The ability of food to evoke memory is one that often haunts me. Caught utterly unawares by the scent of a dish that transports me to a time and place long ago is often a bittersweet surprise. I wonder if it is possible to conjure memories that do not even belong to you? To magically take you to moments you have never personally experienced, and places that you have never actually visited? I believe whole-heartedly that the answers to these questions are ‘yes’. Definitively yes.
As I make pasta with my son, I know deep in my soul that this is something I did long ago. An art passed down by generations before, mother to child, a talent that is somehow attached to you, learned, and that never really leaves you. I have not made pasta for years, and yet I somehow feel that I know the consistency it should be, the right colour, the right silky but firm texture that it requires so as not to stick together, as it rests on dusted parchment paper. It must be dense enough to have just a little bite; ‘al dente’ to be precise, but absolutely not (as my sister would say) “al denture”! There is very little less palatable than undercooked, tooth cracking, pasta.
The absurdly over-romantic bone or two in my body are tickled by the idea that the process of making pasta with my son and my father have conjured a memory belonging to someone else. I fantasize about the idea that just perhaps, in a former incarnation, I was given the tools and knowledge to do such a wondrous thing. Unfortunately, I do not have an Italian bone in my body, and have certainly never been lucky enough to be taught by one to make it; so in truth, theory of reincarnation aside, I do not hold out much hope for the bowl of flour and egg before me.
The art (and I truly mean art) of making pasta, is something that whole families … generations of them … have devoted themselves to. Many would say that Rome was built on the stuff, and it has certainly made millions for the handful of familiar named brands we see on countless supermarket shelves across the world today. It has sparked argument and debate, and even inspired pilgrimage and an entire documentary by Chef Heston Blumenthal in one case; who set off to find the ultimate pasta for his Spaghetti Bolognese in his series “In Search of Perfection”. The dish, it transpires, is a decidedly English, rather than Italian one, and he also came to the highly contentious conclusion that it was in fact linguini, and not spaghetti at all, that did the job best.
And yet, lo and behold, my pasta is perfect. I have never made such beautiful pasta. I have a moment that all cooks occasionally are lucky enough to revel in. A fleeting knowledge that something you have made is not just good, but better than any other pasta you have ever tasted. Anywhere.
A four-year-old sharp little elbow penetrates my lower ribs and I am swiftly transported back to the reality of a chaotic, flour strewn kitchen, and our darling springer spaniel staring up at me quizzically. I should, of course, say ‘our pasta’. The truth is, we have simply made it with about 10% recipe and 90% luck, and so I do not feel at all arrogant in my claim. In fact, I am stunned.
The bowl of our Kitchenaid came unstuck in the kneading process; spinning off into oblivion only just to be caught in time before it skittled over the Aga. The four-year-old likes olive oil, and so at least two more tablespoons than the recipe called for, went into it. I had to knead it by hand for over half an hour on a wooden dining room table; (much to the horror of my mother), in sheer determination that I would not be beaten by a machine. I was also spurred on by a comment recently made by MIL that home made pasta “was a waste of time”; as it always got stuck together or fell apart. Ooooh … I do like a challenge.
And yet, somehow, it is Perfect. Yes, Perfection Mr. Blumenthal! In fact I am humbled by what we appear to have created, and comforted in an only ever-so-slightly smug way, that I reckon I know how to make it again!
I have no doubt at all that the extraordinary accidental quality of our pasta was not really accidental at all, in so far as ingredients go. We at least started out with the best. I used Tipo 00 pasta flour and durum wheat flour (Semola di grano duru rimacinata to be exact) made by De Cecco, which is pretty easily available in Supermarkets.
