Growing up Italian: A Pasta Story

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“Life is a combination of pasta and magic” Fellini once said.

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Homemade deliciousness.

So, it goes for me. The Pasta gene is profoundly embedded in my soul. I learned this art before I learned how to write, watching and sharing the kitchen with women who enjoyed both the process, and the art itself.

I have some childhood memories, a little blurred. The sensory recalls, however, are still sharp.

Nunzia, my nanny, was the woman Mom picked to raise my sister and me.

Both my parents worked outside the home and being just 16 months apart, me and little sister needed supervision. Nunzia started working with us (not FOR us) in 1968. I remember Nunzia giving us nightly baths, or making us warm milk when we were too sick to go to school. Her milk and cookies seemed to taste better than mom’s. (Yes, you guessed, same milk and same cookies..)

Nunzia took care of the house with mom, cooked with mom, and made the most incredibly perfect pasta dough. So much that she was in charge of it every time we had special guests or there was an holiday to celebrate. Freshly made pasta was something ONLY Nunzia was allowed to do in the house. Period.

She made it look as easy as breathing, since she must have made pasta almost every day of her life. I would grab a chair and roll some dough next to her, observing her soft,  gentle hands going through the motions, like a dance. Her body leaning and pushing on the dough. Striking and  caressing the “sfoglia” (dough) to feel its texture. She didn’t even need to look down to the rolling pin and pasta board anymore. Her hands were her complete compass, telling her what to do, and when.

The dough would not stick to her hands, she knew exactly how much water to use.

Upon completion of the pasta making the board was as clean as when she started. Of course.

It took me many years, millions of moves, kneads and strokes and my fare share of failed batches, to become a little closer to her perfection. Still…close, but not cigar!

I write it off as being a Messy Martha, who likes to enjoy the process with a glass of wine, while freestyling and shaping the noodles. Nunzia was the real pasta-police. Nothing else was going on while making the dough. Her whole body was involved in the process. She taught me that the dough “breaths” while resting under the glass bowl.

She would hold up the rolled dough and place it against the window pane to check it for transparency, then move the big rounds of thin rolled dough to a bigger room which my mom would not heat in winter. The colder room (la sala) seemed to act like a gigantic refrigerator for all things to dry out. I remember opening the door and being submerged by the fresh dough smell. After what Nunzia deemed to be an appropriate drying time, she would roll the circles like huge cigars and slice it to make fettuccine. Then, the pasta was coiled pretty, to resemble nests and to dry. Nunzia’s pasta would last like that, for days.

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Beets infused pasta

Over time, the “sala” room would slowly lose its fresh dough fragrance, and the pasta boards and rolling pin would get stored away, tucked under the kitchen table. Secretly hidden tools to an art whose origins are lost in time.

To this day, I believe that the personal body energy we use to make pasta, stays into the dough. It goes into the plate when we serve the guests and in some ways stays with them, even when they go home. Actually, the time I spend making pasta, I’ll never get back:It’s the ultimate culinary act of love and generosity.

Nunzia retired when I turned 25, and when Mom passed away both my sister and I leaned on her. She was, afterall, the closest person to a mom- having raised us for so long.

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Visiting Nunzia in 2008 after my mom’s passing.

Her tall and solid figure got more fragile with time, but her spirit and sparkly eyes are still there and remind me of the magic I got to witness in my childhood kitchen by the hands of a woman who sincerely cared about food.

So, when people tell me if I use a mixing machine or any electric devices to make pasta, I smile. I think nobody would, if they’d  had a Nunzia in their lives.

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Ingredients: for ONE person

  • 100gr of AP flour with a good amount of gluten such as King Arthur’s
  • 1 large egg- at room temperature
  • a pinch of salt
  • A glass of lukewarm water-Use as needed

Directions:

Make a well with your flour, the crater in the center should be the same size of a large orange.

DSCF2057 If one is adding any flavor this is the time. Add it to the flour or the eggs.

 

Place the egg in the crater, sprinkle with salt.

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Starting with a fork, poke the egg and start incorporating the flour into it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Fellini’s quote, in Italian

If you are right handed, use your left hand to make sure the flour walls do not collapse.

Once the dough becomes too thick, put away the fork and start kneading. Add small amount of water and stop way before you think you should. The dough will get too sticky if you don’t.

It will all depend on the weather, the room temperature and the speed at which you need.

You will figure it all out, with time. Guaranteed.

I recommend kneading 5 minute per egg, up to 20 minutes. The pasta will change in texture and smell. Roll out and fold the dough over your fingers. Use the heel of your palm, not the tips of your fingers-like you were folding in air into the dough. Put your body weight into this!

Let the dough rest under a bowl for about 30 minutes, or in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours wrapped in clear syran.

DSCF3220 Kale, carrots…anything goes when making pasta.

Roll, cut and shape according to your fancy.

Just remember, don’t rush the process. It’s an act of love. Enjoy it, embrace it…have some wine!
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Mangia! and Ciao!

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