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When I hit the road to Italy with my “Let’s Go Cook Italian” groups, I know the joyful moments that will greet me on the other end. The special moments and memories that come from these culinary adventures are due in no small part to our chef instructor, and my friend of many years, Chef Cristian Borchi.

Not many things are as much fun as the culinary experiences we create together in Tuscany. What has begun to come close are the events planned with Cristian when he visits the Napa Valley every year or so.

It’s not always possible for everyone to join us in Italy, so we’ve found a way to bring a little piece of Italy to our California friends. Taking our culinary show on the road here in Napa with Cristian has become a new favorite thing for this traveling foodie.

Cristian returned to the Napa Valley in mid-January, and for the subsequent three weeks we took our culinary adventures in a few different directions.

In the past, we’ve offered cooking classes and the occasional private dinner party here in the Valley. Classes and dinners were held at a Cedar Gables Inn, previously owned by Susie and Ken Pope. As happens in the valley, these consummate innkeepers retired, and the Inn’s kitchen is no longer available to us.

Fans of Frati Gelato Café, which closed last fall, were disappointed that we could not organize another Cristian Borchi dinner event loyal Frati groupies.

I lament the loss of these special members of our community.

These changes required reinvention. Fast forward and using the “what if” concept, I wondered if folks might be interested in having us come into their homes for cooking classes; the attendees would be a private group of their special friends and family.

The response was enthusiastic, to say the least. Let’s put it this way — the next time chef comes to town, he’ll have to stay longer than three weeks for us to be able to fulfill the number of requests we had.

It warmed our hearts to have previous members of cooking classes and dinners be among the first to ask if we’d come to their kitchens to do our thing. What a lovely compliment.

Not only did we enjoy different locations here in the valley, we found ourselves in the Bay Area more than once and even wended our way to Carmel Valley.

Dinner parties for 30 guests were hosted by Ilsley Vineyards and RARECAT and Cristian, who is also a sommelier, was thrilled at how well these wines and bubbles paired with the savory cuisine, as well as the dolce. At the Kitchen Collective, where we’d also scheduled two separate cooking classes, another 30 guests enjoyed a four-course dinner party open to the public.

For those of you not familiar with the Collective, at 1650 Soscol Ave. in Napa, it’s an urban cooking club, where members are permitted to share the fully stocked kitchen to prepare foods for themselves. Coaching is available from their resident chef by visiting www.kitchencollective.club.

Cristian was super excited to cater for his first Super Bowl party. Italian street foods replaced the traditional chili and hot wings.

We always find joy in leading our cooking classes and preparing classic Tuscan peasant cuisine for guests, but we did discover that there is a very special excitement that takes place in the intimacy of someone’s home when they are surrounded by special friends.

Cristian was once again given a warm welcome by Napa Valley, which encourages him to move forward with his hopes for his own true Tuscan restaurant here locally. This is a plan in the works, but these things take time.

Our schedule was lickety-split busy, but we did make sure to find time for Cristian to enjoy his favorite Napa Valley dinner once again: the beef dip sandwich at Rutherford Grill.

We always share helpful preparation hints, along with recipes of what we’ve prepared. These hints are always a big hit, as they show how really easy it can be to prepare an amazing Italian dish, while saving time. The hints are often a bit of a surprise.

Here’s one that the groups were really enthusiastic about:

When asked what the most important “thing” was to have in one’s kitchen (good quality knives are a given, so these don’t count) Cristian and I answered in unison, “a scraper.” Not what you expected? Before I worked with Cristian, my answer might have been different. No longer. The majority of our attendees had no idea what we were referring to. The scraper is sometimes referred to as a dough scraper, bench scraper or bench knife. This multi-purpose $10 gadget is the best investment you will make as an addition in your kitchen if you don’t already have one. I don’t even bother to put mine in a drawer. It sits out right next to my knife block. Easy to clean, not heavy, and goes in the dishwasher. Our favorite is the OXO Good Grips version.

With a relatively sharp edge, it’s not as sharp as a knife. You can run your finger along the blade without fear of being cut. On the side of the single blade there are 1/2-inch increments etched for simple measuring.

