Tuesday, October 25, 2016

World Pasta Day


Back in January, I made a New Years resolution and I am happy to report that, as this year draws toward the next, I am still sticking to it! I've gotten over the hump that is February and March when it's easy to lag behind in the resolution department and by this time of year, I usually forget that resolutions were even made. And if you are wondering what it was about.. Well, in addition to the typical health and exercise related resolutions, I made another: to pasta.

There was some argument about the 'incompatible nature' of my resolutions. Matter of fact, this discussion happened at our very table! Pasta and good health are not mutually exclusive. I think the two are perfectly suited and in fact, should completely co-exist. 

Unfortunately, carbs are the first thing that disappear from the plates of the trendy, quick fix diets when portion managing and physical activity should balance.   

Now, while nutrition was a part of my 'higher education', I am clearly not a nutritionist.  But I think it's inarguable that there are certain universal truths about the human diet.  That being, in all but exceptional medical cases, if caloric intake does not balance with energy output, weight gain will result.  The finer points in between is not a "one-size fits all" solution.  You have to find what works for you and still enjoy food.

While it's reported that the Mediterranean diet is waning in favour of fast food, Italy is still far behind it's neighbours in terms of obesity. It's not even in the top 10.  Providing at least some evidence that pasta and a trim waistline can co-exist.  Sophia Loren (admittedly, not your average woman) has been quoted as saying: "Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti".      

Well then.

There are a few other reasons that I chose a resolution to include pasta.  But ultimately, it's to maintain a tradition. So many people see it as labour intensive and that certainly goes against the current trend of decreasing meal preparation time in favour of fast foods and other pastimes.  I wanted a resolution that would get my family together.  In addition to after dinner football games, making and eating pasta will do that.

Who doesn't love pasta?  From humble beginnings, pasta has travelled and is loved the world over.  There's even a holiday dedicated to the basic noodle. World Pasta Day started in 1998 and has been celebrated in major cities well beyond Italy's borders.  Held over 2 glorious pasta filled days from the October 25th to the 27th, to be exact, last year in Milano, Italy, the 2016 event is being marked in Moscow.

It all just got me to thinking about Christmases past and the tradition of handmade pasta.  Every piece of pasta rolled by Mamma, Nonna or Zia's hands.

The holidays are the time of year when, Italian or not, there is usually a celebratory meal.  But if you ARE Italian (or just guilty by association), you might spend more time than usual preparing for that meal and one thing is certain, pasta is always on the menu.  However, even among Italians, homemade pasta is one of those traditions that is waning.    

To commemorate Pasta Day, I thought the least we could do (given that we eat pasta at least a few times a week) was to make pasta and share the process with you. No better reason(s) to dust off the pasta maker, the cavatelli roller, the rolling pin, gnocchi/garganelli board or (even better) dust some flour on your own two hands.  All of the aforementioned gadgets are great at simplifying the task but, of course, the latter are the only tools you really need.

One of the pasta shapes that I have long been infatuated with (you may be able to tell from the frequency is shows up at la tavola) is the shape typical of the Italian region of my husband's family: a 'maccarruni' made by hand (and usually a wire) using only flour and water.  The flour would have been a hard wheat flour (durum) that was plentiful all over the South. 

Unfortunately, during my suocera's years in Calabria, this was not so much the case.  The Second World War made these traditions nearly impossible, dried pasta was a luxury that was rarely justified and flour for homemade specialties, even less so. If they had flour, they made bread. If you had eggs, as a source of protein they were eaten in various dishes but rarely/never went into pasta.

Money earned (from carrying tens of kilos - upward of 60! - of fresh vegetables in a basket on her head several kilometers to the market in the next town) went to buy a little bit of meat, maybe some fish, salt, sugar, maybe coffee and a few other items to supplement their garden produce.  For sustenance, they had their greens, beans, and field corn.  Corn that would have normally been chicken feed but could be ground to flour.  This made a very rough bread - definitely not pasta.

So, when it comes to pasta making experiments, even my suocera had to conduct her own.  With her mother having passed away early as the result of an accident, she is going on her long term memory recalling from when her Nonna made pasta (along with crocheting lace and making her own linen bedsheets).  Making homemade pasta was something she revived when she came to Canada and flour was plentiful.  In those days, however, flour meant all-purpose or whole wheat and 'specialty flour' meant commercial cake and pastry flour (or maybe self-rising).  While all purpose flour is suitable for egg dough, my attempts at more rustic shapes have been dismal regardless of effort. 

