How am I expected to just get up and leave? It feels like it was just last week that I stuffed two suitcases full of sparkly shoes and puffy dresses, left my room a wreck, and wore my winter sweater because it wouldn’t fit in my luggage.
I don’t understand how I can be packing when I just unpacked. I unpacked all of my dreams, hopes, aspirations, and my personality onto Florence. And as I reflect on the several months that I have been unpacking here, I am utterly stunned at how well the experience has complimented me.
I never realized that I would learn as much as I did, both in baking and in life.
But mostly, I had no idea that I would learn this much about myself.
- I’ve learned to enjoy the simple things that mean more than anything.
- I’ve learned to appreciate the kitchen table surrounded with those who I love.
- I’ve learned that I hate cleaning dishes.
- I’ve learned that waking up at 5:30am and walking across Florence really isn’t as bad as it sounds.
- I’ve learned how to have patience in certain situations.
- I’ve learned that I’m absolutely thrilled to start my accounting/investing career with my family.
- I’ve learned that my family is the most important thing in the world to me.
- I’ve learned how to make a family in another country.
- I’ve learned that the language you speak is not as important as your personality (because actions speak louder than words).
- I’ve learned that listening is a gift that can mean the world to someone in a time of need.
- I’ve learned that there are other people in this world like me. And although I understand that my obsession with food is a bit concerning, at least there are fellow food-stricken individuals.
- I’ve learned that having an Australian friend makes you 100% cooler.
- I’ve learned that alone time is refreshing and self-rewarding.
- I’ve learned how to appreciate wine (and subsequently drink alot of it).
- I’ve learned about the real Italy in a small agriturismo outside of Florence.
- I’ve learned that olive oil is a whole nourishing food and is used generously as part of a ridiculously healthy diet
- I’ve learned how to overcome my fear of fat and eat to pleasure myself.
- I’ve learned that enjoying life isn’t where you are, who you are with, or what you are doing, it’s your attitude.
- I’ve learned that everything tastes better here.
- I’ve learned how to have an entire conversation at the cash register in Italian.
- I’ve learned how to carry a 50 lb. suitcase up 5 flights of stairs without the help of Jared.
- I learned that chef outfit hides all of the extra weight that you have gained (And makes you feel like it’s ok to gain more).
- I’ve learned that age is what you make of it. Growing old doesn’t need to mean you have to grow up.
- I’ve learned that you become like the people who spend most of your time with, and I have surrounded myself with amazing people.
- I’ve learned that I say “All’s you have to do” all the time, thanks to the insight from my non-Pennsylvania friends.
- I’ve learned that Spain has these freaking amazing animal cookies that are consistently burnt and violently addicting.
- I’ve learned that Florence is absolutely beautiful at night.
- I’ve learned to let go financially and splurge on precious gifts that I will pass down for generations.
- I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to be expensive for it to be unforgettable.
- I’ve learned like there is nothing like the hospitality of an Italian momma.
- I’ve learned that I have a passion for gift-giving.
- I’ve learned that my life goal is to live for the glory of God, make random acts of kindness a normalcy, listen to people, and cook.
- I’ve learned how to appreciate the wonder and excitement of Jared Smith, when one of his life goals became a reality.
- I’ve learned that I really have way to much stuff.
- I’ve learned that despite the fact that I have way to much stuff, all of the chocolate will stay.
- I’ve learned that dancing in public transportation is quite liberating.
- I’ve learned that despite what I’m wearing or what I’m doing, my personality should never be compressed into a stereotypical view of what’s “cool.” I am who I am and that will never change.
- I’ve learned that I can’t imagine having children and watching them leave for three months. However, I’ve also learned that I will let them go if they experience, learn, and grow as much as I have in my time here.
- I’ve learned that my dad needs me. He cries when I’m not there. Don’t let his mustache and bouts of anger confuse you. He’s such a softy and I want to hug him right now.
- I’ve learned why my mother loves me so much, because nothing matters as much as those who you love.
- I’ve learned that the best friends are made when you aren’t necessarily looking in the “right place.”
- I’ve learned that I’m not done here.
