Cookbooks divide food into two categories: savories and sweets. Savories are protein—appetizers and entrees, meats and vegetables, lunches and dinners. Sweets tend to involve dough. Some claim that savories cooks are artists, improvising freely, while sweets cooks are scientists, measuring everything. This is as true as any generalization, but it did scare me away from making dough.
However, all my recipes for Bolognese Sauce asked for fresh tagliatelle. My family loved pumpkin ravioli and kept asking me to make them. I was not about to buy a pasta machine. (Didn’t Thoreau say, “Beware of recipes that require expensive equipment that you’ll never use again.”) Instead, I researched fresh pasta. I wanted to do the “real” stuff, the pasta that Italian grandmothers have been making for centuries with nothing but a rolling pin and a cutting board. The rolling pin should be long and straight, nothing tapered and not the kind with handles that roll separately. The cutting board should be wooden and as large as you have.
Marcella Hazan had a good recipe—flour and eggs, nothing more. She gave the proportions and a little trick to rolling out the dough. It seemed authentic and it required learning a technique rather than buying equipment. My first batch was stiff and nearly unrollable and looked more like fat Chow Foon noodles when it was cooked. It was, however, tasty, and I was encouraged. Every Sunday night, in preparation for the Sopranos, I made a different Bolognese Sauce and fresh tagliatelle. I could not master Marcella’s technique and longed for an Italian grandmother to teach me the tricks.
In October 2002, during Books and Cooks (a United Way fundraiser in which celebrity chefs cook from their latest cookbooks in conjunction with local restaurants), I asked both Mario Batali, and Lidia Bastianich how they made fresh pasta. Mario shrugged and asked about my machine. “Only a rolling pin and a cutting board” I said. He brightened visibly and started talking. “You give it a little push at the end to stretch it,” he said, demonstrating. “I made two kilos of fresh pasta every day for six months,” he told me, “And then I knew how to make it.”
Lidia had a different technique, but she, too, demonstrated on an imaginary rolling pin. “Always use a wooden rolling pin and cutting board,” she said. “They give the pasta some texture.” Both techniques involved pushing the dough to stretch it once it was rolled thin. Both suggested a teaspoon of oil and salt and adding drops of water until the dough was right.
Success! The oil helped tremendously and my hands finally understood what pushing and stretching the dough felt like. I wouldn’t want to go mano a mano with an authentic Italian grandmother, but I can hold my own. I can whip out a double batch of tagliatelle in a little over an hour of work. And for Thanksgiving this year, I made pumpkin ravioli with a Sage-Butter Sauce.
Originally published, Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 31, 2003
Mary DeFelice’s Tomato Sauce