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Kitchen Chat

Margaret McSweeney

Pasta Grannies

You will learn heartfelt life lessons and culinary insights from these recipes and stories. Regionally methods and ingredients vary resulting in a wide variety of delicious dishes.  Pasta making is an art that requires practice and a recognition of how the ingredients feel when you have achieved the perfect dough.

Vicky Bennison’s book, Pasta Grannies: The Official Cookbook: The Secret’s of Italy’s Best Home Cooks, will give you the opportunity to try your hand at making pasta that has been passed from generation to generation and experiencing the beauty these Pasta Grannies desire to share with us.

Are you ready to roll some dough? Here are some great recipes from the Pasta Granniesqp

AUTHOR: Vicky Bennison

BOOK: Pasta Grannies

PUBLISHER: Hardie Grant Books (ISBN 9781784882884)

ON-SALE DATE: October 29, 2019

RRP: $29.99 (Hardcover)

Photograph credit: Emma Lee

Suggested credit line: Recipes excerpted with permission from Pasta Grannies by Vicky Bennison, published by Hardie Grant Books October 2019, RRP $29.99 Hardcover.

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Pasta-Grannies-Official-Cookbook-Secrets/dp/1784882887

MARICA’S STRAPPONI WITH PORCINI MUSHROOMS

The Garfagnana region of Tuscany is steeply wooded and rural – quite different from the more well-known parts of the area. Not only is the area a mushroom-hunter’s heaven, the mint the Italians call nepitella (Calaminthanepeta) grows wild here, too. So, this is a forager’s supper, and it is also an ace pasta for beginners. Strapponi are hand-torn pieces of pasta, ripped any which way; these ragged bits of pasta are also called straccetti.

Marica demonstrated this for us. She is a cook at the Agriturismo Venturo, in a little town called Castelnuovowhere we stayed during filming in the region. She’s too young to be a nonna but her recipe is too good to pass over! If you can only find dried porcini mushrooms, then use fresh mushrooms of a different variety – mixed wild mushroom, girolles or chanterelle will also work.

For 4 people

For the pasta

400 g (14 oz/3 1/3 cups) 00 flour or plain (all-purpose) flour

4 eggs

For the dressing

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint (preferably nepitella)

500 g (1 lb 2 oz) fresh porcini mushrooms, chopped

salt

Make the pasta dough as described in the Egg Pasta Dough Recipe below.

Once it has rested for 30 minutes, roll it out to the thickness of ordinary shortcrust pastry – i.e. it doesn’t have to be as see-through thin as tagliatelle. Aim for about 2–3 mm thick. Roll it up around your pin while you make the sauce.

To make the dressing, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the garlic and mint and fry the mixture for a couple of minutes, before adding the chopped mushrooms. Keep frying to soften the mushrooms, season them with a pinch of salt, and add 100 ml (3 ½ fl oz/scant ½ cup) of water. Let this cook off, then continue frying the mushrooms until they are golden. Remove the garlic.

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, salt it, and return it to the boil. Keeping the pasta rolled around your rolling pin, hold the pin above and near the water (don’t burn yourself in the steam) and pull pieces off and drop them in the water. This is how Marica does it. For those of you who don’t want to brandish your rolling pin, simply tear off pasta strips/squares/odd shapes roughly the size of a credit card and then dump them in the boiling water. Cook for 2–3 minutes, depending on the thickness of your

pasta pieces.

Drain and add the pasta to the mushroom mixture.

Give everything a good stir and toss together. And you’re done; the pasta is ready. In Garfagnana, this is not served with cheese.

HOW TO MAKE EGG PASTA DOUGH

The nonna way is to decide on how many eggs you are going to use, and use one handful of flour for every egg. This handful equates to 100 g (3 ½ oz) of flour per egg.

Step 1: Weigh out your ingredients

Allow 100 g (3½ oz) 00 flour (or plain/all-purpose flour) per person for a main course-sized portion. You need 55 g (2 oz) egg without its shell for every

100 g (3½ oz) flour.

