Laura Cassai talks the art of pasta, Zia's tiramisu, and her new book, My Italian Kitchen

Jane Willson
24 March, 2015

The MasterChef runner-up is ready to take Zia Dora's tiramisu to the world.

Laura Cassai called in to the Hardie Grant office this week ahead of the launch of her schmick new book, My Italian Kitchen, in hometown Adelaide on Monday night. The MasterChef 2014 runner-up was on a mission to sign books, but we took the opportunity to fire a few questions at her, too. Her book is officially in shops from April 1. It's also here, in full, on Cooked now. And available for sale in the Cooked bookshop as well.

What are your earliest memories of eating? 

I think you'll have to ask mum that one – I don't think there a was time when I didn't have food in my mouth as a kid. One of my favourites was for my first birthday, I stuck my fingers into my Mickey Mouse cake before I blew the candles out.

And cooking? 

My earliest memory of cooking would have to be when I was six, living in Tuscany with my family. My Nonna Rosa taught me how to make gnocchi for the first time. As delicious as they were, it wasn't the taste of the gnocchi that left me with such a good memory. More the fact that there was more flour on the floor and in the cracks of the cupboards in the kitchen than in the gnocchi itself.

Standout lesson your nonna(s) taught you? 

I'd have to say the basics of cooking, so the simplest recipes for homemade gnocchi and pasta dough – and how much flavour you can pack into a dish with such little ingredients (which is really what Italian food is all about).

What do you most love to cook?

Savoury: I can't go past making pasta! And sweet: tiramisu. Hands down. I know everyone has the best-ever recipe – but oh my gosh, my Zia's is a pretty damn good one [it was passed down to Laura's mum on her honeymoon in Italy, and yep, it's in the book].

The key to homemade pasta is ….

A light, thin pasta dough.

And your favourite ingredient? 

ARTICHOKES. I think anyone [who followed MasterChef] could answer that for me.

Latest food discovery?

At the moment, I cannot put down Massimo Bottura's Never Trust A Skinny Italian Chef – his food inspires me, even though his is a completely different approach to the way I look at Italian food. I've never read a book like this before; on every page and in every story I read,  I think, "Oh my god, this is exactly like my family"!!

Most thumbed cookbook? 

Jamie Oliver's Italy.

And newest for inspiration? 

It's not that new, but I'd nominate Luke Nguyen's The Food of Vietnam. I love everything about it, especially his coconut tamarind ice cream. I absolutely LOVE Vietnamese food.

And what about your own – do you have a favourite recipe, or one you are proudest of?

All of them. Seriously, this is a tough one. I think I'm going to have to say Lemon and Basil Panna Cotta.

Laura's lemon and basil panna cotta with white chocolate noodles

Secret food vice? 

OK, this is boring, but I'd have to say dark chocolate. Especially Whittaker's. They make the best coconut milk chocolate. And I like Lindt, too.

What did you learn about yourself on MasterChef?

Quite a lot – I was surprised by how much, actually. How strong I was, capable, positive, persistent. And how determined I could be. I grew up a lot – I think I matured and became very independent.

And what are you up to now? 

Ah, where do I start? I'm a pastry chef at [Jock Zonfrillo's] Restaurant Orana in Adelaide, first-time author, Starlight Australia ambassador, San Remo ambassador, teaching kids how to cook and grow their own meals. I sleep somewhere in between.

Adelaide's best-kept food secret is ….

Mandoo [Bank Street, Adelaide]. The best Korean dumplings in Australia.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years [did we mention Laura is 20?]? 

I have a lot of dreams – like, a lot! I'd hope to have written a few more books by then, be running my own cooking school in the Adelaide Hills,  have a small restaurant, and be inspiring the younger generations to cook. And, hopefully, travelling the world, with my very own cooking show.

Cook all of Laura's stunning recipes from her new book, My Italian Kitchen.


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