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Easy Italian Dinner Party – A Cookery Class with Divertimenti:
I have a recipe book on my shelf called ‘Easy Italian’. The Book was the subject of much mirth when an Italian friend visited; he swore there was no such thing as an Easy Italian (recipe or man) and explained that his mother and grandmother spent most of their lives in the kitchen creating fantastic food. That said, there are plenty of ‘almost Italian’ dishes which I make regularly and which, in keeping with my own style of cooking are generally quite straightforward. Many of them, though, share the need for long slow cooking times and that was the challenge I wanted to see tackled at Divertimenti.
Cooking the dishes for a dinner party and allowing enough time to eat with a schedule that starts at 11 in the morning and finishes by 2.30 in the afternoon is no mean feat though, whether the cuisine is Italian, French or Japanese. And, I suspect it is scheduling which is the key to success. In this case, our tutor, Olivia Greco, had picked a menu which sounded almost impossible. Four types of bruschetta, crespelle con ricotta, Osso Bucco, fennel with potatoes, asparagus with butter and parmigiano, an orange and radiccio salad and then to round everything off, tiramisu. And, we were cooking pretty much everything from scratch.
We did have the advantage of working in the beautifully equipped kitchen at Divertimenti – with pretty much every appliance you might ever consider you needed and a few more for good measure. So, while I generally chop by hand, here most of our vegetables went in the Magimix. And, the Miele ovens had rather swish warming drawers so that as things were cooked they could be removed and kept warm at a set temperature.
We started with Osso Bucco, using large slices of beef shank. Olivia assured us that we could use beef or veal for this dish. Other than the osso bucco slices, the dish just needs that classic mix of celery, carrot and onion, some red wine, dried porcini mushrooms and tomatoes. That, with a little olive oil to seal the meat, some flour to help thicken the sauce and salt and pepper to season is all that is needed.
Tiramisu is an Italian classic and, to help allow it to set, we started early in the schedule. Olivia explained that it is a dish which really takes a day to set properly. The recipe was pretty similar to ones that I have tried in the past, although the coffee was stronger (espresso strength), there was a little milk and the alcohol was Marsala wine (I generally use Tia Maria – perhaps to compensate for the weak coffee!).
The end result was excellent and I would have been interested to see what it was like twelve hours or so later when the flavours would have mixed together fully and the mixture set a little.
Crespelle con ricotta was a lovely idea for a starter or pasta course – crepe style pancakes, stuffed with a mixture of ricotta and spinach and topped off with a cream, butter and tomato sauce.
I’d probably mix it up a bit if I made the dish again, I’d like more spinach and less ricotta and I’d probably add a lot more nutmeg and perhaps a little chopped ham or sausage. Again, this dish was made and popped into the oven to cook while we prepared the vegetable dishes and the bruschetta
We all loved the ultra simple but alternative vegetable dishes. My personal favourite was the fennel (finocchi) and potato, baked in the oven. It is just that, the fennel is cooked in the oven in butter and oil for about 15 minutes before thinly sliced potato is added, tossed into the fennel mixture and seasoned with salt and pepper. The finished dish is then baked for about half an hour so that the potatoes are tender and the fennel has started to caramelise. And, the asparagus with butter and parmesan was simply cooked for 2-3 minutes before being tossed in butter and topped with a little parmesan.
Of the bruschetta, it was the one with aubergine and goat’s cheese that got the most praise. A really simple topping that just worked – soft goats cheese mixed with a little fresh oregano andolive oil before being topped with char grilled aubergine. Delicious! I was particularly impressed with the green pan ceramic griddle – an ultra light griddle that actually worked as well as my lovely old cast iron creuset.
We left with a little folder with every recipe and with a very helpful guide to the equipment that Divertimenti recommends. While I don’t own everything in the booklet, for the most part the brands are ones I know and respect (and sometimes would have bought had my budget allowed). Divertimenti champions new and innovative kitchen equipment that is best in class, so in the kitchen you’ll find miele ovens side by side with an aga, gas hobs and induction hobs, Magimix and Kenwood, my own favourite Bamix hand blender and Wusthof knives, to name but a few. It’s one of the few places I’ve been to for a cookery class where I’ve felt there’s impartial and informed advice on equiping your own kitchen
I’ve found it hard to know which of Olivia’s recipes to share, but in the end decided that the tiramisu is the one we are all most likely to make at home. She advised that if you wanted a ‘prettier’ dish, you could just as easily make it in individual sundae glasses, and that it would set rather faster that way too.
- 1 cup Strong black coffee espresso strength
- 1 cup Milk
- 35-40 Sponge Fingers
- 500 g Mascarpone
- 6 Eggs Separated
- 18 tablespoons Sugar
- Marsala Wine or Vin Santo - to taste
- 50 g Bitter chocolate Coarsely chopped
- Mix the coffee, milk and marsala wine
- Dip the sponge fingers in the coffee mixture and arrange in a large serving dish in one layer
- Beat the egg yolks with the sugar with an electric whisk until the mixture is pale and fluffy, then fold in the mascarpone
- Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks then fold into the mascarpone mixture
- Spoon over the sponge fingers to make a thick layer
- Refrigerate for at least three hours, then sprinkle with chopped chocolate before serving
I have to confess, I do think some of the dishes would have improved with longer cooking. Particularly the Osso Bucco, which was distinctly chewy. Though that might also have been down to the use of beef rather than veal. Nevertheless, it’s quite an achievement to have so many dishes prepared and served in such a short time frame, even if you do have the rather doubtful help of a team of student assistants.
Cookery classes at Divertimenti are for a maximum of 12 students. There are a range of options available – all day classes, morning classes with lunch or evening classes with dinner. And, you can learn anything from baking to dinner party cuisine. There are often reknown chefs as tutors – Sabrina Ghayour, Dan Docherty and Eric Lanlard for example. And, the whole thing takes place in the lower ground floor of Divertimenti – so, when you are taking a break from chopping and whisking, you can shop for some of their wonderful cookery equipment.
For more about the classes and to check the schedule, see the Divertimenti website