Food Adventures

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.


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