A trip down Tuscan memory lane

2006. A European heatwave. Three girls braving the backpacker route, and by “braving it” I mean staying in gorgeous old converted monasteries and doing gourmet cooking classes in the heart of country Tuscany…think an Under The Tuscan Sun style love affair with food.

Gelato in San Gimignano, Tuscany
Our love affair with red wine started in Guiseppina’s kitchen, 2006

After 10 years, a few uni degrees, overseas life experience, sharing in each others weddings, three toddlers and a couple more on the way, the three girls, who have swapped backpacks for nappy bags, and their awesome husbands, finally got back together in the kitchen and cooked up a true Italian feast, courtesy of Guiseppina’s cooking school,  in Tuscany. I could not have pulled it off without the help of my two beautiful friends.

All grown up, sipping Prosecco

My Bondi kitchen  was never going to replicate the very traditional Italian kitchen, and so I decided to give my meal a more modern twist, but with elements representative of our memories in Tuscany. I wanted the evening to feel organic and natural, as all Guiseppina’s produce was fresh from her garden, and nothing was too complicated or fancy.

Tablescape – muted tones and organic shapes, with fragrant lavender and sunflowers
Sunflower fields in Tuscany

Sight: Linen tableware, in muted tones of blue and stone, dressed the table. Small stone plates in similar tonal colours set the rustic scene, while long, curved platters on which the entrees were served, further created the relaxed feeling. Clustered around the table were vintage blue and green bottles, filled with bright yellow sunflowers and fragrant lavender. The girls immediately noticed this detail which reminded them of walking through the stunning stretches of sunflower fields and the lavender bushes growing in every quaint garden, including that of our hostel. The blue and green  bottles were also a nod to the similar glass vases which were part of our hostel’s decor.
The food was presented on simple white and glass dishes, maintaining the uncomplicated atmosphere. Being able to see the food through the glass dishes creates excitement and the neutral colours showcase the vibrant colours of the fresh produce which are so vital in Guiseppina’s cooking.

Lavender blooming in Tuscany
The green and blue bottles at our hostel

Smell: I didn’t have to do much to create the authentic Italian aroma – the fresh basil and juicy ripe tomatoes, together with the fragrant garlic and lemon set the stage pretty well! The yeasty warmth of freshly baked bread sticks further reminded us of being in the Italian mamma’s home. I lit a blood orange candle, which added freshness to the rich aromas.

Fresh ingredients from Guiseppina’s home – Tuscany, 2006
My key Italian ingredients in Australia, 2016

Sound: I love Spotify! I selected the playlist Café Europa, which wasn’t too cheesy, but the romantic music with foreign accents and classical nostalgic sounds definitely made us all feel like we were back in the heart of Europe! Of course, the conversation turned to reminiscing about our time spent there. There were many laughs and, when I brought out the old photographs, a few “OMG do you remember that!” exclamations, as well as comments from the occasional shocked sounding husband.

Friends having lunch – Salute!

Touch: The organic feel of linen on your fingers provided the physical sensation of being in the countryside – understated luxury, a little rough but so romantic.
The different textures of the food, as always, play a vital role in how your “touch” sense is stimulated. It begins with the nibbles eaten with your hands – warm, soft bread sticks contrasted against the sharpness of hard pecorino cheese, which was also complemented by the gooey sweetness of onion jam. Entrees of arancini and fried zucchini flowers both had a crispy coating, the former with a melt-in-your-mouth inside but the latter, firm. These warm dishes were contrasted further by the cool, fresh deconstructed Caprese salad. This principle of hot vs cold, soft vs hard etc, continued throughout the meal, really stimulating your sense of touch.

Wild mushroom arancini with garlic aioli
Crispy fried zucchini flowers

Taste: Most of the menu was directly from Guiseppina’s Cooking School, however I substituted a few things to suit dietary requirements and increase diversity. I think the most important ingredient was LOTS of good quality extra virgin olive oil, adding a rich fruity flavour to the dishes.
Each couple brought an Italian drink, to complement one of the courses. I also served ice cold San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa as the non-alcoholic option.

Nibbles: Homemade breadsticks fresh from the oven, (which my Little B so enjoyed helping to make), with a gourmet olive selection, sharp pecorino cheese and the piece de resistance, delicious onion jam which had the perfect balance of sweet and tangy flavour. Harris Farm Markets make their own, which, luckily, was so similar to Guiseppina’s homemade speciality. It made my week when I found it!
Italian Prosecco perfectly balanced out these rich flavours.

