You might not have an Italian grandma, but there’s an Italian grandma out there who is ready to teach you how she makes pasta.
That’s the idea behind Vicky Bennison’s popular YouTube channel, Pasta Grannies, which features interviews and tutorials with Italy’s great pasta-makers. Not all the featured cooks are actually nonna — Italian for "grandma" — but they embody the spirit of someone who wants to share what they’ve learned so the knowledge isn’t lost to future generations.
Bennison translated many of the recipes and stories into a companion book, "Pasta Grannies: The Secrets of Italy's Best Home Cooks" (Hardie Grant Books, $29.99), which came out last year. The base recipe for many of the pastas is the egg pasta dough, which women like Claudia Gazza then turn into the family (or region’s) beloved pasta. In Gazza’s case, that’s a ravioli-like tortelli, a square pasta filled with ricotta, Parmesan and Swiss chard.
Making pasta from scratch is one of those culinary tasks that you either love and already do on a regular basis, just like these nonne, or have been putting off because it seems too difficult.
I was in the latter camp for a long time, in part because I didn’t have a pasta machine. My attempts at hand-rolled pasta needed a grandmother’s touch, but now that I’ve got a hand-crank pasta machine — a decent one costs between $50 and $75 — we regularly make filled and shaped pastas with little frustration. I always have to look up a recipe for pasta dough, but with Bennison’s easy-to-remember technique (one egg per handful of flour), I think I might be able to work without a recipe the next time. I wouldn’t turn down the chance to work with a nonna, though.
Claudia’s Tortelli D’Erbetta
Parma is where every food lover should go if they are visiting Italy. It’s the center for prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and balsamic vinegar is made just down the road in Modena. And its inhabitants, naturally enough, expect very high standards of its food. Pastifici (pasta shops) can be found in every neighborhood and Claudia Gazza, in her retirement, helps her daughter Carlotta run one. Tortelli d’erbetta are a specialty of Parma, and it’s one of Claudia’s favorites to make. She likes to use ricotta made from whole milk to make the filling richer. The greens can vary (in the countryside cooks may forage for nettles, for example) but Claudia prefers Swiss chard for year round reliability. The tortelli should drown in butter and dry with the Parmigiano. Be generous with both.
— Vicky Bennison
For the pasta:
14 ounces (3 cups) 00 flour or all-purpose flour
Semolina flour, for dusting
For the filling:
1/2 bunch Swiss chard leaves, stems removed (about 6 ounces)
1 pound, 3 ounces ricotta, drained
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly grated nutmeg (to taste)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 to 2/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Make the pasta dough as described in the Egg Pasta Dough Recipe below.
To make the filling, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and cook the Swiss chard leaves for 3 to 4 minutes, until wilted. Scoop them out into a sieve and rinse under cold water. Squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Chop the chard quite finely.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped chard, ricotta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Grate in plenty of nutmeg and season with salt, to taste.
Divide the dough into quarters and roll one piece out into a long strip about 4 inches wide, dusting with semolina flour to prevent sticking. Cover the pieces of dough you are not using to prevent them drying out. Dot walnut-sized spoonfuls of the filling in a line down one long edge of each strip, roughly 3/4-inch from the edge, and leaving about 2 inches between them. Fold each strip over lengthways to cover the fillings and line up the edges. Working from the middle outward, use your hands to press the pasta down carefully around each bit of filling to seal it, making sure to push out any trapped air.
Using a knife or a pasta cutter, trim the top (unfolded) edge and two sides around each bit of filling, leaving a border of dough (a scant 1/2 inch) around each one. Repeat these steps until you’ve used up all of the filling. If you have any leftover scraps of pasta, keep them to use in soups.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer and cook the tortelli for about 5 minutes – they will float to the surface and puff up slightly. You may need to do this in batches. While they’re cooking, melt the butter in a sauté pan. Use a slotted spoon to lift the cooked tortelli from the water and into the pan with the butter, swirling them gently so that the butter and pasta water start to emulsify.
