One of the evenings during our recent trip to the Amalfi coast in Sorrento, Italy we had booked a cooking class. I love to cook, so I was incredibly excited to learn how to make homemade Italian cuisine. The menu was potato gnocchi, three-cheese stuffed ravioli and tiramisù. Our instructor, Carmen, was an energetic, bubbly and an extremely knowledgeable chef that owned a restaurant down the street. She patiently guided us through each step, and would come around to make sure we were learning. Carmen wanted us to understand what the dough felt like in our hands when it was finished being kneaded, and that we knew exactly what an ‘Italian pinch of salt’ looked like (it was a the size of my palm!).
Each recipe required a different type of tender love. For the ravioli, we carved a flour well in the middle so we could see that table and cracked an egg inside. We then slowly incorporated the flour one circular motion at a time. Slow and steady until we had a nice dough ball that we meticulously kneaded until it was bouncy (to Carmen’s standard). As we kneaded, in order to reach proper elasticity, we had to keep slowly adding flour. The goal was a dough ball that when you put two fingers into it, it bounced back up immediately. The less extra flour you had to add, the ‘better’ you were doing at kneading. To my astoundment, I didn’t have to add any extra flour! She said my dough was “exelecente” and asked if I had made pasta before. Even if she was just saying that to make me feel better, it was still a great compliment. Future Italian chef, possibly?
The process for crafting the potato gnocchi was completely different. We started with hand peeling a boiled golden potato, and putting in through a hand-held ricer. When we mixed the flour by squeezing the potato and flour together in no particular way. “Squeeze, squeeze!” Carmen would say. The amount of flour we had to add depended on the size of potato we started with, and we had to listen to how much flour the potato was saying it needed. Well, I must have started with a huge potato because it was so difficult for me to reach the proper firmness. By the time my dough ball was done it was 2x the size of everyone else’s. Imay have been the ravioli queen, but I was not a potato gnocchi master!
Lastly, our tiramisù! The two key things to remember about tiramisu is (1) you should only do a quick dunk of the lady finger into the coffee so that the outside is covered but when you crack it in half there is still a crunch and (2) not to add too much cream cheese to maintain a light and fluffy cream base.
Oh, I forgot to mention during this entire cooking class, Carmen was blasting Italian hits and dancing around the table. Our class was mostly a group of 50 year old women from Scotland, and they were quite the rowdy clan. Dancing and singing, sipping wine and not necessarily meticulously focusing on the delicate art of pasta making, but they were having fun! One of the Scots was convinced that I looked like the actress from Mamma Mia with the curly hair. So as I was making the tiramisu (Carmen chose Wyatt and I to make desert because we were the youngest), they were belting out the Mamma Mia soundtrack and having the time of their life!
After we enjoyed our homemade Italian meal, Carmen invited us to her restaurant down the street, La Cucina del Gusto, to try her homemade Limoncello (the typical alcoholic beverage of choice in this region). When we walked through the doors, she immediately switched mindsets- now she was the owner and main chef who had to be serious and efficient. It was fascinating to see her switch roles so quickly. Although I’m not sure the Scots realized the social switch, as they still tried to get the restaurant to sing along to Mamma Mia, which was followed by a serious stern glare from Carmen. It sent a message that we weren’t in the cooking school any longer, but it didn’t really stop them from being their loud and charismatic selves.
Carmen’s cooking mentality is rooted on using few, simple, quality ingredients crafted with care. The sauce on our pasta was nothing out of the ordinary. But with a simple sauce it complimented and focused our taste buds on the flavor of the pasta. She had an open kitchen in her restaurant and I could have watched her cook all night. Carmen put love and passion in to each of her dishes.
A huge shoutout to Chef Carmen for hosting us, and sharing your Italian Cuisine knowledge! I can’t wait to try and make the dishes back home.
If you ever find yourself in Sorrento, Italy, make sure to contact Chef Carmen! Or visit her website for more information.