Born in a Tuscan family, I’ve spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room of my house, sitting at the table and looking at grandma and mum cooking hearty dishes from the fresh produce of our vegetable garden. The kitchen is my favourite place to be, followed by the pantry, where you can wander through the shelves crammed with home made tomato sauce, jams and preserves, colourful jars glistening tempting in the dim light.
A large number of women from my family everyday would just open the fridge, check all the ingredients, go back to a recipe their great grand mother used to make and cook up a storm out of it. In less than one hour they can feed from two up to ten people with a smile on their face. You would therefore suppose cooking is the most natural act for me, almost like breathing. It is partially true. I mean, cooking for me is just like daydreaming: you dramatize another likely reality in which you can control the ingredients and most often even the result.
Cooking is a part of my way of living, I simply couldn’t bear a life without pots and pans, mixing ingredients and tasting the result. Well, it is totally different when it comes to teaching someone to cook. The first time I found myself behind a table with a bright new apron and 6 people expectantly staring at me, my mind went blank and I got speechless. I’m a shy person, so I had to find the Force. Where could I find the boost to move from the blankness of mind to a more chirpy attitude? I just closed my eyes and saw all the women of my family taking care of their loved ones with simply meals.
Words started to come out in a stream.
I’ve been doing cooking classes as a full time job for almost four years now. The first cooking class of the year, usually around March or April, is always the sign of the much anticipated arrival of the good season, of Spring vegetables, Easter chocolate and longer days. The last cooking class is usually wrapped in Autumn leaves, I enthusiastically talk about the new olive oil, we spot mushrooms and squash at the market, we secretly enjoy the warmth of the kitchen and waft of stewed meat from the stove.
Every morning, before a class, Tommaso and I have breakfast and soon after we split the chores to clean our country apartment: I do not open just the kitchen but my whole house. Having a class at Juls’ Kitchen means to share a meal and the experience of day among normal Tuscan people. We cook the recipes I learnt from my family, those we still make every Sunday, and the new dishes I discovered traveling in Tuscany and reading books about our traditions.
It’s a gastronomical discovery of a region, which you’ll happen to live while you’re chopping tomatoes or while we’re sitting for a relaxed lunch in the dining room.
I am always talking about my cooking classes, the food, the laughter and the many dishes we create, but I wanted to give you a better idea of what a cooking class with Juls’ Kitchen tastes like. This is why I invited a bunch of good blogger friends to have a first hand experience. Catriona, Emiko, Georgette, Nardia, Sasha and Jamila came on a Friday, so we had the chance to explore the market, as my all time favourite cooking class is when we can visit the local market and be inspired by what we find there.
We had fun at the cheese stall and we bought some goat and sheep cheese to be eaten with a good dollop of home made onion jam.
The lunch was based on a few moral principles: stay as fresh as you can in the kitchen, avoid using the oven – except for cecina – and enjoy fresh seasonal food. This is why we ended up with grilled aubergines, panzanella, caprese, prosciutto e melone and zuppa inglese for everyone. Thick slices of the sweetest watermelon and a shot of frozen home made limoncello called that a meal.
(Virginia Casa, RICAMO, Elegant Ceramic Side Plate by DishesOnly)
La torta della nonna
A few weeks ago I received a very specific request for a cooking class: they wanted to make a torta della nonna, a typical cake you can find in bakeries and pastry shops, a crisp shell of short pastry with a thick filling of lemony scented custard, everything topped with a generous handful of pine nuts, or almond fillets sometimes.
I’ve had a slice of torta della nonna countless times, it is a comforting piece of cake you find yourself ordering at a bar when you know you have a good reason to treat yourself, or when you had a bad day and you want to cheer up your spirits. Torta della nonna is a classic in many birthday parties and old fashioned family gatherings. You would usually buy it at your favourite bakery, so it comes wrapped in rustling paper, and it is often followed by cheerful appreciation.
We usually buy torta della nonna, you don’t make it in my family. But I like a good challenge when it comes to food, so I said torta della nonna, and torta della nonna had to be. I tried several combination of short pastry and custard, had a few failures along the way, then I came to this recipe, which will be from now on my recipe for torta della nonna.
My guests appreciated it and I know they’ve been making it at home since then, a surprise for their nonna!
- 300 g of tender wheat flour
- 150 g of raw cane sugar
- 5 g of baking powder
- 1 pinch of salt
- Zest of 1 organic lemon
- 150 g of butter at room temperature
- 1 egg
- 660 ml of whole milk
- Zest of 1 organic lemon
- 1 vanilla pod, split open
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 whole eggs
- 66 g of flour
- 150 g of cane sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- 60 g of pine nuts
- 1 egg
- Make the short pastry first.
- Mix the flour with the raw cane sugar and the baking powder, finally add the grated zest of a lemon and a pinch of salt. Add the diced butter and rub all the ingredients with your fingertips to make soft crumbles, just as grated Parmigiano.
- Beat the egg in a bowl, then add it to the crumbles and keep rubbing the ingredients with your fingertips until you have a nice and smooth ball of dough. If you have rubbed thoroughly the butter and the flour it will take only a few minutes and you won't overheat the pastry, which will eventually be crumbly and light. Flatten the dough ball with your hands, wrap it in clingfilm and let it rest in the fridge.
- Now let’s make the Italian custard which is not as thin as the English one, so aim for a thick and velvety consistency.
- Heat the milk in a saucepan with the zest of a lemon and a vanilla pod, split open.
- In the meantime whisk the eggs with the yolks, then scoop in the flour and the sugar with a pinch of salt. Stir thoroughly to remove any lump.
- When the milk is simmering pour a few tablespoons of into the egg custard to heat the eggs and avoid scrambled eggs and stir, then pour the rest of the milk and bring back to low heat.
- Stir continuously until the custard is thick.
- Let the Italian custard cool down and prepare the short pastry case. Butter and flour a 26 cm round loose bottom mould.
- Divide the short pastry in two parts, one slightly bigger than the other.
- Roll out the large one with the help of some flour and a rolling pin to line the mould. Prick the bottom of the cake with a fork, then blind bake the cake for about 12 minutes at 180°C.
- Fill the case with the Italian custard, then roll out the left pastry dough and cover the cake. Remove the excess dough and seal the edges.
- Brush the cake with a beaten egg and sprinkle with pine nuts.
- Heat the oven to 180°C and bake the cake for about 30 minutes, until golden.
- Let the cake cool down completely before dusting with icing sugar and slicing it.
- Here you can find all the information about my cooking classes. Feel free to drop me an e-mail if you have more questions or if you want to have a tailor-made experience while you are enjoying your time in Tuscany.
- Read Emiko’s post about the cooking class experience we had last week: she’s one of my dearest friend, I feel flattered by her words and, as every time, I am in love with her unique way of capturing reality through vivid pictures.
- If you like torta della nonna I bet you would also enjoy a slice of pinolata, a Tuscan pine nut cake.
- Did you know that not just the nonna, but also the nonno, the grandfather, has a special recipe for a cake? The filling is made of a rich chocolate custard, check Elisa’s recipe for torta del nonno on her blog.