Thursday, September 26, 2013

Visiting Calabria via Casa Barilla Cooking Class

Barilla tagliatelle with fresh ricotta, asparagus, nduja and salted ricotta made at
Casa Barilla, 
Annandale Street, Annandale
The furthest south I went during my time in Italy was the Amalfi Coast in the Campania region, which also hosts the ancient town of Pompeii and the region’s capital, Naples.

Executive Chef Luca Ciano of Casa Barilla Cooking School
The Calabria region is further south; the toe of the boot that is the shape of Italy, if you will.

It's known for specialties like my favourite salumi, nduja Calabrian spicy salami paste and caciocavallo cheese, with a cuisine that's a blend of meat and fish offerings as is characteristic of many regions of Italy that have a sea border as well as inland areas.

Casa Barilla Cooking School, Annandale Street
While I've not been to Calabria, I got a glimpse into the food culture through a cooking class at Casa Barilla in Annandale, with thanks to a fellow blogger.

The cooking school of the Italian Barilla brand, the setup at Casa Barilla is great: parking out front, coffee and cake to start (or an Aperol spritz for those inclined at 11am) and casual yet intimate classes with Barilla Executive Chef Luca Ciano leading demonstrations and hands-on, interactive sessions.

In the cooking school kitchen
Our Calabrian cooking class featured three dishes; two that we would be making ourselves following a demonstration from Chef Ciano, who has worked in Sydney restaurants including Mosaic at The Westin and at Sheraton on the Park over the last 12 years.

He has much respect for the Sydney restaurant scene in general, but especially the high end Italian restaurants whose chefs’ portraits adorn the walls of the class kitchen. Ciano cites the lack of good mid-range dining in Sydney as one of our city's weaknesses compared to Italy.

Chef Ciano cutting dough for crostoli
As seems to be the case when cooking a three-course meal, we started with making dessert, which in this case was more of a snack or treat to have with coffee.

Crostoli or chiacchiere are fried pieces of lightly sweetened dough, dusted liberally with icing sugar. It's similar to the dough used in making cannoli shells, just shaped differently and easier for it.

There's also the savoury version gnocco fritto which I had in Bologna in the north of Italy, alongside various cured meats and cheeses.

Deep frying crostoli
With a simple recipe for dough, it was a case of bringing the ingredients together by kneading into a smooth ball, and then resting the dough in the fridge before rolling through the pasta maker later.

Chef Ciano did a quick demonstration before we returned to our kitchen stations to make our own dough.

Crostoli - traditional Easter fritters
The end result of the demonstration was pretty impressive for such a simple recipe. Crisp, golden cards of puffy pastry that crumbled on bite with a shower of icing sugar for sweetening.

Chef Ciano admits to using his chiacchiere as a base for plenty of Nutella, straight from the jar.

Deep frying croquettes
The entrée portion of the three courses was a demonstration and tasting only, which was a bit of a shame as I've never made croquettes before, despite eating plenty of the crunchy, crumbed morsels.

The eggplant "meatless meatballs" comprised roasted and mashed eggplant flesh, various cheeses including fresh mozzarella, and egg and breadcrumbs to bind the mixture. Coated in flour, egg then breadcrumbs, the croquettes were expertly shaped into cylinders (which is the part of the recipe I think I would have eggplant mash falling through my fingers).

Eggplant croquette with crisp eggplant skins and Barilla tomato and basil sauce
Deep fried until golden brown, Ciano served the croquettes on Barilla Tomato & Basil sauce, and garnished with the most fantastic, crisp threads of eggplant skin – cut off from the vegetable, dried, coated in flour and deep fried until crisp-hard.

Chef Ciano joked that Australian eateries offered freshly cracked pepper with everything, "even on your cappuccino!" as he added pepper and olive oil to finish. I can’t disagree – cracked black pepper is one of my favourite spices.

The eggplant croquettes were excellent: piping hot, stringy with cheese and enhanced with both the Barilla sauce and eggplant skins. It’s also a versatile recipe as almost any vegetable can be used (as long as it’s not too wet) and any type of meat can be added (mince, prosciutto, seafood).

Cooking in the kitchen

Mise en place

Chef Ciano adding tagliatelle to the sauce
We moved on to the main meal featuring Barilla's egg tagliatelle. Ciano shared some of Barilla's 135-year history to today's achievement of being the biggest food company in Italy.

In Australia, we have their pasta and sauces range; however, in Italy they offer much more under a variety of brands.

Barilla egg tagliatelle
It was an educational session for some when it came to cooking dried pasta. The tried and tested way is to add 7 grams of salt per litre of water for cooking pasta, adding in the pasta when the water is boiled.

