Siena: First day of cooking class

I am lucky enough to be spending the next five weeks taking cooking classes in Europe. I used to daydream about taking off to the Italian countryside to spend months learning how to make pasta and that is pretty much what I am now doing. I couldn't be more excited. First up is a three week “Journey through Italy” class based in Siena, then a week of French cooking in Brittany and a week of cooking classes in Paris.

I got to Siena last night after an epic journey from LA. It turns out that arriving in Italy on a Sunday means that everything is closed or delayed – including trains, buses, and the metro! Luckily, when I finally settled into my apartment, a short walk brought me here:

Il Campo in the late afternoon sun

Much needed refreshments: the ubiquitous spritz and some bar snacks

I started class this morning at the Dante Alighieri language school, a short walk from my apartment. Fittingly, the regional focus for the day was Tuscany. It turned out that only one other student was taking the full three week class and the other four students were taking classes just for the day. In my first conversation with the other full-time student we realized we were both from LA and as we started to narrow it down further and further, we realized that we live on the same street, literally one block away from each other. Pretty impressive coincidence to travel halfway around the world and find a new cooking buddy in my neighborhood!

Now onto the really important stuff: the food! We paired off into teams and proceeded to make a five course Italian meal.

First up: Antipasto – Crostini di Fegatini di Pollo or chicken liver crostini. As my husband will tell you, it is nearly impossible for me not to order this if it is on a menu so I jumped at the chance to learn how to prepare it myself. We started off sautéing the chicken liver with garlic, sage, a yellow apple slice, lemon zest, and dessert wine until the meat was completely brown all the way through, adding water as needed to keep it from drying out.

The delicious sauté

Next we blended the fragrant mixture with anchovies and capers and we were ready to spread it on the toasted bread we had prepared – tasting it first of course, to make sure it was ok.

Added flavor: anchovies and capers

Lastly, the artistic garnish: capers, a sprinkle of chopped parsley, a dash of olive oil, and a swirl of balsamic reduction (it turns out this miraculous ingredient comes in bottles! I always thought you had to boil down half a bottle of the vinegar and therefore never made it). Oh, and did I mention that the chef taught us how to make our own focaccia at the last minute – just as a quick side for the crostini, of course.

Looks almost too good to eat. Luckily, I managed

Next up: Primo piatto – Ravioli maremmani alle erbe aromatiche or ravioli filled with a ricotta spinach mixture and dressed with a light butter sage sauce (by the way, as you can probably tell, my translations are approximate – it seems we'll be making modifications to the recipes in class and I have no idea what that means for the Italian name of the dish!) Anyway, I've tried making pasta from scratch at home a few times and this was definitely better – I'm still trying to figure out why – I'm guessing having an Italian cook in the kitchen watching you like a hawk helps but I'm determined to figure out how to replicate this level of deliciousness at home. Some of the differences I noticed were that the texture of the dough was springy-er here, and we waited until the ravioli filling was complete before rolling out the dough so that it didn't have a chance to get dried out before making each piece (a mistake my sister and I made last week during an epic four hour attempt to make ravioli). Also, we used much more salt in the dough and the boiling water than I do at home so the whole thing was bursting with flavor.

Hard at work filling ravioli

In process: boiling the pasta and preparing the butter sauce

The finished product - delicious

Now for the main event, which I was almost too full to eat: Secondo – Carre' di maiale bardato or roasted pork loin accompanied by a contorno of piselli alla fiorentina or peas sautéed with onion and pancetta. We stuffed the pork with a mixture of minced herbs and oil and then, because the meal wasn't decadent enough already, we covered the top with a thin layer of pancetta and roasted the whole thing in white wine and olive oil.

Covering the pork loin in pancetta and tying it up to keep the juices and herbs in

Sautéing peas with onion, more pancetta, and tomato concentrate

Ready to eat, with a sauce extracted from the pork juice and roasted vegetables

And of course, no meal would be complete without dessert or dolce! We made cantuccini, which I think are a type of biscotti. The dough included orange and lemon zest and almonds as well as the usual suspects of eggs, sugar, flour and baking powder.

Orange zest in the dough gave an unexpected kick of flavor

Ready to roll!

The trick was to take the logs of biscotti out of the oven when they were still soft and slice them before putting them back in to bake for another minute or two. This not only gives them their characteristic crunch and preserves them by removing moisture but is also the source of their name – bis-cotto means twice cooked (this, as it turns out, is not enough Italian to survive – I will need to start learning more than random food names!) The biscotti were so good that I literally dreamt about them that night.

Preparing for the bis in biscotti

Always room for dessert!

Since this is what I am going to be doing every day for the next three weeks, I think it is just about time that I take up running….

By the way, this is my view while I write this:

The Duomo in Siena bathed in a late afternoon glow of sunlight

 

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