Cooking class in Tuscany: Lessons from an Italian kitchen

To end our Tuscan trip, I had planned a special treat for Marlon: a one-day cooking class in Tuscany, in a real Italian kitchen.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany

It’s no secret that in our home, Marlon rules the kitchen and I am mostly useless merely his lowly assistant. I knew he would love learning the secrets of a real Italian kitchen hands-on, from a real Italian mama. I may be bad at cooking, but I’m great at finding things online! So, after searching for a one-day class that would fit our schedule and budget, I found Max&Me: Tuscany Cooking, run by Eugenia and Massimo from their home in Sesto Fiorentino near Florence.

The plan was for me to babysit Tala in Eugenia’s lush herb garden—which by the way contains the happiest, healthiest rosemary I’ve ever seen in someone’s home—and keep her entertained…

Cooking class in Tuscany Tala in the herb garden

not to mention happily fed with the occasional snack of prosciutto…

Tala eating prosciutto

while Eugenia and Marlon worked on our four-course lunch.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany near Florence

And, boy, did Marlon work. “I’m a little scared of her,” he whispered to me before I took Tala out for a walk. Well, if there’s anyone who can intimidate a big man like this, it’s an Italian mama who is the queen of her kitchen! You should have seen his face when she told him that the onions he’d been furiously dicing just weren’t diced finely enough.

But that’s precisely the great thing about doing a cooking class like this. While Eugenia has generously made her recipes available on her blog, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning. How a ball of pasta dough feels in your hands when it’s just right; how long to let the flavor of a ragu develop (or even what “fully developed” flavor is); what the freshest, top-quality ingredients really taste like; the little hacks and tricks picked up over a lifetime of cooking—these are things you just can’t pick up from a Youtube video or blog post.

I like to think Marlon absorbed some of Eugenia’s personal standards and stories that day. All of it just inspired him to cook even more. Some of the techniques he learned have found their way into the other things he makes at home, even dishes like Indian curry or Filipino kaldereta.

Oh, and our onions are really, really finely diced now. They’re practically invisible.

But enough about that. You want to see the food, right?

Cooking lesson in Tuscany roast pork with guanciale and potatoes

Let’s begin. Buon appetito!

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Life outside the semicircle

I moved abroad seven years ago, after Marlon and I were married. In those seven years, I’ve missed many things from abundant sunshine and ripe mangoes, to good restaurants and sharing wardrobes with my mom and sister. But the biggest hole in my heart was the one I made when I left the Ateneo Chamber Singers.

With ACS in Riga

Before the competition in Riga

Since I left, my ACS family—because that’s what it is, really, a family—has changed. Many of my closest friends have moved overseas and moved on to other things, replaced by many people I don’t know very well. Still, I jumped at the chance to be reunited with them in Vienna and Riga. Sitting in the audience, face to face with what I had given up to pursue this life, I felt quite confronted—by loss, reality, I don’t know what to call it. It’s more than nostalgia, and more than I could ever recreate by joining another choir or making new friends.

Ateneo Chamber Singers at the World Choir Games Riga 2014

Sitting in the audience at the World Choir Games

I wondered why I was sitting outside the semicircle, listening to beauty instead of creating it. I wondered why I wasn’t singing anymore. I wondered: what is my song? What am I an instrument of? Listening to my friends’ voices soaring, I wondered if I had maybe, somehow, over the years, lost the part of me that could soar. (There are very few experiences that allow one to soar. So if you find one, seize it.)

ACS wins Musica Sacra at the World Choir Games


Yes, it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster— a contemplative, almost spiritual experience. The sound of ACS singing tends to do that to people. After all that wondering (and quite a few tears), the answers came. There were no words, only pictures—images of everything I love about living here.

ACS in Riga

I’ve been away from home a long time. I don’t hide from the sun anymore.

Life requires different things of us at different times. Once it demanded me to let my voice soar in packed churches and concert halls, together with the voices of friends I knew so well that I literally knew when they would breathe. Now life asks me to hush and sing softly to my baby in the silence of her room, for an audience of one.

Seeing what I’ve been missing out on was confronting for me. But confronting the result of my choices made me realize that that’s what being an adult is all about. We live with the choices we make; we make the most of them; and we make a life we love out of them.

