PASTA: MYTHS, SCIENCE, MAGIC
PART TWO: MAKING PASTA FROM SCRATCH – AN ANCIENT SCIENCE
Photo Credit: Italo Vardaro. "A Year's Supply" by Matto, Previn and Vardaro.
We are so much in awe of the catch phrase ‘fresh is best’ that we brandish it about like a blunt instrument. In the debate between fresh vs dry pasta I assert that they are different but equally delicious. However, for a ‘statement’ pasta dinner nothing beats handmade, egg pasta – shoot me down, if you will, I’ve said it.
MAKING EGG PASTA
Pasta made by hand is the symbolic expression of what is special about Italian cookery.
(Every cuisine has its standard bearer – making pasta by hand, I think, is the Italian one.)
It is not difficult but requires practice, patience and development of skill and technique.
your first attempt should not be for a dinner party. It should be on a leisurely day, when you don’t mind having a fried egg for dinner if all else fails – but believe me it won’t: even if it is not perfect, it will be edible.
the difference between mastery and slapdash is noticeable in the eating.
It is not ‘instant’ – it takes time, but not a lot.
Some people will read half this post, arch their brows, mutter ‘tell her she’s dreaming’ and think I’m a wanker.
Others will rejoice in the craft of making pasta by hand – if you are not one of these people, please skip this post and read the next one on making pasta with a pasta machine, or skip that one too and read about sauces for good quality, bought pasta. It’s just that we can’t bear your mutterings, eye rolling and judgement.
I will give you several recipes from my travels throughout Italy, because of course, like all Italian food, pasta making is regional.
REGIONAL SPECIALITIES - PIEMONTE AND PUGLIA
We will start with a stern, methodical and rather daunting class in Piemonte where we made sublime ‘tajarin’ all by hand, with just a rolling pin – I think the chefs were sceptical about our skills but we made them eat humble pie – or at least, humble ‘bonet’, a delicious baked hazelnut custard typical of the region.
Here in the north of Italy it is all about the eggs. Only ever use fresh, truly free range eggs with the brightest of yolks. My recipes are for large eggs, but you will need to adjust by the feel of the pasta dough.
Italians use the phrase, “al occhio” – when it ‘looks right’ but I am going to encourage you to ‘feel’ the texture with your hands and ask you to knead quickly and efficiently without stopping to admire your handiwork. These recipes are very forgiving, trust me, don’t have a failure of nerve. While your skills develop, use more flour if it’s easier, try to achieve a firm but elastic pasta.
Photo Credit: I have Cath Kerry, www.cathkerry.net/blog, to thank for truly free range eggs. They are dated so I know which were collected first.
Recipes for pasta are not exact – what size eggs? Is there humidity in the air that will affect their absorption? Is the flour fresh or stale and therefore dry? What is the gluten content of the flour? There are so many subjective variables in this section on ‘science’.
As a contrast, I will share some recipes from the ebullient Gianna Greco in Lecce.
Every May and, again, in September, Raffaele Tardivo hosts a group of people wanting to spend a whole month honing their language skills or learning Italian from an elementary level. This May I will go again – why not come too? There are a few spaces in the May programme. It is a big commitment – what with homework, and touring, and eating and living like a local - so much hard work. Contact Raff at: learn-italian-lecce.blogspot.com.au or contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit: Julie Reece, Bella Italia Tour 2017. We are dawfed in
Gianna's kitchen, once a convent, with its spectacular, vaulted ceilings, so typical of Pugliese architecture.
Here in Puglia, we don’t use eggs in the pasta, but the emphasis is on the flour and the dexterity of practiced actions to make the tria, orecchiette and macheroni.
Photo Credit: Andy Ruggiero's, Prospect Foodland
This is, at the very least, what your local supermarket flour shelf should look like. If not, sadly, you will have to move. It lacks a few specialty flours such as buckwheat flour to make Valtellina's speciality, Pizzocchieri, and barley flour for special maccheroni from Puglia but these are not dishes you will make on a whim so order the flour as you need it or go to a specialist grocery shop.