To that end, I've turned to another one of my go-to sources, La Cucina Italiana.  It is certainly no secret that I love(d) LCI.  It was, and still is, one of my favourites for standard 'Italian' recipes and I visit the Italian version (which is still online) from time to time.  To get our pasta-fest underway, I dug out a few back editions dedicated specifically to pasta.  These are still the basic recipes I follow when starting out even though I've invested in a few more encyclopedic tomes dedicated to the art and tradition of homemade pasta.

So today, Calabrese maccarruni (aka filej, fusilli and several other regional names - more on that later), are on the menu.


The dough for these hand-rolled pastas is a typical Southern pasta that does not contain eggs.  It is the simplest of pastas: flour and water - farina e aqua, and while it is not the exact same rolled/tubular shape, I find it is the closest relative of the traditional 'maccarruni' of my in-laws Southern Italian hometown. 
Filej, maccurruni or fusilli..

The first instructions I was given (in 30 seconds flat no less) to make this maccarruni were very basic:

You make-a the pasta (dough): flour-o, poco di sale e aqua, quanta basta. Forma la pasta con un pezzo di ferro (explanation given that this involved a 'stick' - an old portion of a wire coat-hanger), then you take it off-a (apparently you don't eat the stick) .  All instructions accompanied by waving of hands. Then the final gesture: eyes closed, head tilted back, elbows bent, hands lifted upward along with a shrug of the shoulders.  This, generally speaking, means: 'what more do you want from me?'  Read: discussion over, there is nothing more to say on this topic. That's it.

Right-oh. Simple enough.   

Ok, not so simple.  Wait, what type of flour, how much, form how exactly.. whaaat?

Through research (ok, by research, I mean asking an annoying number of questions to people whose level of expertise in pasta making means that they don't recognise that the above directions are in no way complete).  The 'simple' details I'm asking have long since been taken for granted and, like water into flour, incorporated into the process as seamless as the final dough should be.  Simply asking and observing will not get me the pasta I am after because  the ease and familiarity with which this dough is kneaded and rolled make the process look deceptively simple.  I've found out that the only way to learn is to watch a time or two and then DO.  Not on holidays or whenever the mood strikes, but as often as you can, as much as possible - bordering on manic.  Feeling the dough, varying flour quantities, practice the rolling technique, cook small batches, check cooking times and take notes. Then do it again.

It's that familiarity that allows one to be able to adapt to the fact that flour behaves differently depending on the ambient humidity and all the other factors that contribute to the amount of moisture in the flour.  The amounts of water that the flour requires won't be exact every time and being able to determine how much is enough is something that you can only 'sense' with experience.  But to be clear, we're not talking liters of water here but enough that could cause you grief in rolling the dough or possible issues when cooking the pasta.  It's really just something to keep in mind, but in no way should it cause you undue stress.

So, I heard my inner voice asking: Why even follow a recipe?

To which I already know the answer.

A recipe is a starting point.  I accept that there will still be trial and error and my goal is a whole lot less of the latter.  But hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.  I acknowledge that it's a process and I mix up small frequent batches of pasta dough at least a few times per week or on the weekends to improve.  Here are a few things I've learned:

1) Knead thoroughly but don't wear yourself out - once the dough has just come together, it may seem a little dry.  Don't worry, you will see the dough change either though kneading or with the help of a few spritzes of water.  The desired texture only takes a few more minutes and about 8, maybe 10 minutes to complete.
2) Trust your inner child. While Nonna doesn't get it, I cannot find a more adequate descriptor than 'play-doh' in reference to the feel of pasta dough.  Whoever first used this term couldn't have found a more adequate description for your average North American.
3) After kneading, let the dough rest for the upper limit of any stated required time. If you don't plan to use it at all within 2 hours-ish, move it to the fridge straight away and then temper (bring it back to near room temperature) before using.
4) With the exception of possible sticking, easily avoided by a sprinkle of coarse semolina (which you should only need IF the dough ends up being a little wet), this shape isn't that delicate.  If you find that the dough is sticking to the skewer, assuming that you aren't pressing too hard when shaping, you could add a little more flour and knead to incorporate.  After another rest, roll and shape with a smooth, steady pressure.

