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Pasta Venessiàn: A Hard Lesson in Fresh Pasta

Nan McElroy (venexiananan)

I know, I know, there is no such thing as Venetian pasta. I just mean to say that Venice is where (at Giovanni's insistence) I learned to make pasta from grano duro and only the rossi (yolks) of the eggs.

I am in no way a cook or connoisseur, but I certainly do like to eat, and swoon regularly (accompanied by numerous umm's and ahh's that friends tease me incessantly about) over the sumptuous dishes that I've the good fortune to consume, in-house and fuori. My singular culinary claim to fame, however, is my pasta fresca (fresh pasta). I love making it, having learned from my favorite cooks, Mimma and Giuseppina, and scramble to whip it up whenever I have the occasion and the time.

When I first told Giovanni about my enthusiasm for pasta-making, he scoffed. (Keep in mind, being Venetian and therefore skeptical by nature, combined with having certain bear-like tendencies, he scoffs at most things, especially when they're proposed by un'Americana.) E come la fai? So how do you make it? I had a feeling this was a set-up, but I started to explain. "Well, I use Farina 00 ..."

That was as far as I got.

Fresh Pasta

Grano Duro

Naaaaaa ... farina 00, ma stai scherzando! È la semolina di grano duro che ci vuole per fare la pasta buona, credimi. Dai, parliamo sul serio. "Farina 00? You've got to be kidding. It takes durum wheat flour to make good pasta, believe me. Come on, be serious."

Thus ensued some days' long discorso on how to make pasta The Right Way: with durum or soft winter flour, with or without oil, with or without water, with or without egg whites, with or without salt (Sale dove? Mimma asks. Salt, where?). Who KNEW. I have come to understand that there are this many eventual variations for every Italian dish in existence, depending on the cook, the region ... the time of day, for heaven's sake.

Anyway, I agreed to try Pasta According to Giovanni, to see for myself. And what do you know ... aveva ragione, he was right. If you're already comfortable with making pasta using tender winter Farina 00 – or even if you're not - give this a try. It may not be the be-all and end-all of pasta recipes, but along with a little pasta intuition, even I can make pasta that passes even the Giovanni test ... credimi.

Ingredients

PER PERSON:
1 etto (about 3.5 ounces) durum flour*
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt
Some water

* DeCecco makes a good durum flour (semolina di grano duro) for this purpose; but I think also making sure that it's finely ground (rimacinato) is important, because normally durum flour is coarser, and thus will take more effort to blend well. As for the eggs: the fresher, the better. If you're tentative about making pasta, try making enough for only two people until you gain confidence.

Put the flour in an ample mixing bowl. Don't worry that the amounts are precise; you can always add flour or water later to compensate for the dough being too moist or too dry. Make a hole in the middle of the flour and put the egg yolks and the salt in it.

Whisk the eggs, and then begin to mix them with the flour, first with the whisk, then with your hands. (You can probably use an electric mixer, or the mixing end of one of those motorized pasta makers, but I've never tried it.) You'll think the dough will never be moist enough to become dough, and won't be yet, but combine the ingredients as well as you can in the bowl, then dump the contents on a large work space or plastic sheet. Keep scooping, working, and kneading.

Fresh Pasta

Pasta in progress

Once the mass is mixed as well as you can manage, add an ounce or two of water, and keep mixing and kneading, adding small amounts water as you need to, or flour if it becomes too moist. Pazienza ... your goal is to turn the flour, egg, and water into a doughy mass that adheres to itself, that's amalgamato. (For me this is sensory, zen-like, and almost magical process; superbly satisfying for someone who spends entirely too much time in a digital world.)

When you have something that resembles the blob in the photo, cover it with the mixing bowl and let is rest for 15 minutes or more. I'm not sure this is necessary, but it seems like a nice thing to do, and gives me time to convert the rest of my small kitchen into a pasta-production facility. I pull out the pasta machine, and the tablecloth reserved for this process (a sheet will do nicely, by the way), clearing all the horizontal space I can lay my hands on…so to speak.

A curious aside: only Americans ever ask me if I use a matterello (rolling pin) to make pasta. Italians, never. Call me a cucina cop-out, but no, I don't, because:

a) I am not in a movie;

b) I am not a masochist;

c) I am not being compensated monetarily to do so;

d) I'm doing well to find the time to devote to get it done with the aid of a pasta machine; and

e) finally, I'm sure it wouldn't turn out nearly so well.

If any or all of the above don't apply to you however ... do roll on!

Now, uncover the pasta mass and roll it into a loaf, cutting off one slice at a time, just as you would a baguette. Set the pasta machine at its widest setting (7), and send the first slice through. If it's a little moist, add a bit of flour to one side or the other to keep it from sticking. Also, run your fingers periodically underneath the machine rollers as they spin to remove any dough you find adhering there.

Pasta

Strisce di Pasta

The first pasta sheet will likely come out craggy, looking something like the middle one in the above photo. The trick is to let the pasta machine work the dough for you, until all traces of flour disappear and it becomes the cool, smooth, silky sheet like the one next to Mr. Craggy, and those in the next photo.

To achieve this, fold the strip in half and pass it through again (without changing the setting on the pasta machine). Fold it in half length-wise. Again. Long-ways, pass it through again. And again. You'll work each slice till it reaches the desired consistency - all the while resisting the temptation to drape them over your shoulders and wear them like a stole. Drape them instead off the edge of the table or workspace, exposing as much as possible of each strip to the air, without it becoming too bottom-heavy and sliding off. If you have a pasta-hanging apparatus, all the better.

Having fun yet? I forgot to suggest, if you don't think it's going over the top, to select a favorite Verdi or Puccini opera to accompany you. Don't tell anybody, but Bonnie Raitt works pretty well, too.

Once you've converted each baguette slice into a long, golden, slick sheet of pasta, all that remains is to reduce the thickness of the rollers one setting at a time, passing all the strips through each respective width, until you've reached the thinnest you'll need for the pasta you are making. For tagliatelle, you can stop at 3, or even 4. If as they become thinner the strips begin to become long and unwieldy, just cut them in half to make them easier to manage. Your goal, however, is to work the entire strip to be as close as possible to the full width of the roller.

Fresh Pasta

Tagliatelle al Sole

Once all the strips are at the desired thickness, mount the appropriate attachment on the machine to produce the type of pasta you'd like (Giovanni says tagliatelle, as it's the most forgiving), and pass each strip through. Spread the resulting ribbons onto a tablecloth (or your pasta hanger), giving them plenty of space to air, and sprinkling them with a bit of flour if needed to keep them from sticking to each other. Leave the pasta there until it's time to buttarla giù, throw it in boiling water (it will cook in about two minutes, done once it rises to the surface), or until it's dry enough to store without any danger of glomming up.

Serve with anything from a hearty ragù to the classic aglio, olio and parmegiano reggiano.

Complementi ... e buon appetito!

Resources

Slow Travel Photos: Photos showing the making of pasta.

www.cucinagiuseppina.com: My favorite cooks, Mimma and Giuseppina

Slow Travel Classifieds: Cooking schools/classes in Italy


Nan McElroy lives in Venice and is the author of Italy: Instructions for Use: the practical, pocket guide which launched the Instructions for Use Travel Series (now including France: Instructions for Use, and Greece in the works). http://europeinstructions.com. Read more on her Living Venice Blog.

© Nan McElroy, 2006

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