Double zero – doppio zero – is a soft wheat flour, finely milled which is relatively high in gluten. Durum wheat, semola, is used for pasta machines but also for orecchiette and tonnarelli.
Photo Credit: Julie Reece. Gianna talks to us about flour. Semola, the heart of the grain, is a hard flour, high in gluten. The darker flour is barley which gives Pugliese pasta its earthy colour and texture.
Apart from regional specialities, such as ‘spaghetti alla chitarra’ in Abruzzo, you don’t really need special equipment to make pasta except if you want to weigh in on the debate for hand cranked pasta machines.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Spaghetti alla Chitarra.
I have a hand cranked machine and a little motor for it, plus an attachment for my Kitchen Aid. When I have a big quantity to make or if time is scarce, I use a machine. But, there is a big difference in the texture of the finished pasta. If there wasn’t this difference, we could put a full stop here, buy shares in a pasta machine company and be done with it.
Pasta rolled by hand is stretched, with a permeable, uneven surface that has a different mouth feel and ‘catches’ the sauce. Pasta made by machine is flattened to a uniform, smooth dough. I will deal with machine made pasta in the next post.
The best surface to work on is wood and you can buy a pasta board with a dropped side so that it sits securely on your bench. Marble is too cold for working pasta – it firms up the dough and makes it tough.
My wooden pasta board, make by a friend but easily purchased at an Italian specialty supermarket is 85 cm x 45 cm with a dropped side of 6 cm. My rolling pin is 90 cm. It shouldn't be less than 75 cm which allows you to stretch a beautiful thin circle of dough without your knuckles dragging over the silky, fine sheet.
You will need a pasta rolling pin. This is narrower and longer than the usual rolling pin. Mine is about 38-40mm in diameter and from the ground reaches to my arm pit (you may well laugh, but the length of the pin must be relative to your body and arm span). The pressure on the extremities of the pin makes it bow over time. So, from time to time, have a length of dowling cut to size, screw in a hook at one end so you can hang it up off the floor in the pantry. Before the first use, and as necessary, wash the pin in soapy water, air dry thoroughly (but not in the sun). Run a cloth moistened with olive oil very lightly over it. When the oil has been totally absorbed, dust the pin with flour.
'TAJARIN' OF PIEMONTE
So, let’s start in Piemonte – in the pretty cobbled streets of Bossolasco in the province of Cuneo, in the southwest of the Piemonte region of Italy. Chef Stefano in Bossolasco did not trust us to use only yolks – he anticipated an expensive failure. But for the ‘tajarin’ they make for the restaurant, they use 40 yolks for 1 kg “00” flour. It would be like eating gossamer.
The basic rule for everyday egg pasta in Piemonte, but also in Umbria and Emilia Romagna and at my house in Prospect, is to allow 1 egg per 100 g of “00” flour. So, in our family and for catering, I allow 2 eggs and 200 g flour for three to four hungry Italians as a hearty first course. Depending on the air in the kitchen, it is sometimes necessary to adjust with an egg yolk. (See previous post, from Jan 24th, for an Italian meal structure.)
This dosage makes a good, elastic, all purpose pasta – good for stretching into lasagna sheets or filling into shapes like ravioli or tortellini. For special occasions, when I really want to impress my guests with the richness of colour and silkiness of texture, I use 1 egg and 3 egg yolks for 250 g flour and I serve it as a small first course for up to 6 people. At first, you may find it hard to work with such a soft dough, so add a little more flour until you feel in control.
Begin by weighing the flour and tipping it onto the bench. Now make a well in the centre of the flour.
(Tip: the wonderful Gianna Greco taught me a fabulous trick. With your index finger, describe another circle within the piled up flour. It makes a moat to hold the liquid in.)
200 g 00 flour, notice the moat I have created to easily work the eggs into the flour without catastrophe. If you want to flavour the pasta, add it to the eggs at this point.
