Quite honestly, I did not think a Southern Italian Dinner cooking class at the Viking Cooking Cooking School on Peachtree Street in Buckhead could be remotely similar to the Italian cuisine I experienced. You could even say I came in as a skeptic.
However, I went with an open mind, and sure enough, my skepticism left me at the door of the teaching kitchen when I met chef Elissa Oliver, who is also a private chef from the Mississippi Delta. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu’s College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Mississippi, respectively.
With a joyful Southern accent and a wide grin, Oliver greeted us and handed my fellow classmates and me a menu of our future feast. Her passion for cooking was literally radiating from her. … It was contagious. Her eyes lit up as she started telling us what food we would make and indulge in at the end.
For about three hours, Oliver guided us through a culinary adventure. Personally, it was a blissful escape into my near-forgotten European mindset.
We concocted a steaming Italian wedding soup, which is named for the perfect combination, or marriage, of meat and vegetables cooked together. We rolled the veal and pork together, along with pecorino Romano cheese, parsley onion, basil, garlic, eggs, flour and olive oil, to create the mini meatballs. Half of them were cooked in the oven and the others on the stove with chicken stock, celery and carrots. Orzo pasta was the last addition to the hearty soup, which could have been a meal all in itself.
Grandma Rosabella’s chicken parmesan was the main dish, a flavorful combination of slightly fried eggplant and chicken set in layers between tomato sauce, mozzarella and parmesan cheese.
A traditional dish, pasta aglio e olio, or pasta in garlic and olive oil, was simple but delicious. We added a decent amount of butter and red pepper flakes to cook the fettuccine.
Last but not least, my favorite was our limóncello almond baci “kiss” cake with a delicious almond glaze on top. The limóncello, a lemon liqueur of Southern Italy traditionally served as an after-dinner digestive, is baked into the cake and drizzled on the outside at the end. Oliver served it to us with a light homemade vanilla ice cream.
Once I came back to the States, I never thought I could feel the way I felt in Italy here. There, life was always about enjoying the moment and celebrating life through food, wine, conversation and laughter.
But to my skeptical mind’s surprise, it was possible for me to re-hatch that same feeling — right here in the heart of Atlanta.
Limoncello Almond Baci (Kiss) Cake:
Vegetable oil cooking spray
½ cup sliced almonds
¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp fine salt
6 tbsp milk
2 tbsp Limoncello
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup sweet and fruity extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp Finely minced lemon zest
2 large eggs
2 tbsp almond cake and pastry filling
2 tbsp almond cake and pastry filling
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp Limoncello
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tsp finely minced lemon zest
¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted
Vanilla or lemon gelato (optional)
8-inch cake pan
1. For the cake, Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven; preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray an 8-in. round cake pan with cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and spray the parchment paper with cooking spray.
2. Combine the almonds and ¼ cup sugar in mixing bowl. Beat until the nuts are very finely ground.
3. Pour the ground almonds into a medium mixing bowl and add the flour, baking powder and salt; whisk to combine and aerate, and set aside.
4. Combine the milk, Limoncello, vanilla, olive oil and zest; whisk thoroughly, and set aside.
5. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and remaining ½ cup sugar until mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of bowl, add almond filling and mix until smooth.
6. Reduce the mixer speed to low; add one-third of the flour mixture to the egg/sugar mixture. Increase speed to medium, add half of the milk mixture. Repeat the process until all of the flour and milk mixture have been added in, ending with the last addition of the flour mixture. After the last of the flour has been added, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then run the mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, do not over-mix or the cake will be tough.
7. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth on top. Tap the pan on the counter one or two times to remove any air bubbles.
8. Bake until the cake is a deep golden brown, the center of the cake feels firm when pressed, and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Do not over bake.
9. Place cake on wire rack; cool for 10, then unmold the cake and place it on cooling rack positioned over a baking sheet with sides.
10. For the glaze, combine all of the glaze ingredients except the sliced almonds in a small mixing bowl; whisk until smooth and creamy.
11. Use a toothpick or skewer to poke several holes in the surface of the warm cake. Slowly pour the glaze over the top of the cake, allowing some to soak into the cake and some to drip down the sides.
12. Sprinkle the sliced almonds evenly over the surface of the cake, and press lightly to help them adhere. Let the cake rest for 10 min. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature accompanied by a scoop of vanilla or lemon gelato.