This blade makes creating pastry crust a breeze. Home cooks often struggle with pastry dough becoming sticky or gooey. This can be caused by the heat of your hands breaking down the soft butter needed in the dough. When using the scraper to incorporate the ingredients of the dough until it’s well blended, your hands don’t touch the dough until it’s time to form it into a smooth ball. You can then use the edge of the scraper to cut the dough and finally to clean the surface when you are done. Running the scraper edge along the surface lifts up elusive morsels.

Smooth batter in a large pan for level baking. It’s perfect for creating even edges on the sides of a frosted cake. Use it to chop veggies and herbs and scrape from the cutting board into the pan. Unlike a chef’s knife, the scraper won’t become dull by scraping the cutting board or counter. It won’t damage stainless, marble, granite or even travertine.

The side of the scraper works well to crush spices and garlic cloves. Easier to do than with the flat side of a large knife.

If a baked casserole (think lasagna) tends to stick to the sides of your glass baking dish, simply use the edge of the scraper to loosen and lift out servings easily.

I’ve used mine to lift pesky candle wax.

On one of our ventures into a private kitchen, we forgot the scraper. We quietly whined to ourselves the whole time. We never forgot it again. Last question before we walked out the door, “Do you have the scraper?”

If you don’t have one, get one, and the only thing you might regret is not having it handy sooner.

What else did we share? Recipes, of course. Here below is a guest favorite. Mangia Bene.

Pere in Camicia con Sciroppo di Vino Rosso

(Poached Pear in Red Wine Syrup)

Serves 12.

6 firm Bosch or Anjou pears—Select pears that are very firm and slightly under ripe

3 cups red wine (Zinfandel, Chianti, Cabernet or Syrah)

5 3/4 cups water

5 cups granulated sugar

Peel pears, cut in half and gently remove small section of core. Combine all ingredients, except pears, and bring to a boil.

Once wine mixture is boiling, turn heat down to a gentle simmer and add pears. Simmer pears for 15 minutes—or just until they are tender and are easily pricked with a fork. Do not over cook. Simmer time depends on the size of the pears.

Remove pears and set aside.

Turn heat to medium, bring wine liquid to steady low boil until the liquid reduces in half and thickens to the consistency of syrup.

When ready to serve, slice the pears from the round base to the stem, but don’t cut all the way through. You want to be able to spread the pear slightly open, like a fan.

Lay each pear, flat side down, on top of squares or circles of baked pastry crust (see separate recipe) on a dessert plate.

Drizzle each with warm wine syrup and top each with a dollop of warm chocolate sauce. See separate recipe.

Serve immediately.

Pastry Crust—Pear Tarts

Serves 12.

5 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for work surface

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter- room temperature

2 large eggs

8—12 Tbsp. cold water

In a large mixing bowl, or smooth counter top, combine flour, sugar, and salt. Blend by hand to mix. Using a pastry cutter or blade, shave the butter into thin sheets. Pull butter into flour until mixture is course and crumbly.

Add egg and water a little at a time. Mix into flour and butter until all ingredients blended well and you have formed a smooth ball of dough. Cover dough ball completely in plastic wrap and refrigerate for minimum 30 minutes.

On lightly floured smooth surface, roll out dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into 12 individual squares or circles. Gently transfer squares/circles to parchment covered baking sheet. (The scraper is perfect for this step).

Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes (ovens vary) or until golden brown.

When pastry is fully baked, place on individual dessert dishes, top with fanned pear, red wine syrup and dollop of chocolate sauce. See separate recipe.

NOTE: Although it’s possible to top the pastry squares with poached pears and then bake, your pastry will stay crisper if baked separately and then topped with the fruit.

Salsa al Cioccolato

(Chocolate Sauce)

Serves 12

14 oz. heavy whipping cream

28 oz. bittersweet baking chocolate

Break chocolate bars into 1/4 sections. Set aside.

In a medium sauce pan bring cream to a simmer. As soon as bubbles begin, turn off heat and begin to add chocolate pieces. Stir with wire whisk until chocolate is dissolved.

Drizzle over wine poached pears, gelato, desserts.

Unused portion can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. Reheat on low to thin again for drizzling.

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The next cooking classes with Chef Cristian Borchi will be in Italy in September 2018 for “Let’s Go Cook Italian.” Be sure to ask about the “locals” discount.

Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.

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