Lockdown has taught us many things, not least that at surface level, our personal proclivities are collective ones. Instagram feeds have become a homogenised but handsome blur of tulips and tagliatelle. Oh how lure of banana bread was short-lived. Too pedestrian, perhaps. Too ubiquitous, definitely. A lot of free time and a commitment to usurp it wholesomely, turned our attention to fresh pasta. Sheets, pockets, ribbons and twists of the stuff. To help us in our pursuit of good-looking, even better tasting pasta, we enlisted chef and food stylist Olivia Williamson. Just don't worry too much if yours doesn't look *quite* as authentic as hers.
Not only does a board provide a large surface area to work on but it helps with the forming of the dough. Essentially it’s a large slab of smooth wood with a lip under one side that you position against the edge of your table to stop it from slipping. It must be untreated wood and not too porous – beech, apple, lime or birch are a few options. You shouldn’t wash a pasta board so the only thing that should touch it is the dough. I’ve been know to get quite angry if I see a cup of tea or, worst of all, a phone going near my board. You can, of course, manage without and work directly onto your kitchen work surface but wood helps to draw out excess moisture from the dough and the friction helps with shaping.
Until I master the rolling pin technique (and invest in an impressive 90cm mattarello) my pasta machine will remain indispensable. I have a pretty basic manual model with a hand crank from Imperia and it does the job every time. Unless you are well trained with a rolling pin, or an Italian nonna with 80+ years of experience, it’s very difficult to get your dough thin enough without using a machine. This is especially true for filled shapes like ravioli.
Lastly my trusty bench scraper. Not to be underestimated, it’s a multi-tasking tool that helps not only with forming, cutting and shaping the dough, but also makes cleaning up a cinch – scraping up pesky bits of dry dough that have settled onto my precious board.
The two main types of dough you’ll come across are a water based dough and an egg based dough. A flour and water dough (using durum wheat flour) is great for beginners as you don’t need to knead it for so long and it can be more forgiving. You can also make loads of different shapes from this dough all by hand – no special equipment needed – like cavatelli (using your fingers to drag pieces of dough across the board) and orecchiette (dragging and shaping the dough with a knife). Perhaps the easiest pasta to begin with is pici or umbricelli (thick, hand-rolled, udon-like noodles) for which you can use plain all-purpose flour. They're all rustic shapes too, so there's no need to worry about uniformity.
Semola pasta dough
200g semola rimacinata/ semolina flour
80-100ml tepid water
Pinch of salt
Pile the flour onto a clean, dry work surface. Use your fingers to make a well in the flour then pour the water in slowly. Do not add all of the water at once, you may not need it all.
Use your fingers to slowly to mix the flour into the water, mopping up the excess flour as you begin to knead. Use the heel of you hands to push the dough away from you and your fingers to pull it back, turning the dough continually. Unlike an egg-based dough, you only need to knead a semola dough for around five minutes. It should feel silky but not sticky - similar to play-doh in consistency. If it feels too dry, add a splash more water, if it feels sticky add another dusting of flour and knead again briefly to incorporate it.
The dough can be used straight away. Divide your dough into four portions, keeping the pieces that you’re not working with covered with a bowl or kitchen towel to stop them from drying out. Once you have shaped your pasta, you can cook it straight away or leave it to dry out completely (approx. 24 hours in a well ventilated room) before putting it in jars for later use.
If you’ve got a machine, go for a filled pasta. Start by making a simple tortelli or ravioli using a cutter or even a glass with a sharp-ish rim, and work your way up to more intricate shapes.
Using the aforementioned flour and water dough, experiment with southern Italian shapes such as:
Malloreddus: also known as cavatelli or gnocchetti sardi depending on where in Italy you are.
Orecchiette: known as ‘little ears’, these are made by a blunt knife.
Raschiatelli: these can look very similar to cavatelli, and appear like a pod of peas.
If you think it’s time to step it up a notch, try to master culurgiones (a potato and cheese filled dumpling from Sardinia) or trofie (delicate, hand-rolled spirals from Liguria). For nice plump culurgiones, don't be afraid to stuff with more filling than you think will fit. Too much? Simply squeeze out the excess as you pleat the dough. Video tutorials for these tricksy shapes are non negotiable for beginners. I recommend Pasta Grannies below (see below.) You’ll need practice, patience and perseverance.
A general rule is to pair a heartier sauce with a more robust pasta, for example, a meaty ragu or Bolognese would go well with pappardelle or tagliatelle (not spaghetti!). Wider tubes, like rigatoni or paccheri, as well as shells like conchiglie are also good for chunkier sauces because of their surface area. Finer strands like spaghetti, linguine or vermicelli are good for thinner sauces like a smooth tomato sauce, an oil based sauce or a lightly creamy one. The same can be said for the twisty shapes as the sauce collects in all the little nooks and crannies.
PORTRAIT images: Arianna Ruth, FOOD IMAGES: @oliviawilliamson_