- I’ve learned that my passion is food and family and that will most certainly never change.
- I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be me.
But other than learning about myself, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount of golden information about the art of baking and pastry. Coming into this program, I had no idea that I would be able acquire such difficult techniques and intricate skill. And at the same time, I was let loose, encouraged to explore my inner creative side and given responsibility which truly stretched my capabilities.
In my time at Fedora, I was trusted to be creative with cupcakes, such as these apple cinnamon streusel cupcakes.
And these white chocolate blueberry cupcakes.
And these chocolate dipped orange cupcakes.
And you know what else I’ve learned?
Going back to real finals is going to suck.
Not that these finals aren’t mentally taxing, because they most definitely are.
But at Susquehanna, you don’t get to eat your finals after you hand them in (Like this pizza I made for my final in bread class…
which was topped with a simple sauce (made from tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, and oregano), fresh mozzarella cheese, basil, and Parmesan,
then baked in a stone oven until it was perfectly pizza-like.
Then strategically tasted and looked over my by professors (who, because of my perfect score, must have happened to like it).
If you are interested in making your own Italian pizza, refer to my prior post Here. Note: I prepared the dough, but used the “Napoleon” method. That is, I made the dough, let it set for a bit, and made it directly. No waiting needed.
But then, after our written final, our dough kneading, and our perfect placement of toppings, we were able to eat it.
We ate our final exam.
And that exam tasted real good.
As the week continued on, we trekked on as well. Our next final was an assignment to create your own cake, which left Colleen and I in every position to Pinterest our lives away. We were inspired by a hot chocolate cake that we viewed on the web and decided to play with the components to create a stockpile of irresistible flavor.
We started with a silky fudge frosting,
that Jessica may have “sampled” for us.
We baked a chocolate fudge brownie cake and made a homemade marshmallow cream to fill.
We iced the sandwich cakes with the cocoa fudge frosting.
And then we realized that we were working with marshmallow cream.
And marshmallow cream likes to stay in motion…which meant our cakes would take on a new dimension, that new dimension being a lack of straightness.
So rather than fretting (which we did enough of), we tempered some chocolate, covered the entire base, and garnished it with a golden spoon and homemade marshmallows.
And you know what?
It tasted like heaven.
And Simone thought it was pretty darn good.
And Colleen and Jessica decided to avoid the production of unwanted waste.
They thought it was…ok.
And after Colleen’s 14th spoonful of icing, we dared her to eat it off a chocolate spoon.
She laughed at us, took a spoon, and dressed it up with a 1/4 cup of frosting.
And then, Colleen did this.
And she stayed there for quite a while.
Our finals continued on with Cookies and Petit Fours, where we were all given the same recipe (Biscotti) and told to produce one sample for the chef to try.
We rolled the dough into logs, brushed them with egg yolks, topped with sugar, and baked.
Once golden, we took the logs out of the oven, cut them into biscotti pieces, and placed them back into the oven to toast.
And Jessica and I, being the kind-hearted individuals that we are, decided to help avoid extra product production by eating the extras.
And eating the extras by the LOG.
And kids, I wish I kidding.
And then I crashed at the same time that Colleen decided she liked “playing” with knives.
And while I was in my sugar coma, Colleen experimented with her blade.
I woke up just in time to avoid the large blood wound that seemed to have been in my future. I perked up, grabbed my biscotti, and off I went to be judged.
Simone:Well Lauren, it’s not cooked in the middle.
Lauren: No one’s is, there are too many in the oven.
Simone: Other than that..it’s great. I give you a 7.
Lauren: ….out of 7?
Cantuccini Di Prato (Biscotti)
- 500 grams flour (120 gluten count if available)
- 300 grams granulated sugar
- 100 grams butter, softened
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2.5 grams salt
- 7.5 grams baking power
- 200 grams almonds with skin
- Combine all ingredients (Expect baking powder and almonds) in a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. Once combined well, add baking powder, combine. Next, add almonds.
- Combine the dough into 4 even sections. Roll into a long long, as shown above. (About 2.5 inches in diameter). Place on parchment lined baking sheets.