For example, if you are making pasta for four people, you will need 400 g (14 oz/3 1/3 cups) flour and 220 g (7 ¾ oz) egg, which most of the time will mean four hen eggs. But weighing out your ingredients means you can also use other eggs, such as duck or turkey, which is something the nonne do

– Velia regularly uses turkey eggs as that is what she has running around her backyard.

If your eggs are on the small side, add a bit of water or another egg yolk to bring the quantity up to the right weight. If your weight is slightly over, use the egg shell to scoop out excess egg white.

Step 2: Mix them together

Tip the flour onto your board in a heap. Use your fingers to make a well in the centre, making sure it’s not too wide or the rim too low, otherwise your egg

mix will overflow.

Pour the eggs into the well. Take a fork (or use your fingers) and scramble the eggs together. They are mixed sufficiently when you lift the fork and you have a homogeneous, non-clumpy looking liquid that falls smoothly from your fork.

Draw your fork round the inside of the flour wall, so a small quantity of flour falls into the egg mixture. Whisk it in, smooshing any lumps, so you gradually create a batter. Repeat until you have a mixture that won’t run all over the board. At this point you can cave in the flour walls and mix in the rest of the flour with a bench scraper by scraping the flour inwards and over the batter. Of course, you can beat the egg and flour together in a bowl, even with a food mixer, but it’s not as fun.

Mop up any flour with your dough and give it a quick knead. If it is sticky, add a tablespoon of flour and knead it in. It is better to adjust your dough now than later.

If it is not sticky and you have some flour on the board, scrape off the excess, so you have a nice clean board to knead your dough. Nonne sieve any excess flour and reuse it.

The dough should feel soft and pillowy, but not too sticky.

Step 3: Knead the dough

Knead the dough for 10 minutes minimum. Think of your hands as waves: the heels of your hands push the dough away from you, while your fingers pull it back. Once your dough has become a log, turn it 90-degrees and fold it half and continue kneading. You want to work at a brisk pace, as air is the enemy of decent pasta – it will dry it out, so don’t dawdle. If the pasta feels too dry, damp your hands with water to put moisture back into the dough.

Kneading develops the gluten and elasticity of the dough. Your dough should feel silky and smooth. When you press your thumb into the dough, it should bounce back. Some nonne judge their dough to be done when they can see small holes in the dough if sliced through the middle. To knead, you can also use a dough hook on your food mixer.

Step 4: Leave the dough to rest

At this point, place the dough in a lidded bowl and cover it to stop it from drying out. Cling film (plastic wrap) is good too, but you may not want to use it. You can also use a tea towel, but it’s important it hasn’t been washed with perfumed detergent as this will add an odour to your pasta. Leave the dough at room temperature for 30 minutes. This relaxes the gluten and makes it easier to roll out.

You can also leave it in the fridge overnight. The colour will darken, but it will taste the same. It’s important to bring the pasta back to room temperature before you try rolling it.

Step 5: Roll out the dough

Nonne all have their own technique for rolling out. Some smooth out the dough over their pin with a dowager breast stroke in varying degrees of stateliness; others approach it with all the intensity of a curling team scrubbing ice in front of their stone. Whatever the sporting analogy, it’s most definitely an upper arm workout. Those in Emilia Romagna pride themselves in being able to roll a perfect circle. This isn’t necessary but it looks gorgeous.

Julia Ficara, who runs handmade pasta classes in Rome at her cookery school Grano e Farina, recommends the following technique because it’s efficient and back-friendly. This is wordy – but watching the Pasta Grannies ‘How to Roll Pasta’ video on YouTube will help bring this explanation to life.

Before you start, remember to keep your pasta floured throughout the process.

Cup your hands over your rolling pin so your wrists nearly touch the pasta board. Flatten your dough with your pin, turning it a few degrees at a time in the same direction; this helps to keep it circular.

