Perfect pasta - it’s a job for a womanBy Leigh Mencarini
October 01, 2010
Leigh Mencarini discovers why pasta-making is women’s work from the experts at Reading’s Carluccio’s restaurant
“Mencarini? That’s Italian, isn’t it? So do you speak the language?”
Alas, no. I love my surname, but I know very little of my fifth-generation heritage. And despite my best efforts at making spaghetti bolognaise, I’m ashamed to say I am something of a masquerading Italian.
So when Carluccio’s in Forbury Square hosted a special pasta-making workshop in June, I figured it was time I got my act together and learned how to cook like an Italian at least.
Signor Nicola and Signora Guiliana Lo Conte hosted the workshop one Thursday evening, bringing their culinary expertise all the way from their home town of Rimini, in the Emilia Romagna region.
Around 30 wannabe Italian cooks watch as the Signora demonstrates the fine art of pasta-making. But before she starts rolling, her husband Nicola makes sure we all know the most important element of all. Choosing the right flour.
“It must be made from good wheat,” he repeatedly tells the interpreter. The slower the flour has been ground, the more protein is left in, he says. It’s so important, anyone who knows good pasta can smell the difference.
The Signora arranges a mix of 60 per cent semolina with 40 per cent (good!) plain flour, in a ‘ring’ on a giant wooden surface. She explains the semolina adds texture to the pasta and contains a lot of protein, which helps the mix bind together.
In the centre of the ring, she breaks two eggs – recommending two for every 200g of flour, which makes enough tagliatelle for two, or ravioli for four.
This was one of many handy tips the Signora picked up from her mother, who taught her to roll pasta at the age of six. Now, the Signora makes pasta up to three times a week.
Within 10 minutes the flour and eggs have been mixed, kneaded and transformed into a spongy, grainy dough. Altogether this has taken about 10 minutes although the dough should be left for at least 30 minutes before rolling.
Here is where the skill really comes into its own. Armed with a wooden rolling pin of around 3ft in length, the Signora rolls and smooths the fist-sized lump of yellow dough into submission. It soon becomes a huge, paper-thin sheet capable of wrapping around the pin three to four times.
The Signora holds the sheet to the light to demonstrate how thin it should be, to a chorus of oohs and aahs from the crowd. It hung straight like a translucent velvet drape and was completely crease-free, although she insists her mother’s would have been thinner.
The interpreter tells us a woman’s pasta rolling skills were once highly regarded in Italy – especially by men looking for a wife.
“I wouldn’t have married her otherwise,” the Signor jokes.
“And the other reason for having a long rolling pin,” the interpreter tells the crowd, “is for personal defence!” at which point the Signora waves the pin at her husband. That told him!
To make ravioli, the Signora squeezes neat little blobs of filling – a simple mixture of ricotta and spinach – on to the sheet with a piping bag.
Using a crinkle-edged cutting roller, she creates half moon shapes, parcels, bon-bon shapes (ideal for children) – basically anything you like.
The Signora demonstrates how to make tagliatelle, too. Starting with an oblong sheet, she rolls in the two opposite straight edges until it looks like a scroll, and simply slices it up like a cucumber.
The other good reasons why Signor Lo Conte married his wife is because she never lets anything go to waste, we’re told. After she cuts out as many pasta shapes as possible, all the ‘rough cuts’ are saved and used to pad out stews and soups.
Then came the bit we’d all been waiting for – a chance to try the goods.
We were all passed a portion of the Signora’s ravioli. Slightly al dente and yet a delicate bite, the pasta tasted clean and fresh, not powdery as some can be.
Signor and Signora Lo Conte demonstrate why they are so passionate about real pasta by cooking up Carluccio’s spaghetti alongside a supermarket brand. Even before it was immersed in boiling water, you could see the difference – the cheaper version was thinner, darker, and according to the Signor, made with bad wheat.
The Signora created a simple pomodora sauce with onions, fresh tomatoes, sage, olive oil, butter and the water in which the spaghetti was cooked – “as it contains a lot of starch” she says.
And she stirs the cooked spaghetti into the pan of sauce – quite different to what I have grown used to; the sauce plonked atop a mountain of pasta. But mixing it together is the Italian way.
And boy, did it taste good. The handmade spaghetti was thicker and seemed to have locked in more flavour, whereas the darker shop brand stuff seemed chewy and coarse by comparison.
Whether it was the good wheat or the rolling technique or even the unmistakably seductive extra virgin olive oil, I can’t be sure – but having watched the Signora I certainly feel more qualified to attempt to cook like an Italian.
So much so I’m already looking for a 3ft rolling pin of my very own.
For more information about future workshops at Carluccio’s, visit www.carluccios.com/caffes/events
Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci
160g of flour
240g of semolina
5 whole eggs
300g cooked spinach, drained with as much water squeezed out as possible
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
200g grated Parmigiano Reggiano
A little vegetable stock
A knob of butter
A few leaves of fresh sage
A little reserved pasta cooking water
To make the dough, pour the flour and semolina on to the worktop and make a well in the middle. Break the eggs into the well and mix with a fork. Start slowly drawing the flour from the sides. Knead for at least 15 minutes until you reach a smooth texture – it is important you do so because by kneading, the dough will become strong and the eggs will be blended perfectly so you end up with a smooth dough of uniform colour.
Wet your hands when kneading if you feel the dough is too dry – this will stop you adding too much water to moisten the dough and making it too soft. Cover the dough with cling film and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes, or rest the dough overnight.
For the filling, finely chop the spinach, mix in the ricotta and the seasoning. Mix well until you get a smooth paste. Taste to make sure your filling is well seasoned before you start making ravioli.
To make the ravioli, roll the dough thinly. Keep dough not in use covered either with a damp cloth or clingfilm to stop it drying out. Cut a disc with a round cutter (or a square with a pasta cutter) put a spoonful of filling in the middle, brush the edges with water and cover with another disc of pasta. Press gently with your fingers all around the pasta disc to get rid of any pockets of air.
For the sauce, cook the ravioli in a large pot of boiling salted water (do not add oil). It will take two to three minutes to cook, so meanwhile put some vegetable stock in a saucepan, add the butter and sage and let it melt. You can also mix butter and oil. When the pasta is ready to drain, make sure you keep two or three tablespoons of the pasta cooking water. Transfer the ravioli to the saucepan with the retained cooking water and saute in the melted butter for a few seconds until the sauce thickens. Take the saucepan off the heat, add a generous sprinkle of Parmigiano, let it melt and serve immediately.
The Signora’s top tips
Don’t bother with a pasta making machine – always roll by hand. The gadgets have too smooth a surface and you want to keep the roughness in the dough, as texture helps the sauce to stick.
Make your ravioli no more than a couple of hours ahead of serving, any longer it will become wet at the bottom and dry on the edges. But you can also freeze it.
Keep a little mound of flour on the side for sprinkling during rolling; it comes in handy as pasta can dry at different temperatures, depends on the size of the eggs.
Roll out a thin sheet for tagliatelle, however a ravioli sheet will need to be a little thicker.
Tagliatelle shouldn’t be unravelled or hung out to dry. Keep it in nests or it will dry out and break.