- Brush with egg yolks and finish with brown or white sugar.
- Bake for 12-14 minutes in a 420* Fahrenheit oven or until golden brown in color.
- Take logs out of the oven and cut at an angle to produce the biscotti. You should be able to get about 15 pieces from each loaf. Discard the ends by consuming them
- Place on baking sheet, cut side down and toast for an additional 3-5 minutes.
- Flip sides and bake 3-5 minutes more.
- Let cool. Drizzle with chocolate and package for a great gift!
These cookies can be stored for several months in a sealed bag or air-tight container!
Our last final, Italian Classical Cakes and Tarts, was dedicated to a simple cake from Napoli called the Pastiera. Made traditionally at Easter time, the shortbread lined cake is filled with a mixture of sugar, ricotta, candied orange, and eggs. It has a perfectly light and creamy consistency and has a burst of freshness because of the citrus.
And to our delight, it came out absolutely perfectly.
Which meant only one thing.
We must eat it.
We must eat it all.
For the Short Pastry Crust:
- 200 grams flour
- 100 grams butter
- 80 grams sugar
- 1 egg
- 3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
For the Filling:
- 250 grams ricotta cheese
- 225 grams powdered sugar
- 125 grams cooked whisked grain
- 2 eggs
- 65 grams candied orange
- 1 gram salt (omit if using canned cooked grain)
- 4 grams grated orange zest
- cinnamon, if desired
- To prepare the short pastry, cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer. Slowly add the eggs. Lastly, add the flour and vanilla until combined. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours before use.
- Boil slowly the gran, soaked before in cold water for 24 hours, for 3-4 hours. Drain and leave to cool. (This can be omitted if using a canned cooked grain. Just boil with a bit of milk to take away the acidity, then drain).
- Squeeze and dry the ricotta cheese and combine it with the powdered sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time. Add the candied orange, salt, and cinnamon. Roll out the pastry and place in the mold or cake tin by covering the bottom of the mold and up the sides about 1/2 inch.
- Pour in the filling about half way up the cake mold.
- Cut out long strips of the remaining pastry and arrange them on top of the filling in a criss-cross manner.
- Bake at 375* Fahrenheit for about 45-50 minutes.
- Let cool. Remove from mold, and ENJOY!
And rather than crashing after eating our cake, we just acted like children.
Which, strangely enough, isn’t that uncommon.
We all took a moment to capture the whole group with two of our Chefs: Illaria Fusi and Simone De Castro.
And to be perfectly honest, it’s this group of 11 people that have truly changed my life. Each one came with a different passion and purpose, but each one WORKED to get here. Everyone had a story, and some were extremely inspirational.
Like Natasha and Alex, who quit their marketing jobs to learn how to make Italian pastry in hopes of opening up a bakery in Dubai.
Or Lital, from Israel who realized her passion for pastry and has made every possible effort to continue her education at Apicuis another semester.
Or Colleen, one of my new best friends, who will graduate from Penn State this year as a junior and then move on to the prestigious Culinary Institute of American in California.
Or Jessica Barton, who quit an accounting job, left a family, and a boyfriend, to explore her passion in hopes of a new sense of self.
Or Erick Dole from Iowa, one of the most kindhearted individuals I have ever met in my life, who realized that culinary wasn’t his “jam” and switched to baking and mastering the art of everything.
I had no idea that everyone, coming from completely different family situations, different aspirations different paths, and different futures would actually be following the same dream as mine.
We all left something that was safe to explore something that may not be.
We left comfort for passion. And because of this binding agent, we became inseparable, flocking to one another amongst large groups of others. We found ourselves inadvertently in route to the kitchen at all events and in all situations. We all realized the power of food and it’s amazing qualities that bring masses of people into harmony. Food doesn’t just fuel, it brings people together. And because of food, I have met some of the most incredible people I will ever meet in my life.
And the chefs who gave us the opportunity of togetherness were indescribably phenomenal.