Now, break your eggs directly into the well.
At this point, add any colourful flavourings – saffron, squid ink, spinach puree, peppercorns, pumpkin puree (remember this may affect the moisture content and so adjust, if you need to, with a little more flour) - and using a fork, break up the eggs, all the while incorporating a little of the flour from the inside circle, gradually, gradually. Now, abandon the fork and with the fingers of one hand, pinch in all the flour into the eggs. With your other hand, gather all the flour together and knead the dough lightly until it just comes together. This is the time to assess your project – does it need more egg (add another yolk), does it need more flour (sprinkle more onto the bench, not directly onto the dough, and gradually knead the extra in). When you are satisfied that the proportions are right, set the dough aside. Using a pastry scraper or a butter knife, clean up all the 'caked on' crumbs to leave a clean board. Now, swiftly knead until your dough is elastic and smooth.
The kneading action is just like kneading bread. That is, hold the edge of the dough that is closest to you with one hand. Push against the mass of dough with the heel of your other hand, stretching it a little. Fold it in half, turn it 90 degrees, stretch it out, turn it and continue for at least 8 minutes or longer if you can bear it. Set up a rhythm and go fast. Even if you use a machine, you will still need to do this first kneading by hand. It does make a difference.
The dough is very rough at first, but by stretching, rotating it a quarter turn, stretching and turning again, it will become silky smooth. Two points - work very quickly (I can't emphasise this enough) and avoid adding flour. You are stretching the gluten which always needs to shrink back to its original shape. You must work fast to prevent it from doing so. If you must add flour, sprinkle it on the work surface, not the dough, and knead it in.
Wrap the dough in a floured tea towel and let it rest for at least half an hour to rest the gluten and make the pasta easier to stretch. While the dough is resting, you can read the about the things that might go badly.
TROUBLE SHOOTING: WHAT CAN GO WRONG?
There are a couple of rookie mistakes that happen even to the experts because stretching out the dough is a race against nature and the drying out of the pasta. I will deal with them first, so you don’t panic when, if, they happen.
Work in cool conditions.
Repair any holes by slightly overlapping the dough.
Cracks may appear at the edges as the dough dries out, work faster.
Or perhaps the dough was too dry from the outset – this is terminal, you’ll need to start with a new dough.
The dough sticks to itself or to the rolling pin – you may be pressing down heavily, rather than lightly stretching it to the side.
Or the dough is too soft. Sprinkle the tiniest amount of flour over the dough and smear it evenly with the palm of your hand.
You can’t get it thin enough for lasagna sheets or tagliatelle? Cut it into small squares – these are called, maltagliati, badly cut (how ironic) – and use them in a soup.
NOW WE ARE READY TO STRETCH OUR DOUGH
1. take the kneaded dough and put it onto a very lightly floured pasta board. Lightly flour the rolling pin. Flatten the dough slightly and with the pin parallel to the edge of the board, roll the pin back and forward across the middle of the ball of dough. Don’t take it to the rim of the flattened dough. Turn the dough 90 degrees and continue to roll the pin back and forth. Turn another 90 degrees. Continue until the dough is evenly spread to about 220 mm.
2. curl the edge of the dough circle which is closest to you around the pin and rolling the dough around the pin, stretch it away from you, rolling up the first quarter of the dough. Now push it back to you to flatten, stretching it. Again, roll the dough around the pin and roll up the dough away from you. Stretch it with even pressure to the side, rather than downwards. Your hands should be the width of your body to achieve this even pressure. Each time you roll forwards, you will take up a few more rolls of the dough.
Do this several times. Turn the dough 180 degrees and do the same number of rollings and stretches. The dough should have stretched to about 300 mm.
3. Now comes the choreographed dance of hands. I watched my mother do this ‘dance’ all her life, watched as her practiced hands hovered ever so lightly over the rolling pin, waiting for the ‘snap’ as the pasta sheet flipped over to the board. I never thought it was possible for any other human being to be so adept, so casually expert. She didn’t teach me directly – I had a career, there was no need for me to learn, besides what would she do if I took over this task?
