The Frazzled Chef Gets a Helper

Frazzled Chef

Not long ago, I acquired an apprentice to help me around the kitchen: my cousin. He’s about three feet tall, a whopping four years old, and just about the cutest little kid you’ve ever seen. Our first joint endeavor in the cucina (kitchen)? The quintessential Italian dish and worldwide favourite:


Now, growing up with an Italian Nonna and a Mamma who loves Italian food, I started to learn the craft of pizza-making at an early age. Over the years, I made pizza with my Mom and Nonna for family dinners, with friends when we had sleepovers at my place and as a late night snack for my housemates and I during our university days. I couldn’t believe it when people would tell me that they didn’t know how to make pizza. Wasn’t it a skill we all learned as children??!!? It was something so simple for me, so natural. (That is, as natural as any cooking activity can be for me…)

Anyways, pizza-making was a skill that my aunt wanted to instill in little Christopher. (I don’t know that he’s ever even made a peanut butter sandwich, but really, why bother starting small?) So, she gave me a call and we set up an evening when the Frazzled Chef would introduce her eager little blue-eyed apprentice to the art of pizza making.

I bet you’re all busting to know how it went, right? Did I spill cheese on the floor? Did I drop the dough? Did the apprentice and the chef end up in a sauce-flinging contest? Did one of us end up in Time-Out?

I can assure you, readers, that the whole ordeal went in the usual Frazzled Chef style. The dough didn’t rise properly, the onions made me turn into a blubbery, red-eyed disaster, and we made a pretty good mess of the kitchen while my aunt grimly surveyed the scene. My apprentice, I’m happy to report, attacked his tasks with furious gusto (which, naturally, he learned from yours truly).

Pizza Dough

Spreading the dough.

Spreading the sauce

Spreading the sauce

Adding the cheese.

Adding the cheese.

We greased the pan with a bit of butter (“I get to use my fing-ers?”), spread the dough, used a spoon to cover it in sauce (“Can’t I use my fingers for this toooo?) and made funky designs with all of our pizza toppings. Somehow, to the music of a little voice saying ever so loudly, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”, and eagerly asking “Can I try? Can I try?” Chris and I managed to concoct two perfectly passable pizzas complete with cheese, olives, pepperoni, mushrooms and yes, some onions.

The oven was hot, the pizzas were ready and Chris, proud of his accomplishments as a little pizzaiolo (pizza maker), was busy admiring our work.

“Stand back now, Christopher. I’m going to put these pizzas in the oven, ok?” I said slowly, motioning for him to move away from where I was about to open the oven door. Quarters were a bit tight in the kitchen, and obviously I didn’t want him to get hurt. (One of my childhood pizza-making experiences with Nonna resulted in me burning my wrists on a hot oven rack. Nonna’s solution? Give me a drink of water and slather some butter on the wounds. Needless to say, she’s no longer practicing medicine).

“Ok!” He chirped, bobbing up and down with excitement and watching me with big eyes.

I opened the oven and was bending down to put the first pizza in, when I felt my posterior brush against something behind me, and that something begin to head towards the floor. It landed with a crash and I quickly shoved the pizza in the oven, closed the door, and stood up praying to the kitchen gods that it hadn’t been anything valuable.

Before I could even turn around to see what I had done, Christopher was shouting it from the rooftops.

“YOUR BIG BUM KNOCKED MY DRAWINGS OFF THE FRIDGE!” His tone was accusatory as he pointed at the pile of papers now strewn all over the floor in front of the oven.

And as if one transgression wasn’t enough, he was sure to add, “AND MY MAGNETS TOO!”

The kitchen gods came through, and nothing ended up being ripped or broken. I helped Chris put his artwork back on the fridge in the same chaotic disarray it had been hanging before and he seemed to forgive me, although he was sure to warn me to “be careful of your bum!”, when, 25 minutes later I once again bent down to retrieve the pizzas from the oven.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

“So, Chris, do you think you and I could make pizzas again some night? You could help me out?” I asked.

“Yeeeeeahhhh! It was coo-oool!” Chris responded between mouthfuls.

Another Frazzled Chef success!

UPDATE – The next time my little helper was around, I asked him if he was going to come into the kitchen and help me with the pizza for dinner? He responded so angelically in his little voice, “But why, Sarah? Don’t you know how to do it yourself?”