Obviously, these are not exhaustive points but  they were certainly key in getting my pasta project off the runway. 

As mentioned, Nonna uses mostly AP flour exclusively because when she first came to Canada that was all that was readily available and she has kept that her recipe.  She also makes so much dough that she needs a rest as much as the dough does - the large batch (two batches of at least 5 times the recipe below) she makes rests in the fridge, tightly wrapped in cling film, overnight.  Because I am learning and subjecting my family (and anyone else who will eat or listen) to my experiments, I only make small batches (a laughable pound or so at a time) that I can work effectively, let the dough rest for about at least 30 minutes to 1 hour at room temperature and cook it within a few hours of rolling OR as soon as the sauce is ready.

Makes about a pound of pasta:

Flour: I start with 300g (about 2 cups) of semola di grano duro rimacinata.  Rimacinata means 're-milled' and the semola MUST specify 'rimacinata' or the resulting pasta will be grainy.   One could also use durum flour (imported brands state that the flour is specifically for homemade pasta) OR - you can blend your semolina 50/50 with tipo '00'. 

The flour you use impacts the cooked texture.  If you prefer tender pasta (that you get from using all AP or '00'), you could use that exclusively, but I like the texture from using 100% rimacinata and also find that it provides a bonus of (using at least half semola rimacinata) helps with the forming of the pasta.  Calabrese logic dictates that, since I am the one going through the bother, I get at least 50% (if not all) of the vote.

100% rimacinata, in my opinion, makes gloriously textured pasta (perhaps more true to it's Calabrese roots?).  If you use any other type of flour, alone or in a blend, you may find that you need to use more water than the amount mentioned below.

Salt: Add a good pinch (1/8th of a teaspoon or more) of fine sea salt to warm water below.

Water: Tepid water q.b. Use water that is fairly warm to touch. Not steaming, but warm.

q.b: I love/hate that phrase q.b. or 'quanto basta' which just means 'as much as you need'.  And as much as q.b.was initially my pet peeve with Nonna's non-committal recipes, I've accepted the reasoning that there's no other way to describe the amount of water to use - except to say that you will need to start with about 150 mL of warm water and drizzle (or spray) a little more into the dough if you need it.

Pile the flour in a large bowl or on a wooden work surface (a large cutting board works fine so long as it's level).  Make a well and gradually (dribble) add in the water and whisk with a fork or fingers to incorporate the flour similar to the process for making egg pasta.  I guess you could use a processor or stand mixer but for as easy as this is, I've never actually tried any other way.  When all the water is added and the dough is starting to come together but isn't responding to stirring anymore, tip out of the bowl (if using) and simply work by hand (or a plastic dough scraper), folding and compressing, to incorporate more flour.

From here you could go two ways: 1) only incorporate flour until you get the texture of play-doh (you may have leftover flour) OR 2) continue to add water until all the flour is incorporated. Either way, if any hard bits of flour find their way onto your board, sieve, and remove/discard any chunks from the remainder of the flour.  You can set the sieved flour aside to add as necessary during the kneading/rolling process or the next time you make a batch of dough.

Then you're off.  Once the dough is together, knead by holding one end of the dough and, using the base of your palm, stretch the dough away from you, then fold, quarter turn and repeat.  Dust your work surface with the tiniest bit of reserved semolina as you go only so the dough doesn't stick to the board.  After about 8-10 minutes (depending on how rigorous you knead), you should have a homogeneous mass of slightly moist dough, that doesn't stick to the board (or your hands) and doesn't tear when kneaded.  If, during kneading, the dough crumbles or there are tears in the dough, sprinkle or spray it with a little water to moisten, knead to incorporate and make a smooth dough.  Then, wrap the dough tightly in cling film and allow it to rest for about an hour.

Resting is critical and accomplishes a few things. One, it allows for water to fully hydrate the protein in the flour and two, release the rest to the mass.  This should yield a pliable dough that, while tender, still holds a shape when rolled out.  Even though many of the recipes I've found state that this dough doesn't need to rest (because it isn't being rolled out into sheets), I've discovered that rolling out filej becomes easier with an increase in the resting time.  When rolled too soon, fresh dough will recoil/retract into its former shape faster than you can say 'insert favourite Italian explicative here'.

