Friday, November 22, 2013

Day 9: Cooking class: Learning to cook the perfect risotto and more from chef Alessandra at Agriturismo La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba

Day 9: Cooking class: Learning to cook the perfect risotto and more from chef Alessandra at Agriturismo La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba

The day has finally arrived for the cooking class! I have always thought that my risotto was really good until I came to Italy on this trip and had amazing risotto one after another. What is the secret to a perfect bowl of risotto? Today, I will learn from Alessandra, the Italian chef behind the restaurant at La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba!

The cooking class started at 9am. It took place in the kitchen of La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba. Before I left for this trip, Joost’s sister told me to check out the town of Monforte d’Alba, so I was really happy to have a chance to check it out on my way to the cooking class.

La Torricella is on top of a hill, and as I was on my way driving up to the place, I was just stunned at how beautiful this area was. I made several stops on the way to take some photos.


Once I arrived at Agriturismo La Torricella, the view was even more breathtaking. What a way of life they have up here! Here is a panoramic view from La Torricella. Click on the photo to view it in full size. The next time I come to Piedmont, I will definitely stay here!

After I parked my car, as I walked up to the property, an old man greeted me. He turned out to be Alessandra’s father! I didn’t know how to say cooking class in Italian. What to do to ask for directions? I suddenly remembered the word “cucina” as kitchen in Spanish. (From the company in San Francisco, La Cucina) Maybe this would work. I said “cucina”, and he understood right away! Haha! He pointed me to the building at the top. Alessandra’s brother greeted me as I entered the building and took me into the kitchen. There I met Jane from Chicago, who is staying there for a full Piedmonte experience and at the same time, helping out with English/Italian translation. Turned out, I was the only student that day! I will get Alessandra’s full attention!

Alessandra came out and greeted me. She speaks really good English. We had no problem communicating with each other. All of them are so friendly and down to earth. We briefly discussed what we were going to make that day and we started right away.

Menu will be: Risotto with truffle, Coccotte with truffle, Porcini mushroom Tajarin, Ravioli with fontino cheese filling, and hazelnut cake for dessert. We will also make Focaccia bread.

We first started with the stock for risotto. We will cook this for 2-3 hours before the stock is ready. I’ve always used chicken stock for risotto in the US. Turns out, in Piedmont, people mostly use beef stock instead. Clear beef stock though, not the brown beef stock we see in the US. We used beef shoulder meat for this. She also told me that for good broth, we put the meat in before we start heating the water. For good meat to eat, the meat is put in after the water is boiled. In this case, we added the meat when the water was still cold. We also added leak, carrots, bay leave, black pepper corn, juniper berries and a bit of olive oil and salt before the water was boiled.

20 minutes in, the kitchen was filled with the aroma of the beef stock as it boils.

Next, we prepare the filling for the ravioli. We used a local Piedmonte cheese called Raschera. It is a mild semi-hard cheese that is very creamy and with a sweet flavor. So delicious! I hope that it is available back home in the United States. Alessandra told me that the smaller the holes, the better the cheese. Good to know!

The cheese was cubed and then, yolks, flour and milk were added together into a small sauce pan. The color of the yolk was deep orange. So beautiful. She told me that for this type of eggs, farmers fed the chicken with carrots to get this color. For those of you who keep chicken and get your own eggs back home in the Bay Area, give this a try and let me know if you get yolk in this color! I’ll buy some from you! To cook this filling, instead of a double boiler, Alessandra used a stone block for indirect heat! So fancy! I need to go find a block of stone like this when I get home.


While this is cooked, we started with the dough for the pasta. White flour and semolina flour were mixed together, and then eggs were added to it.


Then we started kneading the dough, let it rest for 10 minutes, and running it through the pasta machine.


While we were cooking, Jane was kind enough to help me with picture taking. I think these are the first set of photos that I am in them on this trip! Hahaha. Thanks, Jane! Great photos. I love them! She also took the first photo on this blog post of me loosening up the tajarin.

Then, we started with the ravioli making. It was not as easy as it seems. LOL. I had a lot of fun doing it, though.

We then also started on the hazelnut cake, which is another regional specialty in Piedmont. There are so many regional specialty in Piedmont, my God. LOL. How many trips do I need to make here to try all of them? Then we came back and cut the pasta into Tajarin. In the meantime, we also started on Focaccia. So busy!