Little B – my kitchen helper
Home made grissini fresh from the oven
Nibbles – grissini, pecorino cheese, onion jam and gourmet olives

Entrees: Wild mushroom arancini and crispy fried zucchini flowers served with a garlic aioli and a tomato dipping sauce. I used dried porcini mushrooms, which gave the most gorgeous depth of flavour. Guiseppina’s original menu included bruschetta. I didn’t want more bread as I had added in the breadsticks earlier, so I decided to re-work the bruschetta ingredients into a deconstructed Caprese salad. I used big balls of rich, creamy burrata, my absolute favourite cheese, and decadent buffalo mozzarella. Served amongst a medley of roughly chopped heirloom tomatoes, with fresh, fragrant basil and a good slug of evoo (extra virgin olive oil), caramelised balsamic vinegar and of course freshly ground himalayan pink salt and black pepper…so so yum! We also opened a bottle of beautiful chianti from Tuscany, a perfect accompaniment.

Wild mushroom arancini, crispy zucchini flowers with garlic aioli & roast tomato dipping sauce
Deconstructed Caprese salad with buratta and buffalo mozzarella

Mains: One of the most memorable pasta dishes I have ever eaten was the creamy pasta, made without any cream, in Guiseppina’s home. Fresh spaghetti with vibrant cherry tomatoes, basil and lots of garlic and parmesan cheese, combined with walnuts, both crushed and chopped, give this dish the most amazing texture and creamy taste. Ground walnuts and the oil they release mixed through pasta is definitely something worth trying! The combined effort and advice from the other girls (who have made this dish countless times) while cooking was so helpful, and not to mention fun.

Chopped walnuts going into the pan
Walnut oil becoming creamy
Guiseppina’s special spaghetti

For a bit of protein to complement all the carbs, I decided on a simple white fish (ling), cooked with good quality olive oil, fresh lemon juice and lots of seasoning, on a bed of thinly sliced red onion and topped with wholesome baby asparagus, all steamed in a foil parcel in the oven. The clean flavours were great together with the rich pasta.
The chianti continued to flow into the main course, balancing out all the beautiful flavours of Italy .

Oven steamed ling with chilli, red onion and fresh asparagus

Dessert: Another dish that we still talk about, 10 years later, is Guiseppina’s tiramisu. This easy recipe delivers every time, its decadence and deliciousness even convinced the girls who are on a pregnancy “no raw egg” diet, to have a spoonful (or two!). One lesson that I learned that day in Tuscany which I will never forget, is that REAL Italian tiramisu doesn’t contain any alcohol, and I think its even better this way!

To contrast the rich creamy dessert, I added to the menu a sour cherry granita. The secret ingredient…balsamic vinegar! Both desserts were served in glass bowls, showing off the gorgeous layers of the tiramisu, and the stunning cerise pink colour of the granita. I picked a flower from my garden in the same shade of pink to garnish the chocolate dusted tiramisu – it looked pretty enticing.

Sour cherry granita
Through the looking glass

I brought out my favourite glasses which I reserve for dessert wine and liqueurs (by now I think I have 16 different types of glasses in my house!), and we salute‘d to lasting friendship and delicious food over chilled limoncello (itself, in an amazing bottle, which will definitely be up-cycled soon).

Chilled Limoncello is served
Mum’s almond biscotti

Homemade (by my generous mum) almond biscotti were served to end the meal with fresh peppermint tea…always room for more it seems!

Honest Outcome:
we laughed and reminisced and had a lot of fun cooking together, just as we had done on our travels 10 years ago – this was the main goal of the evening, so I would say it was a pretty successful night. My girlfriends were of the same sentiment, while the boys were very complimentary of the food and the Italian experience in general. The small touches definitely didn’t go unnoticed. … so I was happy.

Not So Good: I hadn’t anticipated how long everyone would chat for over the nibbles, or how quickly the entrees would take to fry, so by the time we sat down at the table, they were a little cold, but still delicious. Timing is everything!


Last minute lunch for 50: tips, tools and tastes

Once a year, my mum puts on a lunch for over 50 people to celebrate Jewish New Year. This is no ordinary lunch… it’s a banquet, meticulously styled and planned down to the last basil leaf and elevated ceramic platter. I usually sit down with her weeks in advance to discuss the menu and the way in which we’ll do something special. It’s a process we both absolutely love and look forward to each year. Unfortunately this year, my grandmother became quite unwell and my mum cancelled her soirée two weeks prior. However,my gran’s condition stabilised and the lunch was reinstated, just 48 hours prior to the guests arrival. This obviously meant that the many hours of baking, shopping, chopping and setting up were drastically reduced and we had to come up with a new plan. But if you know my mum, that was never going to mean lowering her standards.

