this espresso-induced wakefulness has to be maintained with ever larger amounts of espresso, so I run to the bar around the corner from the school every chance I get.

Today is a day of several firsts for me: first cut and also first time I clean and cook squid. The former was not very pleasant, the latter surprisingly fun and delicious. In the morning class we make turkey breast rolls with ham and olives and also marinated eggplant with pecorino and chestnut honey. Both dishes are great combinations of flavors and I will be making them at home. The Regional Italian Cooking class provides a new twist of things: we're talking about Liguria and get to clean and cook squid, including a sauce of squid ink. The ink turns the pasta completely black. It's my first taste of squid ink and I really like it. It's hard to describe, but certainly worth the try. I eat so much of the squid ink pasta, that my teeth and mouth stay black for a while. In baking class, we all struggle with some almond paste cookies. When a giggle epidemic erupts and it's clear that it would take several hours for us to pipe the cookies correctly, Andrea has us make brutti ma buoni, which translates as "ugly but good." No piping, no particular shape. That I can do.

Stay tuned for a report of the custard and crème brulee making experience scheduled for Tuesday.

The puzzle of the day: Marcella asks me to grate some pecorino romano cheese on the penne I am dressing with squid and ink, but when my classmates try to grate some on their spaghetti, she says that on spaghetti with ink, you don't put cheese. Hmmmm. It's just the way things are done here: not only are certain pasta shapes only serves with particular sauces, but some of them get cheese and other don't when served with the same sauce. Not being Italian, I think the best I can hope for is not to have my food taken away from me at a restaurant if I make a mistake as serious as asking for cheese on my spaghetti with black ink.

To all my chocolate-loving friends: tonight I tasted some of the chocolate made at the shop of Andrea Bianchini, my baking instructor. I tried the habanero truffle and it was delicious! The ganache is rich and smooth and you only sense the heat of the habanero at the very end and far back in your mouth. There are other interesting flavors: rosemary and salt, olive oil and vanilla, cardamom and coffee, vin santo, saffron. I wish I could bring back some of Andrea's chocolate back with me but this is not the right time of the year to do so. I guess I'll just have to taste them all myself.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

To all my gelato-loving friends: I have been thorough in my gelato and granite research and after numerous sampling field trip have determined that the best gelato and granite are found at Gelateria Carabe (close to the Duomo). This Sicilain gelateria serves some interesting granita flavors: fig, plum, almond milk, and pineapple, in addition to the more common ones such as strawberry, mixed berry, coffee, lemon, etc. The straciatella gelato is the best in Florence, and pistachio, coffee, and almond are high on my list as well.

You can also find good granita at the Perche no! gelateria close to the Duomo.

First of all, an apology to those who might have checked this blog in the past week. Things have been quite busy.

We spent Friday and Saturday in the mountains North of my favorite Tuscan town of Lucca, at the Argiturismo La Torre, one of our favorite places to stay in Italy. The owners, Paolo and Laura, are very friendly and nice, which makes staying at their gorgeous property even more pleasant. It was good to get away from the heat and crowds of Firenze, breathe some cooler air and enjoy the peace and quiet of the Tuscan hills.

On Friday night, we had dinner at the small restaurant on the property where Laura does all the cooking. I still remember the wonderful things we ate here last year, easily the best food I have had in Italy. Laura again wowed us with her cooking and it was difficult to not eat too much. We started with some marinated anchovies, local prosciutto, crostini with lard, and fried meatballs. Yes, these were only the appetizers. The anchovies were strong and with a zing from the marinade, the fried meatballs melted in the mouth. The only thing that I am still not in love with is lard, but who knows. After this wonderful spread, we continued with the creamiest, tastiest lasagna imaginable. I could have stopped right there since the lasagne and the Rosso di Montalcino that Paolo himself bottles were a perfect match. But just when I didn’t think I could eat any more, out came freshly fried potatoes and beef rolls with prosciutto and sage. I could not resist. The rolls were wonderful, perfectly crispy and full of flavor with a hint of sage and, as we all know, there are very few things as good as fresh, homemade French fries. The feast ended with a chocolate and coffee cake, light and creamy, coffee, limoncello and a homemade gooseberry liquor. Two hours of sheer bliss! Outside the moon was trying to peek through the clouds left behind by the rain that had fallen earlier in the day. The night was perfectly dark, quiet, and fresh—perfect for a short walk after the decadent dinner.

Unfortunately, we had to leave La Torre on Saturday morning, to continue our trip to Modena. It was another hot and sunny day and after a brief stop in Reggio Emilia where we ate a very average lunch, we continued on to Modena. Modena seemed very modern: even the old part of town is full of stores like Benetton and Sisley. After a short walk around town, we continued on to Firenze, where the excitement about the World Cup finals is growing by the second.

