To most cooks just entering the world of food preparation, the thought of homemade pasta is threatening. It congers up glimpses of large dark haired women in ruffled, tomato stained aprons standing for hours in front of a marble topped table endlessly kneading flour, eggs, water and salt into a pliable dough. It would be much simpler to grab a package of pasta from the grocery shelf and pop it into a salted boiling pot for five minutes or so. But, to those of us who are passionate about mastering classic cuisine, time or effort is not our problem, creating the perfect tender spaghetti noodle is our prize.
Noodles in European-style dishes are a wonderful accompaniment to sauced dishes. They provide backbone for a simple dressing or sauce such as olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese. In Oriental cooking they are often tossed with scallions or even fried as a topping to complement various other ingredients like vegetables, poultry or fish. In addition to these savory uses, noodles are a feature in Jewish lokshen pudding and Polish Christmas Eve dessert where they are tossed with ground poppy seeds and sweetened with honey. My infatuation comes directly from Italian dishes consisting of small square envelopes of pasta dough stuffed with chopped spinach, and cheese called raviolle, more commonly known as ravioli, and/or the simple strands of soft spaghetti or fettucini swimming in a bowl of rich flavorful tomato or creamy cheese sauce.
Let me bring you up to date. For about a year and a half we have conducted an informal “cooking class” for my college aged daughter and her lifelong friends and mothers in our kitchen. Tuesday nights became a night to look forward to with sometimes as many as twenty gathered around the long marble island set up with stations for each of the five courses we would prepare. The girls thoughtfully prepare a menu for the upcoming week. They arrive with apron, recipe book and often a bottle of wine in hand. The moms are poised explaining and overseeing the intricacies of each recipe. It is “hands-on” training so that everyone gets to chop and dice and master the proper technique. I have provided some of the ingredients, set up the stations with the required kitchen tools and ingredients as well as copies of each recipe for them to follow. Then the fun begins. The level of chatter increases as the wine bottles empty. We laugh and share the events of the week but take the cooking very seriously. (I give demerits to those who do not follow the kitchen rules.) It is a great learning experience as well as a wonderful bonding for all of us.
This week we agreed to tackle homemade pasta. For this class I decided to call upon my friend Kelly who is accompanying me to Florence for our week long cooking school vacation in June. Kelly is the one who prompted me to learn pasta making by encouraging me to purchase the pasta sheet roller and cutter attachments for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. She arrived with tools in hand for her own station. She was preparing my favorite…..ravioli. She had prepared several stuffings of veal and sausage, potato and more. It was going to be a great class. She presented me with a gift, a metal accordion laundry drying rack to drape the fresh cut pasta over. This proved to be an important tool as the night unfolded.
The dough was prepared as they blended the simple makings into perfect consistency. They were shown how to set up the rollers to knead the dough and finally cut the pasta into fettucini, angel hair or ravioli sheet. Kelly demonstrated ravioli while I, the thinner type of noodle. Each girl carefully separated the buttery yellow strands on the rungs of the drying rack and returned to cut more.
During the day I had prepared two red sauces. One, a simple marinara for our vegetarian girls plus a basic tomato sauce with meatballs of veal, hot and sweet fresh Italian sausage. One of the mothers had brought large salads and another several sticks of crusty batards. The gas stove flamed as bubbling pots of sauce filled the kitchen with the scent of garlic and the oven warmed the wonderful breads.
The aroma drifted up to the “man cave” where the guys were assembled awaiting our dinner bell. At long last we summoned them to dine and more glasses of wine were poured. After a blessing thanking God for the bounty he had provided and the fellowship of family and friend, plates were filled and the delicious homemade pasta was devoured. Each girl was delighted with their new skill and thankfully took home a bag of dried pasta to proudly prepare at a future meal. Kelly and I, happily exhausted, were the last to sample the divine feast and savor our cabernets. After dinner, the girls cleaned the kitchen and gathered their treasures to leave. “It was really quite simple” I heard one of the girls say as they exited the front door. Yes, it actually was I said to myself, knowing the memory of tonight would linger long in my mind and the preparation and work was just a small and insignificant part in the joy of it all.
P.S. The photo at the top of my blog is one of our cooking classes.