February 21, 2010

Why I Cook

This is not my kitchen- but have cooked here with my students-
what a perfect space to enjoy cooking!

I spend a lot of time now on Twitter as well as Facebook- for me it is like being at a party with a bunch of friends and eavesdropping on lots of conversations and jumping in with my own comments on some conversations.

Living among the olive trees in Tuscany may create a heavenly image of peace and quiet, but can also be BORING at times. One needs some outside stimulus to keep the the brain muscles going.

Yesterday Micheal Ruhlman posted on Twitter his link to Why I Cook- which made me stop and think.

First of all- when did I start to cook?

I remember the joy of my easy bake oven and decorating cakes and throwing parties making costumes for my trolls.... but that was not it.

I remember making mudpies for my neighbor and him eating them--- the Dr said I should make sure to remove the rocks, but it was ok!

I took home-econ classes, but did sewing instead of the cooking.

In college I studied art, ceramics, photography and soft sculpture. It was the time of Women's Lib and cooking seemed to be something housewife's did not liberated women.

Then I got the travel bug and food was such a huge part of the experience.
When I finally took longer trips, it seemed I could always get a job in a restaurant or a bar even though I had no experience. I was a quick learner.

I was curious and I wanted the people at home to taste some of the extraordinary foods and flavors from Greece, Israel, France... a whole new world had opened to me.

when I travel the first place I want to tour is a market
the heart of a city- which is why I offer market tours-
to let people in on the REAL FLORENCE

When I returned back to the states, I was inspired to learn a trade that would allow me to work around the world. I got a job at a 5 star hotel. First as a cashier, then a waitress ( great $$$ which allowed for more trips) and finally saw the light! If I could cook- I could work anywhere.

As I looked around in the kitchen ( this is back in the late 70's) it was a man's kitchen and women were cleaning salads and making breakfast. I looked a little farther back in the kitchen and found my space- the pastry shop.

No one yelled at the pastry chef- and it was a position open to women.

I have not looked back since. Learning to cook, starting with pastry made me a strong cook.
I learned to weigh and use ratio in cooking and saw that the "other" cooking was much easier as you could fix things afterwards.

I have been teaching cooking now for over 20 years. Making food accessible to all and taking the fear out of cooking.

So why do I cook?

  • To eat what I like
  • I adore feeding people
  • I love the shopping and meeting the artisans and farmers that produce the food I eat.
  • I have created a class for American students studying abroad called Culture through Cooking- studying history and understanding where traditions come from through food is facinating to me and I love sharing the info. Tracing recipes and how they change is fun.
  • I find a certain peace or Zen in the preparing of food which is relaxing.
  • I also find a adrenaline rush when catering or preparing large meals and satisfaction when done.
  • learning to cook in a new country has made me more friends!
Having started as a pastry chef- people love desserts which are not always part of a menu at home- so a great gift to share.

Living in Italy, one of the first things I did before I moved here was to learn to prepare foods I love which I was not sure to find here: Sushi and Mexican food.

Smart move!

Food is my life and my job now. Teaching, writing, guiding culinary tours.
But even in my everyday life- I love to cook!

I am very lucky as it is part of my job and not something I have to do in addition to my job.
Shopping takes time as does preparing food.

But I truly believe that taking time to shop for good ingredients and prepare them simply is the BEST gift one can give anyone and is also so much healthier and cheaper than eating out!

Take time at least once a week to cook- share the work, and enjoy it!

February 19, 2010

Cookies for Lent

Don't ask me how cookies can be for Lent, but takes an Italian cook to create something sweet, even when one is supposed to be giving things up. The story goes that these dry cookies were supposed to help you while fasting during lent.

Carnevale- is taken from levare carne- or to take away meat. Martedi Grasso procedes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent- Quaresima, the 40 days before Easter Sunday.

These cookies are only made for the Quaresima and are called Quaresimali.they are a meringue based cookie with cocoa powder and hazelnut paste. In other regions a different cookie will have the same name.

They are quick to make and really not very sweet.

