Pasta on point

Travel to the places where it’s done right.

Every year I try to do something new to better myself. Last year I took a long road trip and staged with a chef that I admired. This year I’ve already visited nine new countries and made my fifth visit to Nepal, a country near and dear to my heart. I arrived home last week, and am still dreaming about all of the delectable things I ate, the indescribable pieces of fine art and architecture I admired, the familiar feelings of kindness and impatient sarcasm that are reminiscent of home — even in an unfamiliar place.

For Valentine’s Day, while on our trip, my wife and I decided to do a one-on-one pasta class with two seasoned chefs who currently work in an artisanal pasta shop in Rome, Italy. Pastamaking had also been on my list for the New Year; it was a skill I was hoping to hone, and what better place to learn more about it than Italy?

Our pasta pros, Lele and Natalie, met us at the stairs of an old church outside the city center, and we immediately hit it off. First we stopped at the local farmers market and picked up some fresh produce. Next we stopped at a little cheese shop to purchase some fresh buffalo mozzarella, as well as some hay-smoked mozzarella to fill ravioli. From there we visited a natural spring owned by the Vatican to bottle water, then we headed to Lele’s home to get to work.

My wife had never made pasta before — I have spoiled her into almost never having to cook. I had previously made pasta, but learned a great deal about technique from these two kind, pasta-loving souls. In preparing my dough I have always tried to incorporate the full quantity of all of the ingredients, and knead the dough rather forcefully until it became smooth. I learned that both of these things are incorrect.

When folding the dough and kneading, the goal is to create tiny air bubbles throughout the dough. It is important to become more and more gentle as the dough becomes smooth. Natalie used only his thumbs, folding the dough in half toward himself, then rolling it gently away from himself with just his thumbs. “It is important to keep the crease in the same place, and work around it as you knead,” he said. This knowledge was invaluable.

It is always interesting to find the misconceptions we have as Americans eating food we consider to be from a specific ethnic tradition. When I traveled to China several years ago, I encountered many amazing cuisines, none of which were anything like what you find at a “Chinese” restaurant in the States. Lele told us about a private dinner he was hired to cook in Los Angeles. He told us that when the guest asked him to cook “garlic bread” and pasta with “marinara,” he genuinely didn’t know what the man was talking about. “In Italy, we don’t eat garlic like that; we may put it in the oil, but we never eat it. And marinara only exists with pizza.” To Lele, things like carbonara are “sacred,” and he was kind enough to share the traditional method with us. Simply guinchale (Italian cured meat from pork cheeks), young pecorino, eggs, and a generous portion of fresh cracked black pepper. When put together properly, these ingredients come together to make the perfect sauce, no cream needed.

Of course the basic ingredients of your pasta are critical too. When you make pasta, use all-purpose or “00” flour, semolina, and roughly 50 percent of the volume of flour in water, eggs, or really any liquid (other than oils).

There are two basic doughs, a water-based and an egg-based dough. From there the sky’s the limit. But mastering these basic doughs takes more than a weekend class. Natalie spent over a year studying the art before becoming a teacher himself. “It depends on so many things, humidity, temperature, if the windows are open … 1 percent plus 1 percent plus 1 percent … equals 10 percent,” he said. “It is very simple, but it is easy to mess it up by overworking the dough, or letting it dry out by adding too much flour.”

To get you started making authentic pasta dough, I’d like to share this simple recipe for Malloreddus, or “gnocchetti sardi,” that Lele and Natalie shared with us:

Malloreddus

Water-based pasta: Makes 1 generous portion of malloreddus

cup all-purpose or “00” flour
⅓ cup semolina
3⅓ Tbsp. water (a little less than ¼ cup)

Measure out all-purpose flour and semolina in a flat-bottomed bowl. Make a “volcano” by mounding the flour in the center of the bowl and pushing down with your knuckle in the center and turning your fist. Use the depression in the center to fill with the water.

Begin mixing by hand. As the dough begins to form, it will start to leave small clumps of dough behind, and there will be excess flour at the bottom of the bowl. At that point, grab all of the formed dough, leaving the flour at the bottom of the bowl behind, and transfer it to a lightly floured surface (the water will only take the flour it wants to absorb, do not force it to take extra).

Knead the dough by folding it in half toward you, placing it on the surface and gently rolling it away from you. Turn clockwise and repeat folding and kneading away from you.

As the dough begins to smooth out and gluten forms, it will have more resistance. It is important to be more and more gentle as the dough becomes smooth, because you are trying to incorporate small air bubbles into the dough as you fold.

Once the dough becomes smooth and it has some light spring to it when you press your finger to it, it is ready to rest. (Some recipes say “knead for 10 minutes” because of factors like humidity and air temperature — it may take four minutes, it may take 10, just know you are done when the dough is nice and smooth, and there is a light spring to it.) Cover dough with plastic (preferably something reusable). Let rest for about 20 to 30 minutes, until gluten structure relaxes a bit.

Cut the dough ball into four equal pieces (if you’ve kneaded correctly, there should be tiny air bubbles throughout the dough). Roll each dough ball section into a log, and roll it from the center out until it is a uniform thickness of about ⅜ inch. Work the dough gently, as you don’t want to rip it.

Cut these into roughly square shapes by cutting each “rope” in half, over and over, until they are roughly square.

Use the back of a fork to press the back of your thumb into the dough and roll it off the fork without rolling your thumb, but rather pushing it straight across. “This pasta was designed to flick off the fork.”

Coat the pasta with a dusting of semolina as you finish shaping it, so they don’t stick together.  

Let dry for several minutes, then cook to desired doneness (one to three minutes, depending on thickness).