For years – long before I started this blog – my wife Julie and I have been wanting to take a cooking class together. We both love the time we get to spend in the kitchen (though now that we have a two-year-old running around the house, we don’t really have the option to be in the kitchen together).
I finally resolved to make the class happen. For Christmas, I bought Julie and I two spots for a lesson called “Italian Comfort – Gnocchi” at the Culinary Classroom in Reading. The class cost $85 each, but I will tell you up front, it was worth every penny.
The Culinary Classroom is hosted by Chef Linda Bell, who holds classes in her home, which includes a spacious kitchen with two separate cooking areas – perfect for intimate classes of 6-8 people (we had 10 in our class and though it was a little snug, there was still enough space and food).
Chef Linda runs the classroom with her husband – and sous chef – Mike. She is a retired educator who has combined her passion for teaching and cooking into a business where she imparts that same love of cooking onto her students.
The evening began at 6 p.m. with an introduction to basic kitchen rules: never hand someone a knife, always set it down for them to pick up; always announce when you are walking behind someone else; and always gather your ingredients before you begin cooking.
Mise en place is the proper term for the latter. It’s French for “everything in its place,” and it’s a lesson I needed to hear. In my own kitchen, I have been guilty of making several trips to the pantry for ingredients that I should have had in front of me the whole time.
After learning the rules of the kitchen, we talked gnocchi. The Italian pasta is most commonly made from potatoes and rolled into oblong dough balls. But really, gnocchi can be made with just about anything and can be shaped in multiple ways.
Our first gnocchi, the gnocchi alla Romana, was made with semolina flour. For this, we mostly watched as Linda went over the basics. Instead of rolling the gnocchi right away, this particular recipe called for spreading the mixture onto a buttered parchment-lined tray then cooling it in a refrigerator or freezer. The pasta would later be cut into rounds and layered to be baked into more of a casserole-type dish.
The gnocchi di zucca con salvia e Parmigiano was our second dish to cook. We first had to make butternut squash gnocchi; then we made the sage butter sauce. With this, we got a few takeaways to use in our everyday cooking.
First, always save a cup of starchy water after you drain your pasta. You can use it to thicken your sauce.
Second, always use kosher salt, not iodized salt. It has better texture and ensures you don’t over-salt your dish (also, when the recipe says “add salt to taste,” make sure you taste it so you know how much salt you are adding).
Third, stainless steel pans are better than black-bottomed pans because you can see your butter brown a lot better.
For the second half of our lesson, we needed the more traditional potato gnocchi. Russet potatoes were baking in the oven while we worked on our other two varieties. This creates a drier gnocchi than boiling the potato. It also meant that the potatoes were very hot as we peeled the skins off.
The next step was to rice the potatoes. This makes the starchy tuber a lot easier to work with when combined with the other ingredients.
Linda combined the ingredients using the traditional method of gathering the potatoes and flour, then putting eggs in the middle, slowly incorporating the ingredients together into a dough ball (helpful hint: never add all of the flour the recipe calls for at the beginning – add it as needed because you may need more or less depending on the size of the eggs and how starchy the potatoes are).
Then we got to roll the gnocchi. You can buy a gnocchi roller – a small board that will add grooves to the dough – or you can use a fork for the same effect. Either way, the grooves and ridges are key to allowing the sauce to stick to the pasta.
From here, we split into teams to work on our sauces. One team was tasked with creating a fennel sausage and porcini cream sauce (with homemade marinara sauce as a base). Our team was in charge of the gnocchi alla bava, literally translated as “drooling gnocchi.” It’s not the most appealing name, but it is a delicious cream sauce that includes Parmigiano-Reggiano and Fontina cheeses.
Fontina cheese, I found out, is very soft and very difficult to shred, but I managed. And everything managed to come together nicely and almost at the same time.
It was about 9 p.m. when all of the meals were done. Though the time had gone by very quickly, we were more than a little hungry by this point and couldn’t wait to taste-test all of our dishes.
Maybe it was because I was so hungry, but I think these were the four best gnocchi dishes that I have ever tried.
The semolina gnocchi is one that Linda recommends being served as an appetizer. Because it is baked with cheese and not sauced, it is an easy snack that can be eaten like finger food.
Julie and I both love butternut squash gnocchi (and ravioli) and sage butter sauce. We are so glad that we now know how to make it ourselves because this was better than any store-bought variety and the butter sauce turned out perfect (in a way I have never been able to pull off).
The fennel sausage and porcini cream sauce was amazing. We were all invited to taste the marinara sauce before it was added to the cream and that on its own was amazing (the key is using real San Marzano tomatoes). With the cream and the slightly spicy sausage, it was perfect.
My favorite, though, was the alla bava. Maybe it’s because I helped make the sauce. Or maybe because it was so rich and creamy that I could eat it as dessert. Either way, I loved it.
One other thing I should note: the class was listed as running from 6 to 9 p.m. but we were there until almost 10. The food was worth the wait, though.
We learned a lot more during the class than will fit into this column. But beyond that, we also had a great time with the other eight people that were in the class with us (and Linda and her husband). Everyone else in the class was either a repeat student or came with someone who had taken a class before. The Culinary Classroom is certainly creating a loyal following, and it’s easy to see why.
Linda was an excellent teacher and there were plenty of laughs to go with plenty of delicious food.
Julie and I were both very glad to have taken the class. And I’m sure someday we, too, will be repeat students.