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Eat, Knead, Fail, Repeat: Handrolling with the Nonnas
There’s a pivotal scene in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, when the impresario Lermontov, played with a steely, quiet obsessiveness by Anton Walbrook, is invited to a party under false pretenses and curtly turns down the offer to see a a ballet recital by the host’s niece. Later on he bumps into another unhappy soul at the party and tells her that it could be worse, and that he’s been spared the ghastly ordeal of an amateur performance. The other unhappy soul, as it turns out, is the niece in question, played by Moira Shearer, who tries to convince Lermontov of her sincerity. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks. “Why do you want to live?” she shoots back. “I don’t know exactly why but…I must?”. “That’s my answer too”. It’s the right answer; nothing less would have been sufficient. It’s an exchange that echoes throughout the film: art vs life, the idea of dedicating one’s life to a craft, the pleasure gained through the practise of a craft but also the compulsion. Of course, by the end, someone dies.
Cooking is also a craft, different from ballet of course but practised with the same love, the same obsession and ferocity. That obsession has been romanticised, much to the detriment, I think, of the health of those who practise it. Think of Marco Pierre White’s White Heat, the kitchen as warzone, demanding perfection all day, all night day in day out. Bill Buford’s Heat (there’s a theme emerging here), the hero worship of Mario Batali (what happened to him?) flinging incorrectly cooked food in chefs’ faces, all justified by the buzz and the chaos. “This is what you live for”. There’s been lots of talk this week about the use of language when referring to people suffering COVID-19, how we are incorrectly using words associated with war, but hasn’t the language of cooking evoked battle ever since Escoffier created the brigade? And when it becomes a war, there is also a high price to pay for failure.
All of this to say that today’s newsletter is on the Pasta Grannies, at completely the opposite end to this hyper-masculine pole of cookery. It’s also about cooking as a craft, as an obsession, and also as a form of self-care. Charley Samuelson is a chef at Spring, one of London’s best restaurants (also, coincidentally, one of the least hyper-masculine restaurants you’d ever set foot in), or more accurately, was a chef. For Charley, working in the kitchen is noisy, stress filled and comes with its own pitfalls, but it can also be, in its way, a form of meditation, a craft to concentrate on and repeat and forget oneself. So what happens when the thing you’ve spent so much of your life doing is unavailable? The answer for some may be to pour themselves into new initiatives and reinvent the way they cook, for others at home it might be to work on an aspect of their craft they haven’t had the time to hone. Charley’s piece is on finally picking up the Pasta Grannies cookbook and transferring those restaurant skills into the realm of the domestic, of laboriously hand rolling each little curl of dough, of trying, perhaps failing, and getting better.
For those considering yoga or getting hench at home, perhaps the physical and mental exercise of pasta making is a good substitution? Having the time to fail and improve without consequences is maybe the greatest luxury we have right now, and at least - eventually - it ends in a good meal.
Eat, Knead, Fail, Repeat: Handrolling with the Nonnas by Charley Samuelson
How can I possibly still want to cook after a long day in the kitchen? That’s the question I’m always asked by family and friends, perhaps fuelled by the rumour that all chefs barely pick up a spatula outside their restaurant and spend their downtime on a diet of McDonalds and TV. What they fail to grasp is that, for a chef, there is nothing more satisfying than the pleasure of using our hands. We feel rudderless without a culinary output. It’s not just the joy of feeding a happy customer or the rush of a stress-filled service that we crave. For many of us, cooking is the way we practise self-care; it’s the time when we are most mindful, drowning out all noise and truly focusing on our craft. Our jobs may at times exhaust us, destroy our sanity, and mess with our mental health, yet sometimes there is no better remedy than getting back in the kitchen and doing it all over again.
But what happens when the restaurants are no longer there to be our escape?
The obvious answer is to cook. Non-stop. For me this meant finally picking up the wonderful Pasta Grannies book and embarking upon a project to try to replicate the niche regional pasta varieties of Italy’s nonnas. Pasta Grannies, the result of a project started by Vicky Bennison, aims to collect recipes and techniques from Italian matriarchs that are often passed down orally, so that in times when traditional pasta skills are being forgotten or replaced by easier, factory-made methods, they are not lost forever. Despite having some experience of making fresh pasta with the help of a pasta machine, I’ve always been wary of making it at home, put off by the strain of hand-kneading and rolling the dough. Armed with this book, however, the task becomes significantly easier, and the step-by-step instructions assume no prior knowledge; I have already gone a week on the low cost of a bag of semolina, some 00 flour, and a tray of eggs. Luckily the grannies roll and shape every one of their masterpieces by hand, so all of them are possible to achieve without the help and expense of a pasta machine (and even using an old wine bottle instead of a rolling pin). The risk-factor is also minimal - failing to achieve the correct shape is hardly a failure at all. You can learn from these mistakes and try again tomorrow with very little waste (of money, time, or ingredients). Cook up your misshapen pasta and you will still have a delicious and comforting meal. Here I will try to document my successes (and some rather disappointing but useful failures).
