Table of Learning

By Shelby Johnson
Photography by Sharon Doerre

In March, a class of excited St. Francis School eighth-graders went to Italy. The trip was organized through NETC Educational Travel, and the itinerary included Venice, Ravenna, Florence, Asissi and Rome. While in Florence, the entire group—comprised of 52 eighth graders, 7 teachers and 15 parents—attended the Apicius cooking school and prepared, from scratch, the meal for that evening. The group made tagliatella pasta, salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce), polpettone in umido (stewed meatloaf), schiacciata alla fiorentina (traditional Florentine cake) and a lot of unforgettable memories.

As my eighth-grade class stood outside the tiny cooking school in Florence, we really didn’t know what to expect. We were divided into groups and taken into separate kitchens to prepare different dishes for our meal—all the while wondering why we weren’t eating at a restaurant. I was put into the group responsible for dessert: a delicious orange cake.

As the preparations began, I observed my friends and noticed some amazing things. I saw people come to life as they showed off their hidden talents in the kitchen. I saw friends who were normally quiet begin to laugh and smile as I hadn’t seen before on this trip. My classmates were working hard to prepare these dishes for all of us to enjoy, and I could see the concentration on their faces, the frustration when something went wrong and the joy when the teacher praised them.

Eventually, as the food was cooking, we all gathered and began talking about our experiences. The people who made the pasta from scratch said that it was much harder than they’d ever imagined it would be. Those who made the meat and salad explained that there were some interesting ingredients in the dishes that surprised them—such as eggs in the meat dish. My dessert group didn’t have any trouble with our dish, but we did talk about our amazing teacher. He was of African descent and had an obvious passion for cooking. We had a lot of fun trying to understand what he was saying.

Organic-Youth-2Students Aidan Shehan, Andrew Held and Max Greenwood making tagliatella pasta

Once the food was ready, everyone became a little tense and worried about how their dishes would be critiqued. But as the first course was set on the table, I took one bite and knew why we were here instead of in a restaurant. I realized that in making these traditional Italian dishes, we’d gotten a true sense of Italy. We were not only able to taste the culture, but also to experience it through a lively kitchen—making handmade pasta and gathering around the dinner table to enjoy our feast as if we were family. Everyone was smiling, laughing and genuinely having a great time.

After the pasta course, it was clear that there was something else present at the table: pride. I thought about how many hands it had taken to turn the simple ingredients into a fabulous traditional Italian meal, and how many people—and how much effort—it took. And my group’s cake was a huge hit—some people had five or even six slices!

When the meal was over, we all felt proud (and maybe a little surprised) that our efforts had paid off so well, and that we were able to come together and prepare something we all could enjoy. The experience brought us closer together and taught us a new way of seeing food. And since then, I’ve never looked at a bowl of pasta the same way because I know the effort and preparation that goes into it. I also know that pasta  doesn’t always come from a box.

(Traditional Florentine Cake)

Adapted from the Apicius International School of Hospitality and Chef Gabriella Ganugi

Serves 8 to 10

2 eggs
2 c. flour
1½  T. baking powder
1 c. sugar
¼ t. freshly grated nutmeg
1 t. vanilla extract
¼ c. olive oil
½ c. warm whole milk
Zest and juice of 1 medium orange
Powered sugar, as garnish

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter bottom and sides of a 9 x 13-inch baking dish; set aside.  Beat the eggs in a stand mixer, or you can use a hand mixer,  until well blended and frothy.  Add all remaining ingredients except powdered sugar and beat until well blended, about 2 minutes.  The batter should be fairly thin.

Turn the batter out into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Remove from oven and cool in the pan on a wire rack.  When the cake is completely cool, invert it onto a platter and dust the top with powdered sugar. Slice as desired and serve.

Note: This is an ideal cake to turn into an elegant dessert simply by filling it with sweetened whipped cream, pastry cream, or Chantilly cream. Slice the cake in half lengthwise using a long serrated knife. Carefully set the top portion aside, spread a layer of desired filling on the bottom layer, then replace the top layer. Dust the top with powdered sugar, slice and serve.