And let's face it, they are all quite short :)
 
Your patience will be rewarded - after this rest, something magic happens to the dough.  (Ok, so it's not magic but I'll save you the food science lesson, this post is long enough already.)

Pliable, responsive and tender.  Now is the time to form the pasta.

Cut the dough into portions so you have about an eighth of the dough to roll out. Cover the rest with cling or a teatowel.  Here is where I have to quote a nugget of wisdom I read from Thomas McNaughton. Don't leave the dough out on the board too long.  Leaving it uncovered will dry out the surface of the doughball making it prone to tears.  Since I am the solo dough roller,  I only cut manageable portions and leave the remainder wrapped in cling film while I work.

The portion I prefer is only about the size of a tennisball - that's about what I can roll out before I see it getting dry.  That's about 1/8th of the batch.

Once you have your dough portion, roll it into a 'log'. The thicknesses here on out will all depend on how you like your final fileja.  I roll the dough to the thickness of a slim wine cork and slice it on the diagonal with a sharp knife into 0.5cm bits.

From here, roll the sliced dough portions into strands (I like to make them about 10-12cm long) either on your work surface or between your hands.  The diameter of the piece is about that of the useful end of chopsticks - thinner than a pencil but larger than a bamboo skewer. 

However you form them, take the final strand and, using a bamboo (or metal) skewer, set the strip at about a 45 degree angle to the skewer, start by anchoring/curling the end nearest to you around the skewer a little and then roll, the dough will wrap itself around the skewer as you go.  Don't flatten the filej with too much force, keep a steady hand and use one smooth motion. You are the boss. And, regardless of the length of the pasta, keeping it all about the same thickness will ensure that it cooks evenly.

When rolled, support the filej in one hand and with one decisive swipe, remove the skewer with the other.  It should be easy to remove.  If not, next time, adding a tiny bit of semolina on the strand before rolling should change its mind.  A slightly more swift removal technique or less pressure when rolling might also help.

Place the formed pasta on a tray or teatowel sprinkled with semolina.  When all is rolled out, prepare the sauce and set the water boiling.  The pasta won't take too long to cook, maybe 5-8 minutes once the water has returned to a boil and should be taken out of the water just before it is completely cooked to finish the process in the sauce of your liking.  The sauce for this pasta can consist of an autumnal long simmered sauce (with or without meat) to a summery fresh tomato affair or a typical Calabrese accompaniment of spicy beans and greens. Oxtail would also be good.  For anything other than the beans, I may grate some pecorino, grana or Parmigiano.  But whatever you do, don't forget the basil and olive oil.

One other note: if this project is intended to feed a crowd, the pasta can be frozen or dried.  They do freeze well allowing you to make your pasta in manageable batches should you want (or need) to make them a few days to two weeks or so in advance.  I also find the cooked texture doesn't suffer at all.  To freeze: once you have a tray full formed, place the entire tray in the freezer for about 15 minutes to freeze the pasta individually and then tip the tray into a re-sealable freezer bag and store flat.  Cook frozen pasta in a little extra boiling water to lessen the cooling effect of frozen dough. Pasta may take a few extra minutes to cook as well.

One thing about fresh pasta is that it can't be cooked to 'al dente'. Drying the pasta allows for an al dente texture if that is your preference.  Let the pasta dry on the trays at room temperature, giving the tray a little shake now and again to make sure it doesn't stick.  As soon as it is dry and firm, move to a paper bag to store.

Fileja ready to go into the boiling water.

Boiling up an experimental batch. 
One last word on nomenclature and shapes: While I've called this pasta everything under the sun, my in-laws don't actually use the term fileja.  Ever.  It's only since visiting Calabria and subsequently researching regional Calabrese pasta traditions that I have heard the term applied to these elongated curls, that are similar-ish to fusilli.  However, to my suocera (just like all cereal is 'Cheerios' in her house), all of these similarly formed pasta shapes (using a stick) are maccheroni, maccheroni al ferretto, or maccarruni 'i casa.  The later two, however, are also terms that apply to the rolled pasta when the shape is entirely wrapped around the skewer and removed, forming a mostly complete tube rather than a spiral or curl.
  
With so many resources, online classes and books available on the topic, a satisfying plate of your own hand rolled pasta is but an internet search away. Channel your inner Nonna and get rolling.

Maccarruni con salsicce.



Happy World Pasta Day ~ Cheers!

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