When it is the size of a plate, start with your hands at hip width and roll the top third of your dough (furthest away from you) by following the curve of the circle and drawing your hands inwards as you push the pin away from you. Your hands will meet in the middle. Stop the pin before it reaches the very edge. Roll the dough four times.

Turn the pasta from 12 to one and repeat going round the clock.

You will end up with a bump of pasta in the middle. To get rid of it, flip the outer edge of pasta over the pin. Hold the pasta with one hand, and place the other hand on the dough to stop it moving. Give the pin a tug with the pasta hand to create a snug fit around the pin. Roll the dough over the pin towards you.

Move your hands wider, stick your elbows out and, pressing down, roll the pasta out two or three times. This will flatten the thicker central zone of your pasta. Finish with the pasta rolled up and turn it 90 degrees, opening it out across the board.

Repeat this process until the sfoglia is too large to move comfortably by hand. At this stage, you will need to roll it up around the pin and turn it, as described above. Allow your pin to roll on its own across the dough to remove any air after you have turned it.

You can let your sfoglia drape over the edge of the board – allow about a third, no more, otherwise the whole thing will slip off. This helps to anchor and stretch it, but also it means you don’t have to stretch too far over the board, messing up your back. Remember not to lean against the pasta.

Do not attempt to roll the entire sheet (until you feel expert) or change rolling direction; just keep rolling the outer third directly in front of you. As the dough gets bigger, your arms and elbows start quite far apart. Eventually, you will end up with pasta you can see through. It should feel like heavy linen.

To check your pasta is evenly rolled, roll up a third, hold onto the edges (it will fall off the pin otherwise) and hold it up to the light. Darker patches mean thicker dough and you haven’t rolled it uniformly, so you will want to go back over these areas.

Leave your pasta sheet to dry on the board for 5 minutes. For tagliolini, tagliatelle and pappardelle, you can now flour it, roll it up very gently (like a carpet) into a log and it’s ready for cutting.

ANNA’S CRESC’TAJAT WITH BEANS

Anna lives in a converted watermill, now her B&B, where silk-makers used to come and wash their material. We visited her when the building was wreathed in wisteria flowers and with the background sounds of rushing water over pebbles and the shouts of paddling holiday makers enjoying National Liberation Day. Anna is a keen cook who enjoys sharing the traditional recipes of the Pesaro and Urbino area with her guests. Cresc’tajat (pronouncedcresh-tie-et) is a fine example of frugal cooking. It used tobe made with leftover polenta (cornmeal) and served with stewed wild greens or beans, which is what Anna made for us.

Lardo is cured pork fat; if you can’t find it in an Italian deli, then use pancetta or mince up some unsmoked streaky bacon instead.

For 6 people

For the pasta

200 g (7 oz) instant polenta (cornmeal)

100 g (3 ½ oz) 00 flour or plain (all-purpose) flour

For the beans

250 g (9 oz) dried borlotti (cranberry) beans

1 carrot

1 celery stick

50 g (2 oz) lardo or fatty pancetta

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, sliced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 meaty, top-quality fresh sausage, skin removed (but not discarded) and crumbled

200 g (7 oz) passata (sieved tomatoes)

salt

To serve

50 g (2 oz) grated Pecorino

extra-virgin olive oil

The day before you want to serve this dish, make the polenta according to the packet instructions. The polenta will stiffen up as it cools and, before using it, it should be cold and firm, but you should still be able to cut it with a fork. You want about 300 g (10 oz) cooked weight.

Soak the beans for 8 hours or overnight – place them in a bowl and cover with enough water to submerge them by several centimetres (at least a couple of inches). Drain them and then simmer in a pan of water with the carrot and celery (this helps to flavour the broth) until the beans are cooked through. How long they take to cook will depend on the freshness of your beans, but it will be around 45 minutes–1 hour. Keep them in their broth to oneside while you make the pasta.