The Frazzled Chef Goes to Cooking School – Part 2


Welcome back to cooking school! (If you missed part 1 of the Frazzled Chef Goes to Cooking School, click here to catch up).

The lovely Lella had shown us how to make the budino di riso, and it was baking away happily in the oven. The pappa al pomodoro, thick, hearty and lusciously red was simmering away on the stove, and we were getting down to the business of preparing the pasta.

Now, up until this point the lesson had been a lot of watching and question asking and diligent note taking. When Lella told us it was time to make the pasta, I was ecstatic to actually get my hands dirty and make use of the apron I was wearing.  Each of us armed with our cutting board, two eggs and bowl of flour was to make our own ball of l’impasto (dough).

Cooking Supplies

I thought it was only fair since Lella was a professional and all, to warn her of my terrible track record in the cucina in case something ended up going ridiculously, terribly, horrifyingly wrong. Or, you know, in case something caught on fire.

I didn’t mention that I had once thrown spaghetti sauce all over the floor, and I didn’t mention that I once burned my bucatini and I didn’t go into detail about the time when I broke the wooden spoon making cookies. No, I thought it best to give her a little overview of my cooking skills but, not to get into too many details.

“Lella, ti avverto che sono davvero un disastro in cucina,” I told her simply. Lella, I’m warning you, I’m a real disaster in the kitchen. She laughed good-naturedly and told me not to worry, that everybody could be a chef if they wanted to.

Easy for her to say! I went back to my cutting board and started fretting. Normally I only had to worry about ruining my own meal in my own kitchen. Now I was helping to prepare pasta in the kitchen of a world renowned cooking teacher for a meal that we’d all eat together. Eek!

With the utmost concentration, I followed Lella’s instructions and got to work on my task.

Step 1: Pile the flour into a replica of Mount Vesuvius and plop two eggs into the centre of the volcano.

(She might have said something about being careful and may not have likened the flour to Mount Vesuvius, but I had to think of it in a way that worked for me, right?)

Mt. Vesuvius – Flour and Eggs

Step 2: Carefully add un pochettino (a Tuscan “little bit”) of olive oil to Mt. Vesuvius.

“Un pochettino di olio”

Step 3: Piano piano (slowly) add the flour to the eggs until you have a kneadable impasto (dough).


Step 4: Take your frustrations out (knead) on the dough. Impastare l’impasto.

Lella then provided us with the spinach mixture that we’d then use to fill our ravioli. At this point, my workstation was still nice and neat. I congratulated myself on avoiding any piccoli disastri (little disasters) thus far.

Clean Workstation

Step 5: Use the rolling pin to flatten the dough into a thin rectangle.

Needless to say, I rolled and flattened with all my might. I used that rolling pin and stretched that dough in every direction imaginable. I concentrated and rolled away, tongue sticking out one side of my mouth, putting as much pressure on the rolling pin as I manage. I was in my own little pasta making world when I heard the words I’d never ever thought I’d hear:

“Ma guarda quant’è brava Sarah! Ce l’ha nel sangue!” exclaimed Francesca, Lella’s assistant, as she looked over my rectangle of dough.

Wait, what? Was that praise for doing well? ME?! Was she saying that I had it in my blood to make pasta? My half Italian half Canadian blood? Yes, yes she was!

“Grazie Francesca!” I beamed. Those of you who have followed my kitchen catastrophes can probably guess how much a comment like this would mean to me. I rolled until my dough was sufficiently flattened and rectangular, then went to work on the next step.

Step 6: On the now flattened dough rectangle, make three or four evenly spaced balls of the spinach-ricotta mix.

Setting up the Ravioli

Step 7: Carefully fold the top strip of dough over the fillings and press down around the edges. Use cutter to cut ravioli from the sheet of dough. Press down on corners with a fork to show that the pasta is fatta in casa and not that store bought junk.


Step 8: Allow the ravioli to dry while you take lots of photos before cooking.

Pasta drying rack

Step 9: Cook! Boil! Submerge!

Step 10: Cover with sauce and enjoy!

Ravioli with meat sauce

As promised, we also helped Lella to prepare (and eat) these other delicious dishes:

Pappa al pomodoro


Tagliata di manzo con rucola e grana

Budino di riso complete with icing sugar and a lemon peel flower

(Are you hungry and salivating ferociously yet?!?!)