Traditionally you make all the letters of the alphabet. I only wanted enough to test the recipe so could only make a few letters- and chose to write out my name in Italian and that of my husband.

A great cookie anytime of the year for kids to make.

Have fun- and for Lent- try doing something nice instead of giving something up.

The recipe is in grams to be more precise:

200 grams of flour 00 ( about 1 3/4 cups of italian pastry flour)
50 grams cocoa powder
pinch of cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder

3 egg whites
200 grams of granulated sugar ( about 1 cup)

50 grams of hazelnut paste ( if you don't have any, finely grind toasted hazelnuts into powder)

Mix the flour, cocoa and the baking powder together in a bowl.

Whip the egg whites, slowly incorporating the sugar, until soft peaks can be formed.
Add the hazelnut paste and stir in.

Add the egg white mixture to the dry ingredients.

Place in a pastry bag with a small tip and pipe out the letters onto a cookie sheet with baking parchment or silpat sheet.

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

Make your letters allowing for them to spread a tiny bit.

February 16, 2010

FAT TUESDAY- Martedi Grasso- Mardi Gras- Shrove Tuesday

Let the good times roll! inside our cab in NOLA!!!
Florence also uses the Fleur du Lys

Easter comes early this year, which means carnival is already here. Most people think of the fabulous costumes in Venice and the parties in palazzi, but it is also a festival of the people. Streets are filled with families in costumes and kids throwing confetti and running around shooting spray cans of foam at friends. In old video's of the parade with floats on the Tuscan Coast at Viareggio, after the war, the joke was to through flour on people. Cheap thrills, but fun being wild and crazy.

 A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale!

I adore the sweets that are made for celebrations here in Italy. Being just the two of us, this year I decided to buy some Cenci and the Frittelle di Riso as the recipes make HUGE amounts.

 left, Cenci, Frappe or Chiacchere and on the right, sweet rice fritters Frittelle di Riso

I have written about making the Frittelle di Riso before as they are also made in March for Italy's Father's Day celebrations. You can click on the link to see it again. There are two schools, some leave the rice so when you eat it you can taste the actual rice grains, others over-cook to create more of a rice paste. I prefer to taste the texture. The lemon zest in the milk is also a lovely touch, so much so that now I also cut the zest into small pieces and leave it in the mixture. Getting a bite of zest is a surprise.

The flat, fried Cenci, are available now in a baked versions at all the local shops so I just buy them. They are so fragile they break as you pick them up, I will try to learn to make them. I bet they run the dough through a pasta machine first and probably have lard in the dough.

But often for a party will make up a tray of fried dough. It is also a recipe that my Russian Grandmother made. Try the recipe and see if you love them too!

Thinking about other traditions, Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday- I could have made some pancakes or Beignet-  How did you celebrate?

February 14, 2010

How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.....
I cook for you!!!

Hot Italian Kisses: chocolate hazelnut truffles with a kick for Valentine's Day

Today is really special as there are two holidays in one-
Valentine's Day and Chinese Lunar New Year's

So I decided to celebrate both.

Yesterday I made the chocolate truffles with chili and today we are travelling!

For me, time spent in the kitchen, besides being my job, is my passion. In Italy, cooking is really a sign of love. Preparing long slow cooked ragu for Sunday's pasta or creating dishes that the primary ingredient, so easy to find somewhere else, doesn't exist so you make your own are proof on the table that someone cares.

This weekend I felt the urge to recreate some "foreign food". First, some Chinese potstickers for New Year's celebration and tortilla's to share Mexico with my husband who didn't make the trip with me this year.

My potsticker's- homemade dough and all

In gathering the recipes I found it quite interesting that both recipes use a hot water and flour dough, which is also used for Italian pici, the hand-rolled spaghetti-like pasta near Siena.

Living in Italy, it is not always easy to find all the ingredients, but after years of playing around I have come up with my own basic recipes- to create my versions here that are close enough to keep me happy!