The dough has its final stage of stretching. Start with your hands together as you roll the dough around the pin.
You have the circle of dough on the board. Place the pin at your end, parallel to the edge of the board. Loosely roll up an edge of the dough over the pin. Lightly put the heels of your opened hands at the centre of the pin. Roll the dough forward picking up about half the dough around the pin. As you roll forward, gradually allow your hands to move to the ends of the pin. Don’t push down, rather the pressure goes sideways with the movement of your hands, otherwise the dough will stick to the board and not stretch. Come back to the starting position.
Now, bring your hands to the middle and go forwards again, this time picking up all of the dough, stretch outwards again, allowing the dough to stretch. As you come back to starting position, your hands will gradually spread to either side of your body. Do this about a dozen times.
At this point, loosely roll all the dough around the pin and turn it round 180 degrees so you have the other end of the circle closest towards you and do it all again to stretch the dough evenly. Gradually, the sheet will get wider and the dough thinner.
All this should take about 10 minutes.
CUTTING THE PASTA SHEETS
Now, it is time to cut into tagliatelle, fettucine or pappadelle – the dough should remain soft and pliable, if it dries out, it will be too brittle to cut.
Fold the dough sheet into a loose 60 mm wide roll and cut into strips of 1 cm for fettuccine. Unfold the fettucine onto a clean tea towel sprinkled with flour and they are ready for cooking.
This is fettucine. For tagliatelle or tagliolini, roll the dough sheet finer and cut the pasta into 6 mm strips. Many people interchange these terms - fettucine for the regions south of Rome, tagliatelle for the north. But they are different in width and thickness.
For special family occasions, my family loves fusilli. (This is a labour of love - a request for fusilli is very considered and one doesn't ask lightly.)
We take the kneaded mass of dough and cut it into small portions. Cover the dough portions with a tablecloth and work with one at a time. Cut each portion into six and using your palms only, roll each small portion into a thin rope of about 1 mm diameter. Cut this into 6-8 mm pieces. Now take a metal skewer, even a knitting needle for making baby clothes or fine socks which is smooth at both ends. Place the skewer diagonally across the end of dough and with a bit of pressure, push forwards, allowing the dough to wrap itself around the skewer. Slide it off and start again with a new piece. The skewer must remain on the board and you will need to adjust the pressure to allow movement under the skewer.
Photo Credit: my mother's hands making fusilli. By Italo Vardaro for 'A Year's Supply', by Matto, Previn and Vardaro.
I have fallen in love with Lecce – it is urbane, elegant and very ‘arty’. Here in Lecce, Gianna Greco has shared with us so many recipes of the food of her region. Famous in Puglia is Orecchiette (little ears). I will give you Gianna’s recipe using her words in part, so that you can “hear” her voice and know something of her charm and warmth.
Photo Credit: Georgie and Stephanie making orecchiette for the first time.
These are the ingredients for 4 people
300 gr durum wheat flour (semola, NOT semolina)
100 gr barley or whole grain flour
water (quanto basta – as much as you need)
Mix the two flours together. Create a volcano hole in the middle and a moat all around as I showed you before.
Slowly, slowly add about ¼ to ½ cup warm water. Bring the dough together to see if you need more water.
Starting with one hand, then both, mix the dough with your hands for 6-8 minutes until velvety soft.
Create a little sausage roll 1 cm wide and 20 long. Using a serrated knife cut the sausages into cubes of about 1 cm.
Squish each cube with the smooth edge of the knife to flatten it, then ‘back flip’ each pasta shape over your finger. (For Gianna sized hands, use your thumb, for John sized hands, use your index finger.) This gives you the classic orecchiette shape.
It will require 4-5 minutes cooking in lots and lots of boiling salted water.
Next post: making pasta by machine.