There were two bags of flour in the middle of the table. Laura, who was teaching me how to make a pasta shape called strascinati, unrolled the tops of the bags, which sent puffs of white into the air. She then suggested I put my right hand in one bag and my left in the other. Enjoying the lucky dip approach, I put one hand into smooth almost-silkiness. That was grano tenero, or soft wheat flour, Laura explained, as she poured us tea. My other hand, meanwhile, met something completely different, granular, and sandy – grano duro, hard or durum wheat flour, she noted, as I lifted my hands out of the bags. I was familiar with both, but had never studied them side by side. Two wheats, one soft, one hard; one dusty white and smooth, the other rough and sandy yellow. I rubbed both hands on my apron.
The word “pasta” comes from Latin, which borrows from Greek πάστη (paste), or a mix of liquid and flour. Any flour! The universe of pasta includes shapes made from chestnut, acorn, rice, broad bean, chickpea, barley, buckwheat and corn flour. Most shapes, though, are made from one of the two wheat flours: grano tenero, which is often milled to a fine “00” in Italy, and what you need to make fresh egg pasta such as tagliatelle, lasagne and ravioli; or grano duro, the second most cultivated species and toughest variety, the Muhammad Ali of wheat. Yellow in colour, durum wheat’s hardness means it shatters when milled. Ground coarsely, it produces semolina for couscous, soup, breads and puddings. Ground twice, it becomes flour, semola rimacinata in Italian, durum wheat semolina flour in the UK, the legally stipulated flour for all dried pasta shapes. Look at any pasta packet in your cupboard, and the ingredients will be two: durum wheat semolina and water. It’s also the bag you want to stick your hand into to make flour and water pasta at home.
It was years ago now, but Laura’s two bags are still my starting point for pasta flour, not least because a playful approach isn’t a bad idea when making pasta, and childish instructions are by far the most succinct. On your biggest surface – wood is ideal, but not necessary – make a mountain from 400g durum wheat semolina flour. Next, use your fist to swirl the mountain into a wide, volcanic crater (Caldera Blanca on Lanzarote is a good visual aid here). Proportions are roughly 2:1, so measure out 200ml warm water and pour it into the crater. All at once (in which case, get ready for a pinching chase) or bit by bit. Either way, the gathering mound will look hopeless; too dry or too wet. Have faith and keep pinching, squeezing and gathering crumbs until you have a craggy lump that smells like semolina pudding. Italian recipes rarely give kneading advice beyond until sodo e ben lavorato (“firm and worked well”). This is no bad thing, whatever works, and remember being given a cold lump of Plasticine or play-dough as a child. The chances are you didn’t think, or worry; you simply squeezed, kneaded and pummelled the craggy lump with your warm hands until it was smooth and pliable enough to be moulded.
What did you do with the lump of Plasticine? Worms (vermicelli)? Mice tails (code di topo)? Rings (anelli)? Did you press the dough through the play-dough ricer to make strings (spaghetti) or willies? Or roll a lump against a rough surface (gnocchi)? Make fingerprint canoe (strascinati) or indent a ball with your thumb (cavatelli), or drag out an ear (orecchiette)? Even if you were a young Peter Lord and sculpting monsters, there is a good chance you made at least four shapes in the process, all preparation for making pasta.
Another preparation is making a rope. Cut the ball of dough into quarters, put three under an upturned bowl so they don’t dry out, and then, using the hollow of your palms, form one quarter into a rope about 12mm thick. Now cut off a 1cm lump, press your index finger into the centre and drag it towards you, the idea being that it curves or even flips over, and you have cavato, which means you have caved in the lump and made a cavatello. Another way to make cavatelli is to roll a lump against something ridged or rough – a butter paddle, grater or basket.
To make orecchiette, which means little ears, use a knife to drag the lump into a circle that curls at the edges, then invert back, so it looks like an ear or little cup. Put on some music, pour yourself a glass of wine or cup of tea, and make another, and another, and another.
Of course, flour and water pasta can be rolled through a pasta machine, too, and cut into neat ribbons or badly cut lozenges (maltagliati). It is also a reassuring thought that cavatelli, orecchiette and lasagne sheets to break into maltagliati can be bought dried, too. Fresh or fried, orecchiette are great with tomatoes, anchovy and breadcrumbs, cavatelli with lamb and saffron ragù, while maltagliati with rocket and pea pesto makes for a shapely lunch.