By now, a good two and a half hours have past. During which, Alessandra’s husband, Francesco came in and said hi with their baby daughter. Such an adorable Italian family! We took a break and had some great espresso. This is an Italian morning through and through!

It’s now time for the risotto! Woohoo!

We started with chopping the onion really finely. Much more finely than what I was doing back in the US. This is something that I’ve noticed in all the risotto that I’ve had here. I almost never saw big chunk of onion in my risotto. Actually, if I didn’t pay attention, I wouldn’t even have noticed onion pieces in the risotto at all.

Next, we sweat the onion in olive oil and water! Yes, you heard it right. Water. Aqua. H2O! She said that we don’t want to burn the onion so adding some water will mellow down onion’s strong taste and make sure it doesn’t get burnt. I also asked her if people put garlic in there, and to my surprise, Alessandra told me that Italians nowadays do not use garlic as much anymore. To most people, it is just too strong of a taste. In many dishes, onion is as strong of an ingredient as it goes. Also, there is no butter in the pan yet. I usually put butter and olive oil without water. I guess it’s time to try risotto Piedmontese style after I get back. I’m so excited about trying this method.

Next up, the rice. I’ve noticed a few different kind of rice for risotto. Mainly three types: Arborio, which is the one that I always used in the US, Carnaroli, which is the one that we are using today, and then Vialone Nano, which has a smaller size kernels. Alessandra told me that she always uses Carnaroli. Vialone Nano is mostly used in the northeast region around Venice. All three can be used for risotto though, she said. I’m going to give carnaroli a try when I go back to the US. After the rice was toasted for a while, a small amount of white wine was added.

From here, she put in 4 ladles of the beef stock and just let it cook. She was so casual about it, too. No standing next to it and stir constantly. Once the stock was reduced, she put in a couple more ladles, stirred a bit. and then let it sit again. After the rice became twice as big, she started to stir it more. 15 minutes in after the stock was added, she turned the heat off, added some butter and parmesan cheese, covered, and let it sit for 5 minutes.

And how did this risotto turned out? Perfectly! Oh my God. I am getting the same kind of sensation as the risotto I had in Venice. Really creamy but still slowly flow-y after stirred. The rice was al dante. It was just perfect. So this is how you make a perfect bowl of risotto!

And of course, we shaved some white truffle on it, too.

After the risotto, we finished making pasta, ravioli, coccotte, and hazelnut cakes.

Everything was so delicious! I was so stuffed at the end. During cooking class, I discovered that they also make their own wine! Alessandra offered to give me a tour of their winery. It is amazing how much work they’ve put into this land, and all these passion and care show in their food and their wine. Part of their vineyard is inside the Barolo zone, so they also make Barolo!

When we walked outside, the sun is starting to show. The view was amazing.

Inside the winery, Alessandra’s sister is packing some large jars with their wine for local buyers. We also walked down into their wine cellar and saw the aging of their wine in wood barrels.


As the day came to an end and I waved them good bye and drove away from their house, I knew that this experience has forever changed me. Through their warm and welcoming spirit, I am feeling the effect of the land of Piedmonte and the energy behind the food and the people here.

Food is where the culture shows itself in the rawest form. With local ingredients, people developed different cooking methods and styles to adapt to the weather and the seasonal availability of produces from the land that they live on. I am so glad that I had this opportunity to spend a day with Alessandra and Francesca’s family as they welcomed me into their kitchen. Next time I come to Piedmont, I cannot imagine anywhere else to stay except here. (They also operates a B&B here.)

The drive back to Alba and a visit to the only tower open to the public in town.

As I drove back to Alba, the landscape continued to stun me. It’s beauty was beyond anything that I have imagined. How can a place be this beautiful? It amazes me that tourists aren’t all over the place here yet. The best kept secret in Italy.


After I got back to Alba, I went up to the only tower that is open to the public and snapped a couple of shot of the town of Alba in the evening.


It was cold and windy on top of the tower. When I got back to the apartment, I ended up with a headache and a bit of fever. I hope that I didn’t catch a cold. I decided to go to bed early and hope that I’ll be able to sleep it off and feel much better tomorrow morning.

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