Focaccia, Pizza and Calzones at The Chopping Block
Last night, I went to another cooking class at The Chopping Block. The Chopping Block is a retail store and cooking school with two locations here in Chicago. As a birthday present two birthdays ago, Win got me a series of their "Building Blocks" classes. These classes are usually organized around a specific skill (such as how to roast and carve poultry or how to select cuts of meat) or type of cuisine (French, Greek, traditional American, etc.). I've had the pleasure of learning dishes such as steak au poivre, grilled fish with fruit salsa, crab and spinach souffle, baklava and panna cotta with macerated berries. Everything I've learned in my classes has been delicious and very replicable in my own kitchen.
I love Italian food and have been experimenting with baking bread and using various doughs more lately, so needless to say I was really excited about last night's class. The menu for last night included:
*Roasted Garlic Focaccia
*Calzone with Meatballs
Yum. When I walked in, I was really pleased to see that Siobhan Straka was the chef teaching that night. All of the Chopping Block chefs are excellent, but some of them pepper their teaching with more helpful hints and kitchen shortcuts than others. Siobhan is one of the chefs who is always adding additional information to her teaching and sharing the little tricks of the trade that only professional cooks usually know.
The class ran about two and a half hours and in that time Siobhan prepared all of the dishes on the menu, explaining carefully how to do each. Win and I have roasted garlic many times, either to eat with bread or to add to a potato dish he makes, but we haven't yet made our own focaccia incorporating it. The Roasted Garlic Focaccia last night came out really well; the dough was a nice texture and the flavors of roasted garlic, olive oil, and coarse sea salt danced together on top of the bread. The Pesto Pizza was divine. Pesto is so easy to make, relatively healthy, and absolutely delicious...it's much better to make your own if you can than buy the jarred stuff. Last night we did a side-by-side taste comparison of the fresh pesto Siobhan made and the pesto that you'd buy in a jar at the store. There was no comparison. The jarred pesto, while good, tasted mostly of cheese and oil. Much of the fresh basil flavor was lost. The pesto Siobhan created was so quick and easy, but rich with basil and garlic flavor. To create this pizza, we used a basic pizza dough recipe and then topped it with fresh pesto, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, sliced fresh mozarella, parmesan cheese and a bit of sliced red onion. It was as beautiful and bright as it was delicious. Finally, Siobhan made the calzone with meatballs. We learned the Chopping Block recipe for a basic tomato sauce, their recommended method for preparing meatballs, and the technique for filling a calzone. The calzone came out nicely crispy and crunchy on the outside but then was full of moist, warm loveliness created by grated mozzarella, grated parmesan, the tomato sauce and the meatballs. Like the other dishes, the calzone was quite good.
While we're on the topic of calzones, I'll pose a question here. Growing up and living in various cities up and down the East Coast, I always experienced calzones stuffed with both mozzarella and ricotta cheese. You could always request additional ingredients (like spinach or pepperoni, etc), but the cheese base seemed to always include mozzarella and ricotta. When I moved out to Chicago, I noticed that most pizzerias just include mozzarella in their calzone...no ricotta. I asked Siobhan about this and whether or not it was a regional thing. She wasn't sure, but she did say that she preferred them with ricotta too. She kindly consulted the Food Lover's Companion for me and it says that the traditional cheese of calzones is fresh mozzarella. So if anyone happens to know of places in Chicago where they make calzones with ricotta and mozzarella, drop me a line. I'm sure they are out there and this former East Coaster just hasn't bumped into them yet.
Since I just took the class last night, I obviously haven't had a chance to cook these treats yet. But I absolutely will and will post some photos and recipes when I do. The premade pizza dough you can buy at the grocery store is convenient, but there's something so nice about making your own dough and building these creations from scratch.
I really enjoy classes at The Chopping Block and always come home with new ideas, reliable recipes, and inspiration for future menus. If you're in Chicago and enjoy cooking (whether you are a beginner or more experienced), they are worth a look. Plus, they are running a special in August and these "Building Blocks" classes are two for one...take a class in August and you can bring a friend for free. It's a great deal and a fun night out.