Tonight we got to take an authentic Tuscan cooking class, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Our whole group walked over to the Cordon Bleu, one of Florence’s cooking schools (although not directly related to the French “Le Cordon Bleu”) and learned that we would be making three courses that were distinctly Tuscan and using ingredients that were in season. We would start with a bruschetta, have a type of dumpling called gnudi and then finish with a strawberry tiramisu for dessert. (See below for the recipes!)
We got started on the tiramisu first so that it could sit in the fridge. Our culinary instructor, Ana, guided us through the process of soaking the lady fingers (the traditional Italian biscuits are actually crunchy, unlike many of the ones we see in the U.S.) in a mixture of fresh strawberry sauce and maraschino cherry liqueur. Meanwhile, we whipped the eggs and marscapone cheese to create the cream, then layered it all with freshly cut strawberries. Ana mentioned that the tiramisu we typically think of (made with brandy) is usually a fall or winter dessert, while fresh fruit is common in the spring and summer.
For the main course of our meal, we prepared what is traditionally a first (or “primi”) course, and didn’t actually have any pasta at all! Gnudi is a type of gnocchi, and the name means “naked” since there is no pasta involved. This dumpling was made with spinach, ricotta and lemon zest, then cooked in boiling water before being dressed with a sauce of butter and sage.
Finally, we prepared the bruschetta. “Bruschetta” technically refers to bread topped with tomatoes, but we prepared a version with cannellini beans on top. The sliced bread is toasted first, rubbed with garlic cloves for flavor, then drizzled with olive oil before the toppings are added.
We all had a chance to get our hands dirty in the kitchen by preparing the meal. Then, we all sat and enjoyed some pinot grigio and our bruschetta before we ate our entree and dessert.
I have never had anything so delicious—and we made it ourselves! The gnudi were savory but with a kick of the lemon, and I have never seen so many people in sheer awe over the tiramisu. Rich, creamy and sweet, it was the most indulgent dessert I’ve had in ages.
At the end of dinner (and some more wine), we were all presented with certificates for having completed the class! It was an incredible evening, and I felt so lucky for the opportunity to get into an actual Italian kitchen to create a dish that was undeniably (and deliciously) Tuscan.
Here’s hoping I still have some room for all the food and wine we have left to drink!
Spinach & Ricotta Gnudi
1 lb. fresh ricotta cheese
12 oz. boiled and squeezed spinach
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
Approximately 5 tbsp of flour
1/2 lemon rind or a pinch of nutmeg
Freshly ground white pepper
Salt to taste
2 oz. salted butter
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
Start heating a large pot of salted water to boiling. Mash the ricotta cheese and chop the spinach. Mix the spinach with the ricotta cheese, the nutmeg or lemon rind, the Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Add the eggs and bring to consistency with flour. Shape the mixture into little balls. Test if you have enough flour by dropping one into the boiling water: when it floats to the top, it’s done cooking, and if it fell apart in the water, incorporate more flour into the mixture.
When your test gnudi have been made can boil without breaking, cook the rest, strain and place on a plate. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a sauce pan with the sage. Pour this over the gnudi and top with Parmesan cheese before serving.
1 lb. marscapone cheese
4 tbsp sugar
Lady fingers (look for the crunchy biscuits)
1 lb. fresh strawberries
Maraschino cherry liqueur
Pinch of salt
Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites. Mix the yolks with the sugar until fluffy. Whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gently incorporate the cheese into the egg yolks, then fold in the whipped egg whites and finish with a pinch of salt.
Process and sieve half of the strawberries and dice the remainder. Add the liqueur (to taste) to the strawberry liquid.
Dip the lady fingers completely in the strawberry and liqueur mixture, then arrange in a single layer of a baking dish. Top with a generous layer of the marscapone mixture, then add some of the diced strawberries. Add another layer of moistened lady fingers and more cream. Keep in the refrigerator at least one hour to set then top with more strawberries just before serving.
Melissa is tasting her way through Food & Wine: Flavors of Tuscany and Umbria. Follow along as she checks off all of her food-centric to-dos.