If you think about it, pasta is brilliant. A transformation of wheat and water, pasta is an ingenious means of collecting and delivering flavor. Southern Italians must be among the world’s most inventive pasta-makers when it comes to shapes and texture. In a culinary world of few ingredients, the form of the pasta becomes a source of variety, trapping sauce and garnishes in ever changing nooks and crannies.
Traditionally, the pasta of Southern Italy was shaped by women’s hands…squeezed, rolled, pinched and pulled this way and that…each resulting form given a name, each shape capable of holding flavor in a unique manner. One afternoon at Serra Gambetta, Domenico’s 96-year-old grandmother joined us to demonstrate how to make homemade pasta and let us try our hands at the traditional pasta shapes of Puglia. We made orecchiette (little ears) by pressing a little lump of dough and turning it inside out over our thumbs, cavatelli (bean pods) by dragging the lump of dough with two fingers so that it curled into a pod, and fusilli by wrapping the dough around an umbrella strut to make a skinny tube. Very fun!
We guests were clumsy and slow, but Gina and Grandmother’s hands worked like well-oiled machines. Our misshaped contributions disappeared into their perfectly executed piles of pasta, and we ended up with enough for dinner. If you would like to learn more about rolling and shaping various pasta, look to Rosetta Constantino’s book, My Calabria, or Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
Homemade pasta is a revelation. It has a delicate and light consistency, while at the same time tasting like something of substance. The soft texture absorbs the flavors of sauces particularly well. Hand-rolled or shaped pasta is a craft that takes time to learn, but using a pasta machine takes no skill and turns out great pasta sheets for cutting into flat noodles like tagliatelle, or for ravioli or lasagne.
Here is how to make the dough: Pasta in Southern Italy is made with just flour and water. In the North, eggs replace the water. Domenico uses double zero pasta flour and warm water. Unbleached all-purpose flour is a suitable substitute. Put 2 cups of all-purpose flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. (This amount will make about 14 oz fresh pasta–enough for 4 to 8 servings) Pour 1/2 cup warm water and mix with your fingers to make shaggy dough. Gradually add 1 more Tbs water as you shape the dough into a smooth ball. Now it is ready to knead. Marcella says that kneading is the secret to superior homemade pasta. Clean your hands and the work surface and lightly dust both with flour. Knead by pressing with your palms to flatten the dough, fold it in half, and turn 180 degrees. Repeat these steps for 8 to 10 minutes (you can sing or dance at the same time). Dust with flour sparingly, as needed. When the dough is smooth and elastic, cover it with a clean cloth and let it rest 30 minutes to one hour.
Note: if you want to make egg pasta, use 2 large eggs beaten with 1 tsp water for each cup all-purpose flour. The most important step is to distribute the egg evenly throughout the flour, as in making pastry. You can use a food processor for the initial mixing by pulsing briefly. Once the dough looks like a grainy meal, transfer it to a bowl, gather it into a ball, and follow the directions for kneading as above.
Using a pasta machine: After the dough has rested, it is ready to be stretched and rolled into thin sheets. Cover the work surface with clean dishtowels or a tablecloth–you need to be able to spread the pasta out without overlapping or stacking it. Cut the ball of dough made from 2 cups flour into 6 pieces and cover those you are not working with. Flatten the first piece into a rectangle so that it can be rolled through the machine on the largest setting. Fold it in half and roll it through again. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Place the flattened dough on a towel and prepare the remaining pieces the same way. When all the pieces are flattened, pass each unfolded strip through the next smaller setting on the pasta machine. Continue with this procedure, reducing the setting each time until the strips are as thin as you desire (1/16 inch for lasagne or ravioli, thicker for cut noodles). Cut the strips into 12-inch sections if they become too long to work with. Dust the strips lightly with flour if they start to get sticky.
Notes: Cut lasagne noodles to fit your pan. Parboil the strips 20 to 30 seconds in salted water, dip in ice water to cool, and drain before assembling the lasagne. For ravioli or tortellini, stuff each strip as soon as it passes through the final setting so that the dough will still be soft and sticky. For cut noodles, allow the dough to dry on the towels for 10 minutes so that it is pliant but not sticky. Noodles can be cut by the machine or by hand. Extra noodles may be dried and stored for later use.
What to do with your Homemade Pasta
Keep it simple! Fresh pasta cooks very quickly, so have your sauce ready before the pasta goes into the boiling water. Use plenty of water–4 to 5 quarts–and a generous Tbs salt. Keep an eye on the boiling pasta, and check it early and often so that it is cooked al dent, no more.
*Spring vegetables and lemon sauce: Heat 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil and 2 Tbs butter with 1 Tbs finely chopped garlic and a couple of thinly sliced shallots over medium heat. Sauté 2 minutes. Add cooked, chopped asparagus and/or peas to the pan, stirring to coat the vegetables with oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in 1 or more tsp fresh lemon juice to taste and 1 tsp lemon zest. Toss with cooked pasta, adding a couple of Tbs pasta water as needed. Serve with grated Parmesan.
*Fresh herbs and pine nuts with sun-dried tomatoes: Chop a mixture of fresh herbs–flat-leaf parsley, basil, chives, marjoram, chervil, arugula, mint…to make about 1/2 cup. Toast 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnut pieces. Heat 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil over medium low heat with 1/4 cup chopped shallots or thinly sliced green onions. Cook a few minutes until the shallots are soft. Stir in 2 or 3 thinly sliced sun-dried tomatoes. Toss cooked pasta with the shallot/tomato oil and herbs. Sprinkle with nuts and serve with shaved Parmesan or Pecorino.
*Southern Italian Aglio, Olie, e Peperoncini (Garlic and Red Chile in Olive oil): Heat 4 or 5 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 4 or 5 thinly sliced garlic cloves and 2 or 3 minced hot red peppers over low heat. Stir 2 or 3 minutes, so that the garlic softens but does not color. Add 1/4 cup pasta cooking water to the pan, and toss with cooked pasta. Sprinkle with chopped flat-leaf parsley. Need more? Add chopped olives, toasted nuts, capers, roasted red bell pepper or other roasted vegetables, marinated artichoke hearts…or even canned tuna or crumbled bacon.
*Caramelized onion with Gorgonzola and curly Endive: Cook 2 or 3 thinly sliced, large white onions in 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil over low heat until very soft and turning golden brown–30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss cooked pasta with the caramelized onion and three or four cups chopped curly endive. Sprinkle with crumbled Gorgonzola.