Simple Potsticker's for Expats

1 cup of 00 Flour
1/2 cup boiling water

2 sausages, skins removed
200 grams cabbage, shredded
2 tsp salt
2 green onions
1 tbs Vin Santo
1 tbs EVO
2 tbs flour or cornstarch "maizena"

Dipping Sauce:
1/4 cup Saba
2 tbs chili paste
1/4 cup white wine vinegar

Make the dough:
Mix the flour and boiling water in a boil. Mix together until it forms a ball.
Knead for 5 minutes until smooth.
Roll into log and let sit.

Make filling:
Slice the cabbage into fine strips, add salt and rub together.
Let sit for 5 minutes, the salt will draw the liquid out of the cabbage, squeeze cabbage to remove all water.
Place in bowl and add the remaining ingredients.
Mix well.

To make potstickers:
Cut the log into 1/2 disks.
Roll out each dish to about 3 inches.
Place a tsp of filling in each disk.

Fold the ravioli in half and pinch to seal in the middle.
The typical "pleat" for potstickers is to make three small folds on each side.
Pull dough up, pleat and pinch to seal. I start on the right side, repeat on left.

When the potstickers are ready, heat 1 tbs of oil in pan.
Place potstickers in pan, forming a circle.
Let brown on bottoms.
Have a lid ready in your hand- add one cup of water to hot oil in pan. COVER!
Let cook for 5 minutes, this steams the potstickers and cooks the filling.

Make the sauce by mixing the ingredients together.

Enjoy! Gung hay fat choi!

While I was waiting for to make the potstickers I made up a batch of dough for tortillas.
Similar to the dough for the potstickers, using hot water with flour makes the dough more elastic and easy to roll.

Divina Cucina's Tuscan Tortilla's

500 grams 00 flour
1 cup hot water
1 tsp salt
2 tbs EVO ( traditionally lard is used called strutto in italy)

Dissolve the salt in the hot water.
Place the flour in a bowl and add the hot water and EVO.
Mix together in bowl and when it is forming a ball, you can take it out and begin to knead the dough. ( if the dough is dry, add more hot water. Flours differ greatly in Italy and absorb different amounts of liquid)

Cover the dough and let rest for 30 minutes.
Form small balls, I make about 24 from this batch. I prefer smaller tortilla's.

Heat a large flat skillet. I have a iron crepe pan which I use, acts like the Mexican comal.
Any thick skillet will work.

Roll out each tortilla as thin as possible.

Cook on skillet, shaking off excess flour first or the flour will burn.

Flip the tortilla when it starts to get speckled.
When you flip the tortilla it will begin to puff.

Remove and place in a plastic bag after cooking, the steam will keep cooking the tortilla's and keep them pliable.

Buon Provecho!!!

February 12, 2010

Hot Italian Kisses

Translation: where ever there is love, there  is a Bacio Perugina

 Probably one of Italy's most famous chocolates is called Baci, meaning kisses.

When I toured the Perugina factory in Perugia, they said that the original name was actually going to be cazzotti- meaning little fists or punches. Baci is a much nicer name for something so sweet.

Italy has a history of adding hazelnuts to their chocolates in pieces and in paste form. Probably one of the most famous is creating a spread called Nutella, which is a hazelnut chocolate spread, serving Italian kids both big and small as Americans use peanut butter. It is best on a slice of yeasty country-style bread.

Gianduja is milk chocolate with a hazelnut paste, shaped into small pyramids, so very soft, they easily melt in your mouth. They are a specialty in Torino made with the hazelnuts from Le Langhe and are one of my favorites.

The Baci are made of a  bittersweet chocolate ganache with chopped hazelnuts formed into a round truffle and topped with a whole toasted hazelnut then dipped in chocolate, it is then wrapped in it's signature silver foil with a love poem on the inside.

But I like my chocolate bittersweet and with more of an adult sort of kick to it.

For Valentine's Day this year I have created homemade Baci- but heated it up with some chili powder!

Enjoy my Hot Italian Kisses!

1 cup heavy cream
125 grams bittersweet chocolate
1/2 tsp powdered chili, I used chili from Calabria, but the Spanish Esplette is nice too
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts

Cocoa powder or chopped hazelnuts

Heat the heavy cream without letting it come to a boil.
Turn off the heat under the pan.
Add the chopped bittersweet chocolate.
Let sit until it melts and stir to be sure it is all melted and incorporated.
Stir in chili powder and the chopped hazelnuts.

