Learning the Secrets of La Dolce Vita: Jan Term Course Explores Italian Cuisine and Culture

Students in a Jan Term Italian cooking class unmold panna cotta from ramekins.
Maria Grazia De Angelis taught her students more than culinary skills in her Jan Term courses on "Learning Italian Language and Culture by Cooking." She gave them the "secret ingredient" to make all food taste better.

"Everything you do or make, you have to put some love in it," she told a class of about 15 students last week after they whipped up tiramisu and panna cotta in the Soda Center kitchen. "If you believe in what you're making, if you put some love in it, that's actually the secret ingredient."

So many students enrolled for De Angelis' course that she split it into two sections. Part lecture, part research and part hands-on cooking, students have learned the history of a variety of Italian foods, been exposed to a number of regional specialties and given hints on the best way to order meals in an Italian restaurant.

Students made homemade fettuccine with three kinds of sauces – pesto, tomato-based and white, along with bruschetta and garlic bread and the desserts. They also discovered the variety of olive oils, cheeses, cold cuts and spices and had pizza and coffee in San Francisco's North Beach, the city's Italian district.

Andrew Herrick, a junior, said he's been trying to learn how to cook since he moved off campus. A fan of the Food Network's "Iron Chef" who likes "every kind" of cuisine, he said he's enjoyed tackling Italian cooking.

"I never made noodles before. I didn't realize how simple it was," he said, taking a breaking from whisking mascarpone cheese and cream for the tiramisu. "The teacher is very enthusiastic and knows a lot about it."

While some recipes are simple, they still took work. Herrick's team took turns whipping the cheese and cream mixture to make it thick enough. Several students dipped ladyfingers in coffee and arranged them in ceramic dishes. Meanwhile, Valeria Renosto, a senior and Italian studies minor, starting grating bittersweet chocolate, explaining the group was going to "put over the cream in layers so we can give it more deliciousness."

The other team was making panna cotta, some stirring the cream, sugar and gelatin mixture over gas burners while others dipped buttered ramekins in sugar. Once the panna cotta was ready, the chefs set up an assembly line to pass the ramekins, fill them with the mixture and arrange them on a tray.

"It's all about teamwork," said junior Dominic Villa. Villa added that the mixture seemed too thin, saying "I feel like I'm going to be disappointed" in the final results.

While waiting for the desserts to chill for an hour, students learned that tiramisu was invented by chefs in Siena to impress a Medici duke. Originally called zuppa del duca, the name later changed, De Angelis told them, when prostitutes in Venice's brothels used it to get energy between customers – roughly translated, tiramisu means pick me up.

Although tiramisu and panna cotta are both rich desserts, De Angelis urged students not to get carried away while cooking, saying Americans often think that if a little bit of an ingredient like sugar is good, more is better. "Try not to think that way. Simple doesn't mean bad, it's good."

Students said they enjoyed being able to get in the kitchen and create dishes. About half watch the Food Network, and only two had never cooked before the class. But all planned on making at least some of the recipes again. Megan "Ceci" Dagang, a freshman who helped make the panna cotta, couldn't contain her excitement as she plated a perfect panna cotta from the ramekin. "Oh, it worked!" she squealed.

- Erin Hallissy, Office of College Communications
Photo by Gabrielle Diaz '11