RENSSELAERVILLE, N.Y. — Cooking is in my blood and I have been dabbling and dreaming in the kitchen my whole life.
About a year ago, I added the scribble element: putting these tales on paper.
Food, family, kitchen. My palate has always hungered for tasty concoctions and I have forever loved transforming simple raw ingredients into delicious dishes.
So off I went to blend these crafts at a Food Media Bootcamp — cooking great food and writing about the experience, all the while being expertly guided by these fields’ greatest talents.
I arrived in a tiny mountain town in upstate New York at the home of the iconic food writer Molly O’Neill. She hosted an unforgettable four-day workshop weekend with guest chefs, food photographers and bloggers, cookbook authors and editors, and a dormitory full of hungry students.
We all fantasize about cloud nine, and for four days that was my reality. I continue to swirl in the luxury of the experience.
Though our home base was O’Neill’s home on Main Street, most of our activities took place in a rustic barn-turned-kitchen a few miles down the road.
It was here that we students got to roll up our sleeves and learn new cooking techniques alongside some of New York City’s finest chefs.
Alicia Walters, from the teaching team at Eataly, walked us through the fun of fresh pasta. She effortlessly made a smooth dough with just a few ingredients, then rolled it out into long, snake shapes and fed it into a hand-cranked cavatelli maker.
As she fed the rope of dough into the mouth of the little machine with one hand, she cranked it with the other, and perfect little ridged seashell shapes spilled out one by one. It didn’t seem to take her long to make a small mountain of fresh pasta, enough to feed a crowd for the evening.
We all took mental notes and some photographs. We would have a turn at this craft the next day and were glad for the advance instruction.
After a morning walk to the neighborhood waterfall and a side trip to a nearby farm, we arrived hungry at the barn-kitchen. Knowing that lunch wouldn’t be served until after we actually made a batch of pasta and concocted our own pasta sauce, we got busy.
Durum flour, good olive oil and water. That’s all you need. Of course, having a professional coach by your side was a major bonus. Walters, a young, enthusiastic teaching chef made it all seem effortless.
Stir together with a fork for the initial mixing, change over to your hands and start kneading.
The key is getting the dough into a smooth, barely moist ball. As Walters told us, “It should feel like a damp handshake.”
Once our dough was “just right,” we carved off small sections of it with a pastry tool and rolled out the snake ropes on the counter.
“Start with pressure from the heel of your hands and your fingers together. Then spread your fingers out to the outer length of the rope.”
As each rope was formed, we cut the half-inch-thick ropes into half-inch-long “pillows.”
We then formed them by hand into cavatelli — with straight arm and outstretched thumb, one by one we pressed firmly down on each tiny pillow and swiftly pushed our thumbs forward. The pasta dough curled back against our thumbs, forming small shells. Walters made it look so easy, and each of us eventually found our rhythm.
On to the sauce!
We split up into two teams and were offered a plentiful list of available ingredients: tons of farm-fresh vegetables and herbs, a variety of cheeses, local eggs.
The teams conferred and got to work chopping and sautéeing as Walters cooked our pasta.
This was not a competition, but rather a challenge to create two diverse sauces from the same pantry of ingredients. My team decided on a creamy carbonara, a dish traditionally made with bacon.
Lacking any meat, we utilized the bounty from the garden. We flame-roasted colorful peppers, peeled and chopped them, and added them to perfectly diced, sautéed zucchini, accented with flavorful garlic scapes and fresh thyme. We tempered rich, golden egg yolks with some of the hot pasta cooking water, drizzling it into the eggs to keep them from “scrambling.”
We tossed it all together with the cooked pasta, adding lemon zest and juice for a burst of flavor and folded in some Parmesan cheese. Carbonara with a summer accent.
This whole dreamy experience brought me back to my childhood in the kitchen.
Many hands, fresh ingredients and ultimately breaking bread at the table. This time, not with family, but with new friends and a fun skill to pass along.
Each time I go into pasta mode, I will fondly reflect on my cloud-nine adventures in the barn kitchen.
April Hamilton has always said, “Cooking is fun!” She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April’s husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. Hungry for more? Visit www.aprilskitchencounter.com.