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Pastabilities take shape
Could I have asked the universe for a trip to Italy and gotten it?
Bonjour! Bonjour! I say this because I’m in the south of France even if I’m writing about the south of Italy.
Sometimes things work out. Even improbable things. Like saying, “I’d love to go to Italy,” and then being invited to Italy the next day.
The longing for Italy burbled up while Michael and I were watching “Shape of Pasta.” Have you seen it? (It was streaming on Roku and I think you can find it on YouTube.) It’s beautiful and touching and filled with a deep passion for Italy, tradition and pasta. In eight gorgeous 10-minute episodes (we watched them in one sitting), Evan Funke, the chef of Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles, goes to small villages in Italy in search of pastas that are in danger of extinction. These are pastas that are bound to a region and made by just a handful of people — sometimes just one person — who learned from the pasta makers who came before them. Like an archeologist digging for artifacts from a civilization long gone, Evan finds the masters, learns the skills by working at their sides and returns to Los Angeles to teach them to the people around him — it is a work of love and commitment. And survival: The shapes will live on.
As I watched, I felt as though I could smell the herbs and the majestic pines that stood tall against the hillsides. I imagined the aroma of the tomatoes that cooked on the old stoves. I thought I could feel the smoothness of the dough. I wanted to be where Evan was. And then, less than 24 hours later, Michael and I were invited by Pure Flour from Europe and Italmopa to join a press tour to Rome and Puglia, to learn about Italian flour and, because the best way to learn is to do, to take pasta- and pizza-making classes. It was magical thinking made real.
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I own many good books about making pasta (among them Pasta Grannies; Missy Robbins’ Pasta: The Spirit and Craft of Italy's Greatest Food, with Recipes; Jody Williams’ and Rita Sodi’s Via Carota; and Odette Williams’ Simple Pasta) and I even recently bought a pasta machine, but I’ve never made pasta. It’s shocking, I know, and I’m not sure how it happened, how I got to be so old and remain a pasta newbie, especially since I love pasta and love dough. I love the pleasure of making dough then transforming it into something delicious, which is exactly what making pasta is about.
All that changed on my first day in Rome, when our merry little group went to Fabiolous Cooking Day.
Pasta People at Work
In a bright, sunny studio with Monica, a terrific instructor, some of us made egg dough for ravioli and tagliatelle, and others made a different dough for cavatelli. Some of us were slow (I was the slowest — I always am) and some of us were fast (that would have been Stacey Ballis and Jeanne Fratello), but when all of our dough was shaped, boiled and served, it all proved delicious. (Michael said I should mention that Monica called my ravioli “perfetto” — I was proud!)
We used a type of all-purpose Italian flour (softer than American all-purpose flour) for the ravioli, and semolina for the cavatelli — about 100 grams semolina and 50 grams water for the cavatelli; about 100 grams Italian all-purpose flour and 1 egg for the ravioli.
Over the course of the week that we traveled in Italy, I came to fall in love with the semolina and to wonder why we don’t use it more often in America. The semolina we worked with was finely ground and I could imagine using it in cakes — I’ve made single layer semolina cakes and semolina puddings (a popular dessert in France), but I think the texture of the semolina we used would be lovely in a loaf cake, especially one with some fruit (I’ll experiment when I’m in a kitchen again.) I also think it would make a good shortbread and a nice streusel.
If you take a look at this Instagram post, you’ll see images from Molino De Vita, where Italian wheat and semolina are ground — there’s a picture of Nicola De Vita holding three different grindings of semolina, each with such gorgeous color.
About the Cavatelli
Having confessed that I never made pasta, I might as well confess that I’ve never really liked cavatelli. Bought dry, it always seemed too heavy. OK, in for a penny, in for a pound — I was never crazy about orecchiette either. Count me a convert. Homemade made the difference.
Cavatelli is beloved because it holds sauce, and this was certainly true of the cavatelli we made at Fabio Massimo Bongianni’s school, Fabiolous Cooking Day. After the dough was kneaded and had rested, we rolled it into ropes, cut the ropes into small nuggets and then used ridged wood paddles to push the dough into swirly shells. It was, as Jeanne said, “meditative.” It also yielded a pasta with personality: The squiggles had bounce and the dough had flavor.
A day later, at a press conference, there was a masterclass by Chef Lino Acunzo. He made the dough for cavatelli much the way Monica did, but he shaped them completely differently. Once he had the nuggets, he rolled them into balls then used a spoon to pull the dough along the table, coaxing it into a bean-like morsel with a sauce-grabbing cleft. And he chose a great sauce for the pasta: Clams and cherry tomatoes.
Monica made a delicious light tomato sauce to go with our really beautiful cavatelli (it’s the middle picture in the grid below).
About the Other Pastas (Also a Secret)
The ravioli (including my “perfect” packets) were filled with ricotta, egg, shallots and Roman zucchini, which is as ridged as cavatelli, sauced with butter and sage and served with shaved Parmesan (above right).
And the tagliatelle (above left) — it was served in the local favorite: cacio e pepe — pasta with a sauce made from caciocavallo cheese and black pepper. It’s a dish that can be exquisite or banal. It depends on the pasta, on the cheese and on the way the two are combined. Here’s Monica’s secret to perfection: cold water! Monica made a paste of the cheese and pepper by mixing them with cold water. Really cold, she insisted — if you use hot water, the cheese will separate and become stringy. Once the pasta was cooked, she drained it (keeping some pasta water at hand), turned it into a skillet and cooked it over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the water had evaporated, there were bubbles around the sides of the pan and the pasta was “cooking” in its starch. Off heat, she stirred the pasta to cool it down a bit, then she stirred in the cheese paste. Stirring, stirring, stirring, and adding a bit of pasta water only after the cheese was hot — hot is the key word here — and well mixed with the pasta.
About Becoming a Sfoglina
In parts of Italy, a woman who makes pasta is called a sfoglina — it’s unlikely I’ll become one. I’m certainly not going to be like the women who make pasta in an alley in Bari. But I’m determined to learn to make pasta well. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.
And If You Want to Know More…
A thousand thanks to the sponsors of the trip: Pure Flour from Europe, Italmopa and Domus Deorum Deluxe, where we stayed in Naples — I was so happy there! The two mills that opened their doors to us were Molino Casillo and Molino De Vita.
My travelmates were:
Stacey Ballis, a friend and writer from Chicago.
Ann Kim, a restaurateur — watch her on Chef’s Table Pizza — and her husband and business partner, Conrad Leifur. What gems! I can’t wait to go to Minneapolis, see them again and eat at their restaurants.
Jeanne Fratello, follow her on Jolly Tomato, which is always chockfull of great info.
Shannon Kinsella, who travels the world teaching cooking.
Amay Asrani, if you’re looking for Italian flour or black truffles in India, he’s your man.
Sameer Bawa, his videos are so good.
Karan Marwah, a blogger and also a terrific videographer
Cara R. Stewart, founder of Altalunas PR and working on the Pure Flour from Europe account. Got a question? Cara’ll get the answer! (I had lots of questions and Cara had lots of answers.)
Donatella Barzan, our guide — I’d follow her around the world if I could.
And Manuela Barzan, the technical coordinator of Pure Flour from Europe and the person who organized everything.
If you’re interested, I’ll tell you about the places we ate — let me know if you’d like this.
Coming soon, pizza in Naples and pastries in France. Until then, cook and bake and tell me what you’re up to — I’m always interested —
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