Walking around Firenze, all you see are people—both Italians and foreigners—wearing shits that say "Italia" in big letters on the front and everyone is talking about where they will watch the game. Should be an interesting evening on Sunday.

A brief summary of the past week:

Aaah, Firenze in July: heat, millions of tourists, and crazy traffic. Someone just told me that Firenze is the hottest city in Italy, hotter than Rome. It's best not to think about that. The heat would not be so important if the classrooms where the cooking classes are held had AC. Call me spoiled, but I do enjoy some cool air, especially when wearing a cooking jacket, hat, and long pants. And being around 6-12 stoves, all on. When I get a chance to venture outside the school in the short break between classes to go get an espresso, the outside temperature of 90+F feels cool compared to the temperature around the stoves in our classrooms. But it's best not to dwell on that. I have made peace with that fact that I will have to drink 6 liters of water before 6 pm just to stay alive.

Despite the heat, cooking school has been great fun. The courses are well organized, the instructors are excellent chefs and every dish is a learning experience. Just when my teammates and I think we've created a wonderful dish, we discover that there are always things that could be improved: more salt, better cooked roux, more water, less water, softer dough.

In the Tradition of Italian Food course, we are introduced to the history of Italian cuisine. Our instructor, Andrea Trapani, is an excellent chef and the dishes he prepares always provide an excellent standard to aspire to. I think I'll continue to hear Andrea's advice as I am cooking for a long time: salt, taste, more salt, taste again, …. So far we have made many interesting dishes: sweet and sour pork with spicy chickpea puree, zucchini sformato (zucchini flan), chicken with prunes, pizza, naked ravioli with butter and sage, zuccotto, Lady fingers.

In the Regional Italian Cuisine, a course taught in Italian, Marcella introduces us to the flavors, textures, and dishes of the different regions. We started with Emilia Romagna, one of the most famous regions in Italy food-wise. Emilia Romagna is where Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Parma are, so need I say more. We have also talked about Tuscany, Sicily and Liguria, regions that have given rise to some of the best known Italian dishes: cannoli (Sicily), cantuci al Prato (Tuscany), tagliatelle and ragu (Emilia Romagna).

There are only 6 students in this course, so we work individually and get a great deal of advice from Marcella, who is very knowledgeable about the regional differences in Italian food. Marcella's face lights up when she starts explaining the characteristics of each individual region and the most representative flavors. Marcella is training us to develop our own way of doing things. She generally does not encourage the use of a scale and wants us to cook more by feel. She is also training our palates to notice the differences that result from our individual choices and styles.

The day we make fresh cannoli (including rolling out by hand and frying the shells) is the best day of the week. Marcella had warned us the cannoli would the best any of us had ever had and she was right: they were crunchy and delicate, and the smooth filling rich with chocolate chips and candied fruit provided a nice contrast. After exerting a great deal of energy rolling out the dough for the cannoli shells, I am reluctant to throw it out, so in addition to making the 5 shells I need, I also fry up some of the leftover dough, sprinkle it with powdered sugar and munch on it. Yum!

Stay tuned for reports about risotto, polenta, gnocchi, and many, many other wonderful things to come out of Marcella's course.

Anyone who has ever talked to me knows that I am a pastry and sweets lover and I can talk about desserts for hours. So when on day 1 I found out that we were making pastry cream, I could not believe my luck. As many of you know, I cannot resist pastry cream and seek it out every chance I get. Of course, the pastry cream Andrea taught us how to make was by far the most delicious pastry cream I have ever had and when I had to throw away the half a batch left after my partner and I made the crostata (a short pastry pie filled with pastry cream and baked), tears came to my eyes. So I hugged the bowl and finished the rest of the cream. My classmates were hesitant about trying it at first (imagine my surprise at seeing people not flock to taste pastry cream!), but were gradually convinced.

Our baking instructor, Andrea Biancchini, also affectionately known around the school as "il genio del cioccolato" (chocolate genius), owns a chocolate shop in the Santa Croce neighborhood of Florence (close to the famous Il Cibreo) and it is high on my list of places to visit next week. Andrea likes things done a certain way and insists that we follow his method. His teaching style is very Italian, full of facial expressions and hand gestures.

We have made puff pastry, a variety of sponge cakes, ganache, and profiteroles. I always make sure the product is of high quality be repeatedly tasting and retasting. What a good student!

Now I am off to write my paper on sauté. Stay tuned for more delicious news rom Firenze.

Forza Azzuri!!!