Chef Simone has such a passion for his career. He often made sure that we knew how passionate he was about his work and how much he loved sharing it with us. He gave us prized family recipes and had such a joy while doing it. He trusted us, but taught us. He encouraged us, but reprimanded us. His soft heart, loving personality, and incredible drive for pastry made our experience 1949392% better. We didn’t learn a trade, we were taught a passion.
Chef Illaria Fusi took time to explain every detail to us. We learned about the history of certain cakes, why they were consumed, and what they mean for Italy and for the world. She was always there to help us, to make cute little jokes, and to compliment us when we really produced something excellent. She had a phenomenal way of giving us advice.
And with everything that I’ve baked, cooked, and eaten in the pastry lab since the midterm break, I have had a few standouts.
- Chef Illaria’s Marmalades
- Pineapple Tarts
- Hot Chocolate Cake
- Chickpea Flour cookies
- Opera Cupcakes
- Stromboli Bread
- Olive Oil and Rosemary Biscuits
- Decorated Bread
- Assorted Plum Cakes
- Fried Panzerotti
- The best bread I have ever consumed (Focaccia)
- Vegan Corn Cake with Orange Glaze
- Cheese and Honey Seadas
- Devil’s Food Coffee Infused Cupcakes
But something else slowly worked it’s way into my heart as well, the Panettone. When asked what my favorite Italian dessert was on my final exam, I wrote this:
I would have to say the Panettone. I wouldn’t even necessarily say that the taste is why it’s my favorite, because sometimes that’s really not important. It’s my favorite dessert because of what it represents, even for me as a foreigner. I know that when I see a Panetonne, that I’m with some type of family. I’m celebrating something and I’m enjoying something big with others. The Panettone, an enriched Christmas bread made with candied orange and raisans, is a labor of love, taking 1-2 days to prepare. It represents tradition, it represents love, and it represents family.
And so, to properly celebrate the love that my roommates and my classmates have shared, we decided that a Panettone, a party, and some wine was something that was necessary before departing.
We invited several friends over and enjoyed a lovely apertivo; laughing and reflecting on this unbelievable time together.
I put together a simple raw salad made with peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, chickpeas, feta cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper.
With the extra “product” from Colleen and I’s hot chocolate cake, I made several cake ball truffles.
Which truly delighted the crowd!
Bianca made her famous hard boiled eggs with sweet and sour sauce (something she had tried at an apertivo during her time here in Italy).
They are seriously delicious.
We had a traditional dish of pecorino, pears, and honey.
And a lovely bruschetta.
To compliment the Panettone, nothing other than Moscato d’ Asti was in order.
Erick delighted the crowd by revealing this beautiful pistachio raspberry cake that he picked up at a friend of Simone’s chocolate shop.
And we giggled, smiled, and cherished the time we had together.
We toasted to our adventures.
And then we got all dressed up and went to an actual party, given for students of Palazzi.
But, as said before, we immediately flocked to the kitchen. As music, dancing, and alcohol was being offered to hundreds of people in the large ball-room, we had found our hearts back in the small kitchen area.
It was there were all of the memories from this journey started to flow back into vivid memory.
Like the master students, Olivia and Brett, who I worked with in Ganzo plating desserts for one week.
And I remembered how crazy Lital was and how I can’t imagine life without her contagious smile and positive personality.
I realized through all of this reflecting that leaving these people and this place will not be easy. Actually, it’s extremely bitter.
But, like this gelato cone that I had from DeNeri last night, leaving is also sweet.
It’s a chance to reunited with my home, bringing a newness and sense of re-birth to what I had previously taken for granted. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have connections all of the world, having many possibilities to travel. It’s not just sweet because pastry chef’s make sweet things.
Things are sweet because WE made them.
Incredible people, incredible country, incredible life.
As I packed my culinary jacket away in my suitcase last evening, I told myself that I would never wash it again.
The sweet sweet smell of sugar is the only way to describe my journey.
(And the extra 12lbs. of mass on my body)
Ciao…but not for long.
Thank you, oh Lord, for your innumerable blessings. Thank you for the opportunity to embark on a life changing journey, one of which would alter my view of the world and encourage me to encourage others.