Needless to say, our pranzo at the Scuola di Cucina di Lella was delizioso! Armed with a few of Lella’s secrets of la cucina toscana, I came away from the lesson much more confident in the art of Tuscan cooking than I had been before. And this picture is proof that I reached all my goals: Don’t burn the place down, don’t spill anything on the floor, and per l’amor di Dio, don’t leave with goo in your hair! And lucky for me, I made a new friend in the charming Lella:

Sarah & Lella

The Frazzled Chef Goes to Cooking School – Part 1

Although lately my cooking escapades have been proceeding quite well and without (major) incident, I recently decided it was time for the Frazzled Chef to add some formal cooking credentials to her long and distinguished list of culinary accomplishments. Most of those culinary “accomplishments” are eating accomplishments rather than cooking ones, but really, there’s no need to get nit picky about it.

And so it was decided: the Frazzled Chef would go to cooking school!

But where? It wasn’t as if the Cordon Bleu was knocking down my door, wanting me to be one of their pupils…

Taking into consideration the fact that my daytime job and my various other commitments don’t leave much free time for cooking classes, I decided that I would have to wait until my vacation rolled around before I could get a taste of cooking school. And where was my vacation planned for this year? Oh yes, two lovely countries called Spain and Italy. Ever heard of them? Thought so.

After a week of hopping around Spain with my dear friend Jordan, my travels took me back to my Italian home, Siena. Having worked in the campo turistico (the tourism field) right there in Siena, I knew of a couple cooking schools around town. Apparently tourists liked to come to Tuscany not just to eat and drink, but also to cook.

Not having had the chance to take a cooking class while I was living there, I decided to use one of my precious few days in Siena to attend the city’s first (and finest) cooking school, the Scuola di Cucina di Lella.  The wonderful Lella Cesari Ciampoli is the school’s owner, founder and teacher. The school, which resides in a centuries-old restructured palazzo near Fontebranda, is cozy and professional. Take a look:

Scuola di Cucina di Lella

Seating area for larger classes.

Lella, very welcoming and professional herself, is a member of the AICI (Associazione di insegnanti di cucina italiana) and a member of the International Association of Cooking Professionals in Washington, D.C. She’s done television appearances, teaches a variety of different cooking courses specializing in Tuscan cuisine and has even had a cookbook published in Japan! With my horrific track record in the kitchen, I felt honoured to be one of her pupils – even just for a day.

Trying to be the model student, I psyched myself up for a day at school. My goals? I repeated them to myself as I strolled down the hill towards my destination.  Don’t burn the place down, don’t spill anything on the floor, and per l’amore di Dio, don’t leave with goo in your hair! I tried to keep them attainable, but with me you never really know…

I arrived at Via di Fontebranda 69 (the school’s address) shortly before 10am, and was greeted warmly by Lella and her assistant/interpreter Francesca. I soon found out that there would be only two other students in the class that day: a mother-daughter duo from Florida who had also attended a cooking class with Lella the night before. The atmosphere was intimate and after the introductions were made, we got right down to business.

Francesca and Lella getting down to business.

Laid out on each of our cooking stations was a thin stack of papers, on which was written the day’s menu:

Pappa al pomodoro ~ Thick Tuscan tomato soup

Ravioli ripieni di spinaci e ricotta ~ Ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta

Sugo di carne – Meat sauce

Tagliata di manzo con rucola e grana ~ Beef slices topped with arugula and grana cheese

Budino di riso ~ Rice pudding

By the time I got to the bottom of the list I was salivating. It all sounded delicious! And the best part about it was that after we were done cooking, we’d all sit down and enjoy pranzo (lunch) together, feasting on what we’d prepared.

“Ok ragazze, mettetevi un grembiule e prepariamoci a cucinare!”

Ok girls, strap on an apron and let’s get ready to cook! 

This girl didn’t need to be told twice! (Although technically I had been – first in Italian by Lella then in English by Francesca). I grabbed a white apron emblazoned with “Scuola di Cucina di Lella” on the front and tied it on. God knows my cute little dress needed all the help it could get staying clean in the kitchen with me!

Want to know just exactly how my class went? Well, check back soon for Part 2 of the Frazzled Chef’s adventures at cooking school!