cookingJamie Rumbelow

doppio zero

cookingJamie Rumbelow
doppio zero

Not too dry, or else it’ll tear and crumble. Not too damp; it’ll stick to the rollers. Eggs, but mostly yolk. Flour? Which flour? How much? Oil? Olive – obvs – if any. But perhaps none at all? Yeast, at least? Would salt be at fault? Rolling seems necessary. But does a machine? If not, how thin does it need to be? And should it be rolled against a certain wood, imparting a certain texture? Or is it enough to roll it oil-slick smooth, a perfect sfoliga of satin structure?

If I get it right, when will I know? And if I get it wrong, whom am I wronging?

My first attempt – like most of my first attempts - was, well, crap. I’ve never been good at following recipes. My attitude to cooking has always been ‘art over science’, and any demands on me made by uncredentialed (and, gosh, American) food bloggers cut at the heart of why I thought I loved the activity. But this was just hubris, hypocrisy, an attitude borne from accidental splendour, lucky guesses, and no small amount of denial.

I knew I had to use flour and eggs, but that was it. I bought a cheap pasta machine at a local Italian deli, which came with a bag of 00 flour. The Italians grade their flour by extraction rate, how much of the bran and germ are extracted from the kernel during milling: ’00’ offers the whitest, purest, most endospermtacular pastry experience. Pasta, it turns out, is variable, but forgiving: your flour can vary (roughly) along the lines of how textured you wish your pasta to be. Extruded pastas, your penne and rigatoni, your macaroni and bucatini, tend to demand something coarser, richer, stronger (usually semolina); the more typical fares of pasta fresca, tagliatelle, parpadelle, linguini and friends are happier when built up from a finer grain. But if authenticity isn’t a goal, then you can mix and match with gleeful abandon.

Of course, I knew none of this when I started. All I knew was that I’d heard the words ‘pasta’ and ‘semolina’ in the same sentence, uttered by someone, at some point. And so after a botched attempt to find semolina flour in the local Sainsbury’s, resignedly I grabbed the bag of Caputo “00” Rinforzata and cast exasperated eyes on the recipe for pasta dough printed on the paper bag. It read something like this:

  • 400g Caputo “00” Rinforzata flour
  • Four eggs
  • A little lukewarm water to loosen

So I gave it a go. I hate measuring anything, and, at any rate, don’t own scales. So I emptied roughly four fifths of the bag out onto my kitchen counter – which I had forgotten to clean; fuck – and made a well, a volcano’s chamber. That seemed sensible, sophisticated even, and buoyed by my cleverness I cracked on, emptying the eggs with a flourish into the centre of the well. Mixing the eggs properly took time; the well not deep my fork nicked the table with every downward flick. Slowly, however, I could incorporate more flour, and, like a teenage boy dozing in the twilight hours, it started to stiffen.

Then? I knead. Not sure how to, really. Pushing it down, stretching it out, picking it up, collecting into a ball, repeat. Seemed to do the job.

But it was dry, and as I began to roll it out – stupidly straight through the machine, rather than first by hand – it collected more flour from dusted rollers, dusted countertop, and dried even further. By the time I was ready to start cutting it into strips of parpadelle, it had torn, crumbled, flaked under the pressure. It smelled of nothing, no gluten; it felt limp; it looked jagged and irregular. Beaten, spent. No grace, no finesse.

Still, don’t look back. Like Dylan in the movies. Back to the drawing board.

That evening I gloated and whined in equal measure on the phone to Eli: I was happy to have even bothered; I was furious it wasn’t working. After a quick Q&A to ascertain my technique, she suggested a glug of olive oil. This turned out to be the first important insight: oil adds an elasticity, a sponginess to the dough that eases kneading and forms a more robust pastry.

The second insight was to use mostly egg yolks, not the full eggs. Whites are almost entirely water, and while they like oil add some elasticity to the dough, they don’t impart much flavour; the more yolks and fewer whites one can use, the better. My third and fourth attempts were all-yolk, dough sat on the board glowing golden. When using an all-yolk mix, it’s important that you remember the oil; without the whites the dough becomes hard, crumbly, once more. It’s easy to overdose the dough at this point with gratuitous dustings of flour: don’t. Fight the urge, or all this work will be for nothing.

The recipe thus developed:

  • 400g “00” flour
  • One full egg
  • Six to eight egg yolks
  • A splash of olive oil (not much more than a tablespoon)

The water is superfluous to requirements. If it looks like it needs loosening earlier on, add another egg yolk; if it needs loosening later, a little oil. If you must, a splash of water can do, but most of the hydration will come from the egg white, and you should need to add little else.

(A side note: the total amount of hydration required depends on precisely what you need to do. Filled pastas like tortelli need an impossibly thin pasta – it should be translucent – and so require more water content to prevent them from tearing. Anything thicker and the water will render the pasta bland, so experiment with it.)

Eventually, after a good pounding, this dough came out beautifully. The third insight: keep kneading until you smell the gluten. It puts up a fight, but if you continue to gently massage the dough, for ten or so minutes, it will capitulate and a rich, deep smell reminiscent of supermarket bakeries will be your reward. Once this has happened, the pastry will be pliable and, most importantly, will release the starch to the surface when cooked. Starchy pasta water is the secreto numero uno to great pasta dishes: it gives sauces their glossy texture; it binds the sauce to the noodles; it provides the drone note in the Gregorian chant that is the meal. It underlies everything, and whatever you can do at the dough stage to encourage it is time spent well.

I’m going on a bit now, so I’ll conclude this quickly. After ten or so iterations, the details of which I won’t belabour any further, I have arrived at what I think is the best pasta dough I’m capable of making. I hope to study pasta properly in Italy at some point, and when I do I’m expecting to lose this confidence: it is a subtle art, and one of deep history and ethical consequence. But, for now, I’m happy.

  • 300g “00” flour
  • 100g semolina flour
  • One full egg
  • Six to eight egg yolks
  • A splash of olive oil (not much more than a tablespoon)
  • A pinch of salt

Mix the flour in a bowl, then empty onto a clean(!) work surface. Create a well, and fill it with the eggs. With a fork lightly whisk the eggs until mixed together. Then add the oil and salt, and whisk again. Begin to incorporate flour in from the edges of the well until the fork becomes an irrelevance.

Get your hands dirty, knead, push, stretch. After ten minutes, the dough will give up the gluten. Then? You roll. Roll the pasta out with a rolling pin (or an empty wine bottle; student life). Feed it through the machine, twice or thrice on each setting, gradually getting thinner. I’m lazy so often skip a few; that’s fine. Cut however your heart sings to you, whatever the sauce demands, and cook in water salted to resemble the sea for a minute or two. Don’t worry too much about al dente; pasta fresca usually side-steps it. Save the salty, starchy cooking water to bind your pasta to the sauce. Mix well. Serve.

Buon appetito.