250g plain flour
250g durum wheat flour
5 eggs – ours were all collected from Malcolm’s chickens, down the road, so beautifully fresh and very yellow yolked
3 TBSPS good olive oil
Place the flours in a bowl and mix well. Crack the eggs in a separate bowl ensuring there are no blood spots or bits of shell. Break the egg up a little by stirring with a fork and pour them into the flour. Start to stir the mixture together with your hand and add the olive oil as it gets tougher. Once the mixture comes together, turf it out onto a clean surface and start kneading. Add another tablespoon or so of oil as you go, but remember, the more dense the dough, the better the pasta will be. A soft dough will yield very delicate pasta, good for ‘handkerchief’ pasta or lasagna sheets, but it is very difficult to work with, tearing easily and sticking together. The harder the dough makes you work, the better it will be. Imagine the density of a very firm ‘stress ball’. Once it has taken shape you can place it in a kitchenaid to continue kneading until smooth and glossy. Doing it by hand though, was how we got our beautiful end result. The addition of Radio Four in the background was also a possible added magical ingredient.
Note that I did not add any salt. I cook pasta in water that tastes like the sea, like many Italians do and so salt in the dough is unnecessary. It also cuts the gluten strands as you are kneading and can make for a more brittle and crumbly dough – the opposite of all that is good about pasta.
Once you have achieved the desired dough consistency; lightly dust with 00 flour and wrap tightly in cling film as you set up your machine. Make sure you have plenty of space and an old, but clean broom handle balanced somewhere ready to receive your linguini.
Cut a piece from your dough about the size of a ping pong ball to start with and flatten it out with your hands as thin as you can into a vague rectangle. Ensure that your pasta machine is on its first setting and slowly feed through the pasta for its first rolling. Don’t worry if at first you don’t succeed, with pasta it really is a case of ‘try and try’ again. If you find a break simply fold the pasta in half lengthwise and roll again. It is not a bad idea to do this a few times on the first setting anyway to warm it up and encourage elasticity and glossiness.
Once you have a perfect, smooth, unbroken rectangle of pasta, change the setting to number ‘2’ and do it again. And then to number ‘3’ and do it again. Only practice will teach you the best way to finally achieve the lovely long, ‘scarf’ of pasta at setting ‘7’ that we then used through the linguini ‘teeth’ of our machine. But it is a terribly satisfying skill to learn, and as long as the density of your pasta if firm and elastic it is relatively forgiving.
Every machine is different and settings are not always numbered the same. Just keep going until you have the density of pasta you require. A good tip is to have a little saucepan of boiling water on hand a cut a thin sliver (like a strand of tagliatelle) off the end and throw it in. taste it after a couple of minutes and if it is cooked through and the right thickness, you can proceed to putting the dough through the linguini setting.
Once you have your many strands of long spaghetti or linguini, hang them over the flour dusted broom stick or similar until they are needed. If they are perfect density though and not at all sticky you can sprinkle some more flour over them, wriggle them about a bit with your fingers, and loosely swirl them into bundles as I did until you need them.
Cook them in deep simmering water that tastes almost as salty as the sea and then finish with the sauce.
We made this up on the spur of the moment, using the most spankingly fresh peas ever. They were picked and podded by my son as he watched me roll the last of the pasta and the cheese we used was in fact not Taleggio, but a local very soft, very young and gooey Somerset Goats’ Cheese purchased in the village. I know that a young Taleggio would work just as well.
1 Very large pinch of saffron
1 cup peas (if you don’t have freshly podded, frozen petit pois are about the best substitute)
one handful of Pea shoots (you can get these in high end supermarkets, or if you live in Asia Dow Miao will do!)
5 TBSPs good olive oil
200g Taleggio or similar, burrata or very ripe fresh mozzarella would be good too
Before you cook the pasta, warm a large pinch of saffron though about 4 tablespoons of good olive oil over a low flame. Get your peas podded and ready (or defrosted and ready), your Taleggio sliced, and your pea shoots washed and gently patted dry.
Cook and drain your pasta. Return it to the large pot and pour over the saffron oil. Stir gently to coat all and toss in the peas. Place a lid on the pot. Keep a low flame under the pasta if you think necessary, but if working quickly and people are ready to eat you shouldn’t need to. Plate up. Add your pea shoots and slices of cheese to the piping hot pasta and let it gently melt as it gets to the table. Devour.