Use lots of water so that the pasta won’t stick to each other, reducing the starch to water ratio. Never add oil or wash pasta after cooking (perhaps an exception for pasta salad) – both tips of which impact the starch left on pasta which helps sauces stick to the shapes.

Cooking spring onions in olive oil
For the sauce, first we cooked spring onion, garlic (as a whole clove, not chopped bits which tend to burn if added in early) and thinly sliced asparagus spears in some seriously decent extra virgin olive oil under the Academia Barilla brand.

Cooking chopped asparagus

Heating Barilla Ricotta sauce
A jar of  Barilla's Ricotta sauce with tomato was simply added and heated, ready for the addition of pasta and final ingredients.

We were using some amazing fresh ricotta and spicy nduja from Salumi Australia to stir through, simply melting into the sauce, adding flavour and texture. Indeed, the nduja was some of the spiciest I've ever had.

Adding pasta to sauce in the pan
Chef Ciano is all for mixing pasta into the sauce pre serving, and not serving the sauce as a pool atop cooked pasta (I admit to doing the latter when constrained by pan size).

Creating a pasta tower
Ciano also demonstrated the creation of a pasta tower, which I've never really seen outside of styled photographs in cookbooks and magazines.

Twirling the long pasta with a large fork in a ladle, a bit of a pasta nest forms and can be gently placed onto a plate, for garnishing with grated salted ricotta and oregano sprigs.

We lunched in the kitchen with convenient pull-out stools and a glass of Sicilian white wine; completely necessary for combating the super-spicy nduja. Our group's pasta was a tad past al dente but the sauce was definitely a saving grace: creamy, sweet with tomato and with a big spice kick from the nduja.

Wine served with lunch

Adding grappa to crostoli dough
After lunch with help clearing dishes, it was time for the fun of rolling and frying the crostoli dough we made earlier, now rested.

For those who haven't used a pasta machine before, this was a great opportunity to sample before making the very easy decision to buy one.

Chef Ciano demonstrating pasta rolling
What I learnt was to resist the urge to flour the dough unless it seems to be sticking at any point. What some of the others learnt is that the dough needs to be a certain thinness to even fit into the roller at the very first stage.

With sheets of pasta rolled, it was simply a matter of cutting them into rectangles with a pastry cutter with a slit in the middle, and getting the frying oil ready.

Deep frying crostoli
Ciano's tip for testing oil heat was to simply test a small piece of dough: if it bubbles and fizzes, the oil is ready. Burning quickly or sinking without bubbles means the oil is not ready.

I loved seeing the dough puff up with bubbles almost as soon as it hit the hot oil, with the grappa and beaten egg in the dough reacting superbly.

In cooking to a golden state, we needed to ensure that the crostoli was cooked for long enough so that it would stay crisp at a later time – an audible crunch when breaking the pastry was the indicator.

Completed crostoli
Drained on paper towels, the crostoli was dusted heavily with icing sugar and best eaten fresh, perhaps with a macchiato on the side. We ended up with so much crostoli we took about five takeaway containers' worth home.

At the end of the 2.5 hour class (which ran a little over time in our case), we received Barilla goodie bags featuring the egg tagliatelle we had used for lunch, a jar of Barilla pesto sauce, recipes incorporating Barilla products and a miniature bottle of Campari.

The classes at Casa Barilla are definitely fun and worthwhile. The kitchen setup is great, chef Ciano and his right-hand-man Angelo are infinitely entertaining and full of knowledge on Italian cuisine, and meanwhile, lunch (or dinner) is sorted.

While it could be considered easy enough to cook dried pasta with a jar of sauce, the Casa Barilla classes take basic supermarket ingredients a step further, with tips and tricks that can be used in the kitchen widely and regularly. And as for my visit to Calabrian cuisine – it was hot but I liked it.

See more photos on my Facebook page (and Like it while you're there!). Casa Barilla hosts hands-on classes, demonstrations and celebrity chef classes throughout the year, with several scheduled as part of next month’s Good Food Month – see the website for details.


Chris @ MAB vs Food said...

That is awesome, I want to attend a Barilla cooking class! Barilla is my pasta of choice at home I have a pantry full of them hehe

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Oh Luca puts on such a great class! The pasta looks great although I read some very controversial comments by the head of Barilla today-very disappointing!

Sara - Belly Rumbles said...

I love the Barilla classes, such great value too. Luca is a doll.

Tina said...

Hi Chris - Lots of classes on offer, do it! It's lots of fun.

Hi Lorraine - Agreed. People are always talking...

Hi Sara - Great fun too.


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