The Italians say “Il Mangiar bene e’ un’arte”… to eat well is an art. And food is an art which Italians have perfected to a tee. I first fell in love with Italian food a few years ago when I visited Tuscany and explored its many historic hill-top towns and local trattorias, where I experienced the most delicious home-made cooking. Here the food is old-fashioned Italian ’stripped back’, passed down through generations and improved over time.
I’m always on the look out for ways to improve my cooking at home and have even tried to cook my own pasta (on the odd occasion!) and always appreciate a good cooking class. I have heard a lot about La Cucina Di Sandra Cooking School in Richmond since it opened the last year so I couldn’t wait to visit.
The cooking school which doubles as her home, is full of rustic charm and cheer. From the fully stocked pantry, to the hundreds of cookbooks lining the shelves, you can tell how much love Sandra has put into the place.It’s not your usual cooking class, La Cucina di Sandra teams an interactive masterclass format with dining around a convivial table to fully immerse diners in the Italian experience. According to the owner Sandra it’s the closest thing to being a guest at a private dinner party in Italy. Nothing like a bit of social eating around the kitchen table to really embrace Italian culture.
Perching at the bar overlooking the kitchen, our intimate group of seven enjoyed a glass of wine upon arrival while we all introduced ourselves and got to know each other.
Sandra who was born in Pescara Abruzzo, speaks with warmth and passion, keenly answering questions and giving us a history of Italian cooking and regional cuisine. After a career in the corporate world, Sandra opened La Cucina di Sandra in 2014 to turn a lifelong dream and passion into reality. Over the last 20 years she has spent hours in her aunt’s kitchen in Italy and two months on a food pilgrimage to Italy collecting hundreds of recipes and cookbooks from family and friends.
During her class, she gives us useful tips about where to shop and some of the traditions of Italian cooking. In Italy, the most important thing about pasta is the shape, which is then matched accordingly with the sauce. Even the drying temperate affects the taste and texture of the pasta.
To get perfectly al dente pasta, it is best practice to look at the cooking time on the packed and reduce by two minutes since the pasta has usually been sitting on the shelf for a while. A good rule of thumb is to use one litre of water per 100 grams of pasta and one teaspoon of salt per litre of water.
We started with a large plate of Biscotti Parmigiano (Parmesan Biscuits) which had an almost shortbread like consistency. They are also really simple to make and the biscuits have no sugar added, just unsalted butter, flour, parmesan cheese, egg and salt.
This was followed by the Zupetta di cozze, cannellini e prosciutto crudo (mussel and white bean soup with prosciutto). Mussels, garlic, parsley and white wine combined with Italian cannellini beans to make a lusciously smooth creamy soup. Strips of prosciutto were sautéed in a frying pan until they were slightly crunchy and placed on top of the soup with a sprig of rosemary to cut through the creaminess of the dish.
One of the local dishes in Abruzzo is the Pennette rigate al sugo di gamberi (baby penne with prawn ragu) only in Abruzzo it’s made with pannocchie, a flat greyish/pink crustacean, renowned as one of the sweetest crustaceans you can eat. Since pannochie are only found in the Adriatic and in Japan, Sandra substituted them for baby prawns paired with small penne.
The pasta dish is a delicious medley of prawns, bay leaves, parsley, chilli and tomatoes. Sandra taught us how to reserve the heads and shells of the prawns to make the sauce and how to master the perfect stock using the clam juices.
We retreated to a beautifully set dining table, illuminated by candelight to enjoy this dish. This was a great way to get to know Sandra and the other guests and to share our love of Italian food in a cosy, informal setting.
For the main course, we enjoyed the Parmigiana di ricciola, burrat e melanzane con pomodorini (Kingfish Parmigiana with burrata, eggplant and pomodorini) which was my personal favourite of the evening. Souffle molds were elegantly layered with fish, eggplant and burrata and once cooked in the oven, turned upside down and topped with a few pomodorini on top.
Equally impressive was the dessert, taking advantage of the delicious cherries which are in season at the moment. The sandwich di crostoli e ciliege (crostoli and cherry sandwich) was made by poaching cherries in a saucepan with caster sugar, water and a generous splash of Kirsch.
Ricotta was then passed through a fine sieve and folded with the whipped cream together with the sifted icing sugar and the seeds of the vanilla bean. The assembly was particularly fun combining the ricotta and cream onto the plate, finishing it crostoli, more cream and a pile of cherries.
I definitely came away from this class armed with more knowledge about Italian cooking and more tricks up my sleeve. Sandra was also kind enough to give us all the recipes to take away so we could try them at home. I can’t wait to try them!
La Cucina di Sandra
A 62 Lyndhurst Street, Richmond, Victoria, Australia, 3121.
T 0419 503 805 or 03 9421 1883