400g semolina flour
200g tepid water, with 1 tsp salt dissolved in it
Raschiatelli can be seen as a gateway to hand-shaping pasta. This variety of cavatelli is made from a dough made only of semolina flour and water. First, dissolve 1tsp salt in the water (this is crucial as it helps to develop gluten) and pour into a well in the flour. Gradually mix together until you have a rough dough, and then knead until smooth (approximately 10 minutes). Next, hand roll the dough into long, thin ropes and then cut these ropes into lots of small pieces the length of three fingers. The characteristic curls are achieved by pressing down on the pasta strip with those same three fingers, and then dragging the dough back towards you so that it rolls up and forms a rough tube. I eventually began shaping these on a wooden chopping board as I found that the pattern of the wood grain added to the charm of the tubes.
The end result? I think this was a success, but then again I have never laid eyes on the real deal, let alone eaten them. The shaping process was relatively easy, and its deliberate roughness lends itself nicely to shaping in a home kitchen without a pasta machine or any other equipment. However, it was hard to create uniformity and, when cooked, the pasta retained a slight chewiness (although I imagine that this is sort of the point…or at least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself!). I boiled these until they floated and stirred them through a bean soup for my first lunch in isolation. They added a lovely textural element, and turned last night’s leftovers into a filling and hearty lunch. My housemates seem pretty pleased that this is my version of ‘working from home’.
400g 00 flour
180ml boiling water
Day two of isolation. Feeling buoyed up by the success of yesterday’s raschiatelli, I decided to try out trofie -small pasta twists native to Liguria. For these, the dough is made with boiling water and 00 flour, kneaded for around ten minutes (I’m certainly looking forward to my new biceps at the end of all this), and rested for thirty. 00 flour is a finely ground variant made from durum wheat (as opposed to the red wheat of traditional plain flour). The key difference here is the way in which the gluten behaves in each flour. Durum wheat gluten is strong, but significantly less elastic than red wheat. This prevents pasta from becoming too chewy. If you can’t find 00, however, plain flour is a possible substitute. The use of boiling water and flour here (as opposed to semolina) led to a firmer, more elastic dough, and so I would recommend leaving to rest for around 30 minutes before shaping. This will help the trofie to retain their shape and definition without springing back. The resulting pasta is slightly chewier, but a smoother texture than the raschatelli. The vague description in the book and the picture of the happy Italian toddler expertly executing this technique fed straight into my false confidence. In fact, rolling the pasta into spindle shapes and then dragging diagonally across the body proved difficult to put into practice, and I had to spend a while studying videos of the nonnas online to mimic this technique.
Of course, the sprezzatura of the nonnas proved deceiving, and it in fact took a lot of time and wasted dough trying to nail the characteristic tiny twists. The cross-body movement felt unnatural and it proved difficult to pinch off exactly the same amount of dough each time, leading to big variations in size and shape. The speed of the nonnas must also prevent the dough from drying out too fast. As it took a while for me to nail the technique, by the end much of the dough was too dry to roll.
After some more practise (it’s not like I have anything else to do), I finally got the hang of it. I plan on returning to trofie a few times so that I can gain some of the muscle memory that allows the nonnas to make this technique look so effortless.
Trofie are generally eaten with basil pesto and so I stuck with tradition. I’m already sensing the danger of having fresh pasta constantly in the house, and feel glad to have taken up running as my other isolation hobby.
1kg old, floury potatoes
250g plain flour
Saturday morning, andI decided that it was the day for gnocchi al ragu. I’ve found that gnocchi can be quite divisive. Many of my friends have said that they find it too chewy or too floury and so I was excited to see if I could bring them round with the homemade version.
I boiled the potatoes until just cooked (too long and you run the risk of them becoming watery), and then mashed them, trying to strike a balance between removing all lumps and not overworking the potatoes (as this can make them gluey). I then added the flour, egg, and plenty of seasoning, taking special care to not let the potato get too cold, or to work the mix too aggressively. The key here is to mix just enough to bring the dough together to a texture that is firm enough to manipulate, but as light as possible. The resulting pillowy dough was then rolled into logs and cut into pieces the size of ‘large green olives’ (as per the book’s instructions). The resulting gnocchi were lighter than air. They were so light in fact, that part of me wonders whether we did something wrong, and these were not gnocchi at all. They certainly bore no resemblance to the supermarket variety. This is part of the satisfaction of making your own pasta. You quickly learn how much more delicious it tastes than the factory-made varieties that we are used to. Instead of a staple carb reserved for evenings where you can’t be bothered to cook, pasta becomes the main event.
Next on my list to try is fregula (because when else will I have time to essentially make my own couscous?), orecchiette (named after their resemblance to little ears) and then cappelletti (tiny filled pastas). I can’t wait to try them. For many people, an online exercise class is how they let off steam and anxiety in these tense times. For me, it’s all about twisting, shaping and mixing and conjuring up images of those wonderful Italian nonnas. Plus, with the upper-body workout involved in kneading and hand-rolling your pasta, it is almost like killing two birds with one stone.
Charley Samuelson is a chef, formerly at Spring Restaurant in London. The drawings are by Henriette Desmoures. Both have been paid for their work for this article. If you wish to contribute to the upkeep of this newsletter, please consider donating on Patreon https://www.patreon.com/user?u=32064286