With Tala and Marlon at the World Choir Games

Keeping Tala quiet (and occupied) during the competition

So this is what my life as a choir groupie was like. It inspired me to return to my “real” life—to Marlon, Tala, Amsterdam, Europe—with a renewed commitment to what I’ve chosen, and a deeper determination to make it truly worth what I’ve given up.

Related reading: For an insider’s perspective, check out this blog post by ACS alto Trina Belamide.

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Happy Father’s Day!

Fathers Day 2014

Happy Father’s Day to all the amazing dads out there!

Marlon is in Stockholm for a speaking engagement, and we started missing him even before he left (yes, that’s possible). He hasn’t had to be away for more than five or six days for work, but it’s still difficult when he’s away. Even when it’s easy, it’s just… not as fun. I don’t know how the families whose dads travel frequently or are based abroad do it.

I’m lucky to have had a mom who was both mother and father to me, but this time of year I’m also filled with a nostalgia for something I never really had. It seems everyone is changing their Facebook profile photos to show fathers walking them down the aisle or playing the doting grandfather; in my photos, Dad is eternally young, and I’m still a chubby, curly-haired baby.

I guess by now you’ve seen Dove’s sniffle-inducing Father’s Day ad? It doesn’t have to be Father’s Day to make me grateful for Tala to have a chance at all of that. And isn’t that all parents want for their children—to give them something they never had?

Okay, enough sentimental jibber-jabber. I hope you’re showing the dads in your life how special they are today. Time to think up something fun for the dad in our life when he gets back from Stockholm!

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Lambanog cocktail with homemade ginger ale

Friday night is cocktail night!

At least it is in our home. After putting Tala to bed, Marlon and I like to celebrate the weekend by firing up a movie and sharing cocktails on the couch. This helps compensate for all those dates we don’t go on anymore, and is an easy and affordable way to make couples’ night in a bit more special.

Missing the flavors of home, I sought the help of a bartender friend to whip up a Filipino-inspired cocktail. This friend also happens to be the owner of The Curator, a coffee and cocktail bar back home that’s gotten rave reviews for its third wave brews and specialty cocktails. A good friend to have, right?

Lambanog cocktail with homemade ginger ale

My sister gave us a bottle of Dona Juliana lambanog for Christmas (don’t you just love the tropical kitsch of that bottle?), so I thought: “What about a lambanog cocktail?”

A few things you should know about lambanog:

  • It’s a coconut-based liquor, like vodka or rum, made from the sap of coconut flowers collected before they bloom
  • Coconut sap is fermented into tuba, which is itself a potent and popular liquor, then distilled into lambanog
  • It’s known as a poor man’s drink—it costs almost nothing to make, and coconut farmers have been drinking it for generations

One last thing. It’s pretty damn strong—we’re talking 80 to 90 proof, or 40-45 percent alcohol.

Lambanog cocktail alcohol content

As the mom of a toddler, that’s exactly what I need at the end of the week. Those coconut farmers know how to roll.

Homemade salabat soda, or ginger ale, makes a perfect mixer for this potent coconut liquor. We tried it with store-bought ginger beer, but the canned stuff just doesn’t have the same kick as fresh ginger. Here’s how to make it at home.

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(Late) Springtime rituals

While we were traveling, everyone at home in Amsterdam was working on their balconies, beautifying their gardens, and giving spring a proper welcome. Here at Palazzo Plazo, well, we’ve had some catching up to do. Springtime isn’t all flowers and sunshine—it also means a fair bit of work!

While our neighbors are already hosting backyard barbecues, we’ve spent the last couple of weekends catching up on springtime chores… although maybe “rituals” would be a sunnier way to put those tasks in perspective.

A lot of our yearly springtime “rituals” involve the balcony: clearing away the herbs that I killed Nature took over the winter, replacing them with new ones, and adding some colorful flowers to the mix. I’m taking a lot of inspiration from the Urban Jungle Bloggers and hoping I can join them soon!

New herbs on the balcony

Springtime also means scrubbing our wooden deck with a chemical cleaner to zap the mossy gunk that accumulated over the cold months. Now the deck is clean enough for Tala to play on. It’s like we’ve gained an entire room of unexplored crawl space! Yay.

Tala on the balcony

We also hung up a second-hand baby swing (thank you, Peggy!), which Tala absolutely loves.

Tala in her balcony baby swing

It’s our new favorite activity on sunny mornings—Tala swings and squeals while I enjoy a cup of coffee in (relative) peace and quiet. Baby laughter doesn’t count as noise.

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