Orecchiette with tomatoes, anchovy, rocket and potato
This is a variation on a recipe from Foggia in Puglia. It is clever in that the potato and rocket are cooked with the pasta, bringing flavour, then collapse enough to wrap around the pasta and, in the case of the potato, provide starchy softness. All is then mixed with garlic, anchovies and tomatoes.
Prep 10 min
Cook 15 min
1 garlic clove, peeled and bashed, but left whole
1 pinch red chilli flakes
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
12–15 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
3-6 anchovy fillets, drained, to taste
1 large potato (about 250g), peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
500g fresh or 400g dried orecchiette (or cavatelli, fusilli or linguine)
150g rocket, tough stems discarded
Toasted breadcrumbs, to serve (optional)
In a frying pan on a low heat, fry the garlic and chilli in the oil for a couple of minutes. Raise the heat, add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes, pressing them down with the back of a spoon, until they go saucy. In the final two minutes, add the anchovies and press with the spoon so they break.
Meanwhile, bring a big pan of water to a boil. Add salt, then add the potato. If using dried pasta, add it two minutes after the potato and the rocket six minutes later; if fresh, add it six minutes after the potato, along with the rocket.
Once the pasta and potato are cooked, drain, then tip into the sauce in the frying pan and toss. Serve topped with a scattering of breadcrumbs, if you like.
Casarecce with lamb and saffron ragu
Inspired by a recipe from Aquila, the capital city of the Abruzzo region, this lamb stew in bianco (white as opposed to red, with tomato) also includes saffron for a deep, warm flavour. Keep an eye on the consistency, adding more liquid, or cooking any excess liquid away, if need be; the end result should be a soft stew with just a little rich liquid, and meat so tender, it is breaking gently. The pecorino tossed with the pasta first is functional, helping the meat sauce to stick. A traditional shape is cecatelli (small and canoe-like), but I also love cavatelli, casarecce, fusilli or tagliatelle with this.
Prep 15 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 small carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
2 bay leaves
1 small dried red chilli, finely chopped
6 tbsp olive oil
700g boneless stewing lamb, cut into 2cm cubes
Up to 750ml white wine
1 big pinch saffron, soaked in 200ml warm water, lamb or light vegetable stock
500g fresh or 400g dried casarecce, cavatelli or cecatelli (or fusilli or tagliatelle)
Put the onion, carrot, celery, bay, chilli, oil and a pinch of salt in a large, heavy-based pan and fry, stirring often, over a low heat for seven minutes, until soft.
Raise the heat a little, add the lamb and cook, stirring, until browned on all sides. Add another pinch of salt, raise the heat another notch, then add the wine and let it bubble for two minutes. Add the saffron and its soaking liquid, cover and simmer gently for an hour and a quarter, stirring from time to time and adding more wine if the mix seems dry. If there’s too much liquid at the end, cook uncovered for the last few minutes, to reduce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Towards the end of the stewing time, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water, then drain, tip into a bowl and sprinkle over a handful of pecorino. Tip in the sauce, toss well and serve with more pecorino on the side.
Maltagliati with rocket, basil and pea pesto
Inspired by the classic pesto alla Genovese, this pesto (which means “pounded sauce”) is delightful. The rocket and basil bring herbal heat, while the peas add sweetness. I have given quantities, but it’s really a recipe that invites improvisation according to taste. As always, a bit of the pasta cooking water is a help in loosening the pesto, so it coats the pasta, while the addition of a little milk to the ricotta means it is softer to spoon on top.
Prep 10 min
Cook 10 min
1 big handful basil, plus extra to finish
1 bunch rocket, leaves only, tough stems removed
100g peas, cooked briefly in boiling salted water
20g almonds or pine nuts
1 garlic clove
120-150ml olive oil
50g parmesan, grated
200g ricotta, mixed with half the parmesan and a little milk to make it soft and spoonable
500g fresh maltagliati, or cut up fresh lasagne sheets, or 450g dried linguine or tagliatelle
In a food processor or blender, pulse the basil, rocket, peas, nuts, garlic, a good pinch of salt and roughly 60ml oil to a rough but consistent paste. Stir in half the parmesan and the remaining oil – slowly, because you may not need it all – until the pesto is of a consistency you like, then put half of it in a large, warm bowl.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in well-salted water, until al dente. Using a slotted spoon, lift the pasta into the pesto bowl – the water clinging to it will help loosen the pesto. Put the rest of the pesto on top, then toss and divide between four bowls. Top each serving with a blob of ricotta and a few basil leaves, and serve.