Pasta in its many forms is one of the world’s oldest foods. Long before 1294 when Marco Polo is supposed to have brought it to Europe from Asia, it was being enjoyed by residents of the Italian seaport of Amalfi. Indeed some type of flour-water food mixture dates back to the earliest records of the people of three continents.
When Thomas Jefferson returned to colonial America from duties of state in Italy, he brought with him equipment for making more of the excellent pasta products he had learned to enjoy while abroad. And of course it was with the popularization of the tomato that the Italians were the ones to add yet another dimension to a national obsession.
With its long shelf life and wide range of shapes and forms, the dry pasta products displayed in almost-infinite variety on every supermarket and convenience store shelf makes the economical and easy-to-prepare commercial type a popular staple in most American kitchens. When combined with the equally-commercial factory-made sauces and accompaniments in neighboring displays, it is easy to see why pasta is so often the modern home-maker’s menu choice, especially when limited preparation time is so often a factor. I have no argument with this scenario, and confess to falling back on it myself, although usually with some last-minute culinary modifications.
In my early teenage years, I went to school and spent much time with kids who lived in the homes of Sicilian parents where I was introduced to the cooking of families like the Fidelio Barbanti’s, the Bruno Bralla’s, the Mary Brigantino’s and the Johnny Orso’s, and I have never forgotten the smells and the tastes of home-rolled doughs and long-cooking sauces which were their daily fare. I may be forgiven therefore for having a distinct preference for the “do-it-yourself” and “make-it-from-scratch” approach to culinary adventure in my own kitchen as much as possible.
I have owned and used my prized, hand-crank, made-in-Torrino Rollecta pasta press for more than 40 years, and consider it the heart and soul of my “Italian kitchen”. (I confess to also owning two “fancy-dancy” electric-powered pasta machines which I long-ago “retired” to a basement museum, where they belong.) With my Rollecta I can turn out pasta with whatever specific personality I decide on from straight duram/semolina, to sweet dessert type, to vegetable or fruit-based, and of whatever thickness is required. My basic formula consists of 2 cups fine OO flour, 1 cup semolina, 2 large eggs, ½ cup water, 1 tablespoon of a mild oil, a dash of fine sea salt and sometimes a tiny scraping of fresh nutmeg.
If I want vegetable-based pasta, I can substitute a puree of cooked carrot, spinach, beet or other addition for an equal volume of water. Similarly, I can make a dessert pasta by adding appropriate ingredients such as chocolate cocoa, sugar, honey or fruit purees (perfect for Italian Cannoli tubes). Fresh pasta cooks in only one or two minutes, or it can be allowed to dry for future use.
Hand-rolled pasta, almost thin enough to see through is perfect for lasagna, and for creating home-made ravioli pillows.
If there is one powerful argument for hand-rolled dough, it is that penultimate baked pasta dish we call Lasagna. The whole idea here is to make as many layers of the mouth-watering filling as possible. The supermarket lasagna noodles with their scalloped edges are far too thick and curl up and become slick, slippery and unmanageable when cooked whereas my home-made noodles are thin enough to see your hand through, and as wide as four inches. The semolina flour gives them just the kind of surface that sauces adhere to. My favorite filling gives me at least five alternating layers of the marriage of - 1: béchamel sauce, 2: ricotta & Parmigiano/Reggiano cheese and 3: meat & tomato Bolognese sauce.
My favorite lasagna features ground Italian sausage, lean ground beef, (pre-sautéed & defatted), onion, garlic, and canned plum tomatoes. The simple béchamel sauce serves to help the cheeses to stick together and cling to the pasta. Al Cooper Photos