Mash the cooked polenta with the flour and then knead until smooth and you cannot see any streaks of flour. Divide the dough into 3 pieces and shape each piece into a patty. Keeping them well floured, roll them out as you would pastry – aim for about

2–3 mm thick. Slice into broad strips (about 4 cm/

1 ½ in wide), then cut along the strips on the diagonal to create small diamond shapes.

To prevent the pasta sticking together, Anna places the pieces in a single layer on a tray and pops them into the freezer until ready to cook.

Mince the lardo or pancetta by chopping it with a mezzaluna or a sharp, heavy knife. Heat it with the oil over a moderate heat and fry the onion until soft, which will take about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Fry the sausage meat in the onion mixture until browned, which will take another 5 minutes or so, and then pour in the passata along with a couple of ladles of the bean broth. Season with salt and leave everything to simmer for a good 15 minutes. If you like, you can put the pork skin in at this stage to add some extra flavour.

Strain the beans and add these to the tomato sauce to warm through.

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add some salt, and return the water to the boil. Take your cresc’tajat from the freezer and tip them directly into the water. When they bob to the surface, they are ready. Using a sieve or slotted spoon, scoop the pasta from the water and stir it through the bean mixture.

Serve immediately and let everyone sprinkle their own plates with cheese and drizzle with oil.

OLGA’S CANEDERLI

The town of Selva will be well known to those of you who are fans of skiing. It’s a resort in the Dolomites, in an area which was for many years part of Austria. In fact, it doesn’t feel like Italy at all, and this is reflected in its traditionally hearty food, including canederli – bread dumplings the size of oranges – from an era when a loaf of bread had to last several weeks. All the ingredients for this dish were the scraps left over from a better meal. Each household has its own take on the base recipe of smooshing breadtogether and simmering the balls in water or stock. Some add cheese, and there’s even one version that includes brains . . .

Olga started making canederli with her mother, when she was 16. She says that when she was a young woman, if you didn’t know how to cook you weren’t considered good marriage material. This was something her mum told her regularly, so she ended up cooking in an alpine hostel for a season to improve her skills. This stood her in good stead, as she got married at 20, had three children and ran the family B&B for many years. Nowadays, herchildren have taken over the responsibility. Olga still likes to make canederli every Sunday, and often serves them with goulash. Alternatively, you could serve them with a green salad, melted butter and a shower of grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Makes about 12 canederli, enough for 4–6 people

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or butter, plus extra to serve

½ small onion, finely minced

50 g (2 oz) speck, diced small

500 g (1 lb 2 oz) stale white bread, cubed

3 eggs, beaten

200–250 ml (7–8 ½ fl oz/scant 1 cup– 1 cup) milk

1 heaped tablespoon 00 flour or plain (all-purpose) flour

10 g (½ oz) chives, minced

salt

Heat the oil or butter in a frying pan (skillet) and sauté the onion over a low heat. When it is translucent, add the speck and sauté for 1 more minute, to warm it through but not to cook it; speck turns hard if you cook it, and you want it to remain soft. Take the pan off the heat.

Take a large bowl and add the bread, eggs, 200 ml (7 floz/scant 1 cup) milk then stir. Once combined, add the speck and oil, followed by the flour, a pinch of salt and the chives. Continue to stir the mixture until the ingredients bind together. If the bread feels too dry, add some or all of the remaining milk. Let the mixture rest for about 15 minutes so the bread fully absorbs all the wet ingredients.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. It should be deep enough to cover the canederli by three-quarters.

When the canederli is ready, have a bowl of water to one side. Wet your hands and scoop out a small handful of the mixture. Press it hard to make sure it binds together, then roll it between your palms in a circular motion and shape into a neat little ball. It should be the size of a clementine or small orange. Place it on a plate and repeat until all the mixture is used up.

Cook your canederli in batches. Lower them in the hot water and simmer for 10 minutes. You may need to turn the heat down a little, so the boil isn’t too rapid. Keep them warm in a low oven while you cook the others. To serve, drizzle over some melted butter and eat straight away.