I was so inspired by how she managed to pull it all together at the last minute – here are some of the lessons that can be learned.

view from the top: salad bar with grains, garnishes and extras *

A salad bar was always the plan for the lunch, and this is mostly last minute work anyway. so the menu at large didn’t change much.  But one thing I have learned, is to get help! Peeling, chopping and roasting is very time consuming, so where possible:

Prep tip #1buy ready cut veggies (worth the extra cost when you are so short on time). also, specialised kitchen tools are very handy. My mum recently picked up this Chef’n® Stalkchop Cauliflower Tool in New York – its incredible and how much time and trimming it saves 🙂

Prep tip #2: get someone (or 2 people) to be your kitchen hands.

Salmon sashimi with wasabi peas

Style tip #1: food en masse looks great. My mum’s huge selection of large bowls and platters always look amazing filled with her gorgeous cooking and baked goods.

roasted tomatoes with fresh basil, roasted corn with chilli, lime and coriander

My mum artfully presented all the elements of the salad piled up on a long wooden board, with certain ingredients such as the feta cheese in herb oil and the grains, served on the board in bowls of different colours and textures, creating beautiful height and a bright array of colour, making the whole board look so appealing. This also helps to engage all your senses. Nothing was too preciously laid out and so people weren’t afraid to tuck in and help themselves.

deluxe make your own salad bar
Menu tip #1: make sure all dietary requirements are catered for. Quinoa and freeka, both gluten free, were the grains for the salad, alongside soft white bread for dipping and zesty za’atar bread (deliciously not gluten-free) soak up all the goodness. Dairy was kept separate and some salad without glazed salmon on top was kept aside for a vegan guest.

Menu tip #2: serve a selection of hot and cold food to really engage the senses. Combining temperatures in one meal enhances the flavour experience. A gorgeous kale, spinach and feta pie was served fresh from the oven to contrast the cold salad bar.

Mediterranean flavours: roasted baby tomatoes, whole salmon with date syrup glaze on chickpea and date salad,  smokey babaganoush and hummus with soft bread

Prep tip # 2: accept help from your guests. My mum and I usually do the majority of everything ourselves. Baked goods and ice creams are usually frozen a couple of weeks in advance saving a lot of stress in the days leading up to the lunch. However, this year was different. My mum is lucky to be surrounded by beautifully caring, very generous friends, many of whom brought a dessert. It also helps that said friends are talented bakers, assemblers and ice cream makers!

chocolate crunch ice cream, choc chiffon cake, peppermint crisp pudding and baked cheesecake *

On the menu was a creamy baked cheese cake, chocolate crunch ice cream, chocolate chiffon cake, caramelised mango and creamy yoghurt, peppermint crisp pudding (golden layers of caramel condensed milk, coconut biscuits and crumbled choc mint candy), double chocolate rocky road,  two huge fruit salads – one “red” filled with fresh berries, watermelon ruby red grapes and pomegranate jewels, and another tropical “yellow” one of pineapple, paw paw, papaya, mango with a ginger, honey and mint syrup. There was also an array of mini chocolates and nougat, a variety of indulgent biscuits and biscotti and a huge tray brimming with a sugar rush of brightly coloured lollies. Lets just say I didn’t have much in the way of a savoury dinner that night with all this delectable dessert left over!

double chocolate rocky road, caramelised yogurt with mango pudding, cheese cake with caramel crunch topping *

On another note, while decor and presentation is vitally important to creating the right atmosphere, there is nothing wrong with simple.

Style tip #2: grocery store flowers are usually good enough quality and reasonably priced. Instead of the annual early morning  trip to the flower markets, a stop in the floral section at Woolies while picking up fruit and veg the day before was perfect for this last minute lunch. My mums stunning collection of vases and serving-ware ensured that style was not forgotten, ensuring that the visual sense was definitely well catered for in this multi-sensory experience.

At the end of the day, despite the aching feet and a lot of cleaning up to do, my mum was thrilled with her decision to host her lunch as usual. The most important thing at the end of the day is that all our friends and family were together, celebrating the new year in as we always do, and of course that no one was left hungry (for days to come!) and there was certainly enough sugar involved to send everyone off with blessing of a “sweet new year”. Well done mum, I’m always so proud of, and inspired by you!

*photos by Ingrid Shakenovsky, with thanks