Place in a bowl and let cool.

Cover with saran wrap and let sit if the refrigerator over night to firm up.

Make tiny balls and roll in either chopped hazelnuts or cocoa powder.

You can keep them in the refrigerator and remove about 10 minutes before serving.

Try to eat only one!!!

Buon San Valentino!

Be more Italian- celebrate your loved one everyday!

February 9, 2010

There is No Place Like Home

I did not get my fill of Mexican food this trip, not enough avocado's just with lime and salt.
I didn't eat enough food at the street markets nor did I bring back fresh chili's or limes this trip.

But when I arrived back in Tuscany- I wanted my Tuscan comfort foods.


A nice bowl of Tuscan slow-cooked beans with extra-virgin oil

or a simple plate of pasta, Spaghetti, Aglio, Olio and Peperoncino
with a Sicilian twist of breadcrumbs.


or a salad with our own fresh greens from our tiny "orto" which we planted this year


winter salads in Italy are the BEST- orange pieces and traditional balsamic vinegar

no Taco Stands!

Tomorrow I am heading down to the Central Market in Florence to do a market tour and if I can I will get a ripe avocado and some lime- I found some of my handmade flour tortilla's in the freezer and will recreate a Mexican meal for my husband who stayed home this trip.

Taking your taste-buds on vacation is almost as good as going somewhere, without the jet-lag.
I will recreate some of the simple food I love so much from Mexico and dream of next year, spending more time in Mexico. I adore dreaming and food makes the dreams seem closer.

Who knows where my meals will take me?
Expats- need to make our own flour tortilla's?
Let me know and I will post my recipe- very similar to the piadina.

February 2, 2010

Highlights from Mexico

I have been through internet withdrawl! My stay in Mexico was fabulous both the week in San Miguel teaching and the week with my friend Ruth and foodies in Mexico City. But I didn't bring my laptop and was lost without it.

Woman in the Jamaica Flower Market

I am still jet-lagged but trying to catch back up on emails and planning for the new classes in Certaldo at the Villa il Poggiolaia which begin in March, besides the totally inclusive week-long programs it is possible to book just classes or add on market tour Monday in Florence and also a Chianti tour on Friday. Ask for more details!

In April, I travel back to the West Coast for a cooking class at Cavallo Point, April 17th and other classes to be planned in SF, Portland and Seattle.

This month will head down to Sicily to finalize the Sicily dates for this year. Although I can arrange them anytime for private groups of  or more, I will organize a group tour in June and late September.

Our core group in San Miguel had a blast! Not only did we cook, eat and drink-

We also spent a fun day with "outsider" artist Anado at his studio/home in the countryside making our own "nichio" shrines. For anyone going to San Miguel, it was a rare experience and I can't wait to go back and learn more. 


Cooking was wild. We had from 17- 25 students for hands-on classes and really put the three kitchens to use! Best day was the roast pork and Sicilian pizza bread in the wood-burning oven. It got so hot, we burned the top of the pizza bread- but saved it and watched more closely for the second batch. The roast pork was spectacular- 

We went directly to the slaughter house to buy a full pork roast on the rack
I adore Mexico so much. Especially the markets and street food. This year I couldn't really get enough, so will have to go back next winter. I have been invited back to teach in Mexico City for the locals and that will be so much fun! This year we attended the Slow Food Tamalada at the Fondo San Angel, and met many of the Grand Dames of Mexican Cuisine.
I visited an old friend, Ricardo Munoz Zurita at the Cafe Azul y Oro, always a pleasure- his food is fabulous and through Ruth, met some new foodie friends, which gives me even more reason to return!

 Chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita and his fabulous fresh corn cake at Azul y Oro

Touring at the Dolores Olmeda museum in Xocimilco

I will post more on my trip later, and share some recipes from Mexico, my second home. Winters in Mexico, the rest of the year in Tuscany- a perfect life.