Plate them up with spoonfuls of butter, and scatter over generous amounts of Parmigiano Reggiano. Makes 60 tortelli, enough for 4 people as a main course.
— From "Pasta Grannies: The Secrets of Italy's Best Home Cooks" by Vicky Bennison (Hardie Grant Books, $29.99)
How to make egg pasta dough
The nonna way is to decide on how many eggs you are going to use, and use one handful of flour for every egg. This handful equates to 3½ ounces of flour per egg.
1. Weigh out your ingredients Allow 3½ ounces 00 flour (or all-purpose flour) per person for a main course-sized portion. You need a 2-ounce egg (weighed without its shell) for every 3½ ounces flour.
For example, if you are making pasta for four people, you will need 14 ounces (or 3 cups) flour and 7¾ ounces egg, which most of the time will mean four chicken eggs. But weighing out your ingredients means you can also use other eggs, such as duck or turkey, which is something the nonne do.
If your eggs are on the small side, add a bit of water or another egg yolk to bring the quantity up to the right weight. If your weight is slightly over, use the egg shell to scoop out excess egg white.
2. Mix them together. Tip the flour onto your board in a heap. Use your fingers to make a well in the center, making sure it’s not too wide or the rim too low, otherwise your egg mix will overflow.
Pour the eggs into the well. Take a fork (or use your fingers) and scramble the eggs together. They are mixed sufficiently when you lift the fork and you have a homogeneous, non-clumpy looking liquid that falls smoothly from your fork.
Draw your fork round the inside of the flour wall, so a small quantity of flour falls into the egg mixture. Whisk it in, smooshing any lumps, so you gradually create a batter. Repeat until you have a mixture that won’t run all over the board. At this point you can cave in the flour walls and mix in the rest of the flour with a bench scraper by scraping the flour inward and over the batter. Of course, you can beat the egg and flour together in a bowl, even with a food mixer, but it’s not as fun.
Mop up any flour with your dough and give it a quick knead. If it is sticky, add a tablespoon of flour and knead it in. It is better to adjust your dough now than later.
If it is not sticky and you have some flour on the board, scrape off the excess, so you have a nice clean board to knead your dough. Nonne sieve any excess flour and reuse it. The dough should feel soft and pillowy, but not too sticky.
3. Knead the dough for 10 minutes minimum. Think of your hands as waves: the heels of your hands push the dough away from you, while your fingers pull it back. Once your dough has become a log, turn it 90-degrees and fold it half and continue kneading. You want to work at a brisk pace, as air is the enemy of decent pasta – it will dry it out, so don’t dawdle. If the pasta feels too dry, damp your hands with water to put moisture back into the dough.
Kneading develops the gluten and elasticity of the dough. Your dough should feel silky and smooth. When you press your thumb into the dough, it should bounce back. Some nonne judge their dough to be done when they can see small holes in the dough if sliced through the middle. To knead, you can also use a dough hook on your food mixer.
4. Leave the dough to rest. At this point, place the dough in a lidded bowl and cover it to stop it from drying out. Plastic wrap is good too. Leave the dough at room temperature for 30 minutes. This relaxes the gluten and makes it easier to roll out.
You can also leave it in the fridge overnight. The color will darken, but it will taste the same. It’s important to bring the pasta back to room temperature before you try rolling it.
5. Roll out the dough. Nonne all have their own technique for rolling out. Some smooth out the dough over their pin with a dowager breast stroke in varying degrees of stateliness; others approach it with all the intensity of a curling team scrubbing ice in front of their stone. Whatever the sporting analogy, it’s most definitely an upper arm workout. Those in Emilia-Romagna pride themselves in being able to roll a perfect circle. This isn’t necessary, but it looks gorgeous. If you have a pasta machine, use it starting with the largest setting, making the pasta sheet thinner with each pass.