This past September, my grandmother and I traveled all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the beautiful southern countryside of Italy. She and I have always had a special bond, mostly because of our mutual obsession with food, cooking, and traveling the world. In fact, she’s such an avid traveler that she’s been to all 7 continents—yes, even Antarctica, where she met her second love—and has thus set the travel bar high for me as I set my sights on my own worldly adventures. But we both agree that in all of our travels so far, this trip was special somehow.
We spent most of our time in cooking classes at an Agriturismo (a farmhouse B&B) perched high above the busy beach town of Amalfi in the quaint little town of Agerola. I had never heard of Agerola when my grandmother told me that that’s where we would be going. I suspect most of you haven’t either. But if you have the chance to go to the Amalfi Coast, please add this little town, and the Agriturismo Nonno Tobia, to your itinerary.
The Agriturismo is small and charming, run by a family of avid food lovers. It possesses a certain special something—a je ne sais quoi—perhaps best described as a kind of energy that just relaxes you and makes you feel calm in a fast paced world. I would say that’s just the Italian way in general, but I can honestly say, having travelled all over Italy, that I didn’t really feel it until I arrived there.
In my room, which overlooked the sparkling sea and vineyards down below, I’d listen to the sounds of the village during the day–neighbors calling out to one another in their sing-song Italian voices, church bells ringing, and dogs barking. I’d take in the smells of the land–controlled brush fires, hillside vineyards, and crisp sea air. At night, I’d throw open the french doors to my room and sit on the balcony to watch the moon reflecting on the water whilst listening to one of my favorite songs, which seemed to fit the entire mood of the place, playing it over and over again as I absorbed the scene before me. In case you’re wondering, it’s a song called “Tessellate” and it was originally performed by one of my favorite bands (Alt-J)…but the version I found fitting for this place was actually done by Ellie Goulding. I have no idea what the lyrics mean, it was more just the feel of it that got me. Listen to Ellie’s version of it, while you cook this pasta here—it’ll help give you an idea for the energy that encapsulates this special little place.
But I digress. What I really want to tell you about is the food at the Agriturismo. Oh, the food—I get giddy just thinking about it! Maria, one of the owners of the property and my culinary teacher for the week, is arguably one of the best cooks I’ve ever encountered. Yes, I’ve eaten the food of John Besh, Cathy Whims, Gabriel Rucker, Emeril Lagasse, and many other award-winning chefs. I’ve also eaten at a handful of the nicest restaurants in Italy, and I tell you, this woman is nothing short of extraordinary. My grandmother and I would spend each day in the kitchen while Maria (with the help of a translator) would teach us how to cook, relying on locally sourced and farm fresh ingredients, and passing on culinary knowledge that has been in their family for generations. And each evening, we’d gather with the other Agriturismo guests from around the world to consume what we’d prepared earlier that afternoon.
Before the food was brought out, the long wooden dinner table would be filled with laughter and chatter, people of all different nationalities and backgrounds— Germans, Italians, polish, Israeli, you name it—coming together over their house-made wine (made by Maria’s husband, Umberto). We’d all do our best to communicate with one another, despite intense language barriers; however, when the food would arrive, the room would practically fall silent—our attempts to communicate thwarted, save for a few oohs, ahhs, and oh my gods! It was clear that everyone else agreed with my own assessment of Maria’s talents.
Well Maria has been kind enough to agree to let me share some of her recipes on my blog (you should all thank her for this!), but to start things off I’m going to provide the basic recipe and tips for making tagliatelle (or whatever your noodle shape preference) from homemade pasta dough. Pasta dough is at the base of a lot of the things I want to share with you from Maria so it’s important to know how to do it correctly. Surprisingly, once you get a feel for the dough and the pasta machine, it’s really not that difficult. But it does take patience. You should prepare yourself for one of my favorite things—a culinary meditation session—and just happily lose yourself in the mindlessness of it all.
I lose myself in it frequently, focusing instead on how I felt when we were in Maria’s kitchen. I repeat the numbers of the pasta machine gauges as I go, like a mantra: uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei. Actually, this is how I learned to count in Italian. Maria would have me repeat each number every time we turned the pasta gauge (which you’ll soon learn happens a lot in this process!) so I always get a kick out of it when I turn those gauges now, reflecting back on how she’d laugh sweetly at my pathetic attempts of speaking and counting in Italian. For a while I could only go up to six because that’s how many gauges are on a pasta machine. Now I’m proud to say I can count all the way to ten—my foreign language skills are just that sharp! ;)
This tagliatelle, a traditional egg pasta, is absolutely amazing when fresh. It’s light, flavorful, and can turn just about any meal into an extraordinary one. Since returning to the states nearly nine months ago, I’ve actually become a total pasta snob, refusing to eat the dried pasta available at most supermarkets here. Instead, I’ll spend a Saturday morning making a large batch of fresh egg pasta to freeze in little single-serve nests. It preserves remarkably well for a couple of months in the freezer and can be cooked in almost the exactly the same way from frozen as it can when fresh. Plus that way you have homemade pasta on hand all the time and can make a quick, beautiful meal out of it in a pinch.
There will be many more recipes to come from Maria’s cucina, but for now work on making your own homemade pasta. I promise you will learn to love the process if you don’t already!
Homemade Tagliatelle Pasta
- 6 eggs
- 3.5 cups flour, plus more for when you use the pasta machine (I use a blend: 2.5 cups of all purpose flour; 1 cup of semolina flour; but you can use one or the other and it will still turn out fine. In Italy, they use what’s called Type 00, which you’re unlikely to find here in the states.)
- ½ teaspoon of sea salt
If you’re using a blend of AP flour and semolina flour, begin by mixing them together thoroughly. Pour out onto a smooth surface—a marble slab, a steel table, or what I like to call a wooden pasta dough block, for lack of a better term ;) (PS: See that marble slab in the background of my photos? All 40 lbs of it fell on my bare feet a couple of weeks ago—luckily no broken bones, but I finally decided to forgive it for this pasta endeavor here.) Create a well in the center of the flour, making it wide and tall around the edges without allowing a break in the flour.
Gently crack each egg into the center of the well. Add salt to the eggs. If the eggs start to overflow from the well while you’re cracking them, don’t panic. Just scoop some flour up to try and stop the leak. If that fails, just gather some flour from the exterior and try to get it to absorb the running eggs to keep them from running right off your work surface.
Using either a fork or your fingers (I use my fingers because I like getting as messy as possible when I cook!), slowly scramble the eggs in the center of the well, gently incorporating flour from the interior of the well as you go. You’ll notice the inside start to get a bit thicker as the eggs slowly pull in more and more of the flour. Eventually, your well will break and you’ll quickly scoop together all of the flour and eggs into one big mess.
Begin to knead the dough until it is a smooth and supple ball, about 5-10 minutes. If you’ve never kneaded anything before, it’s a fun little balance between rotating the dough ball and pushing down on it, just like preparing clay for wheel throwing pottery if you’ve ever done that before. When finished, the dough should be smooth and soft. It shouldn’t be sticky—if it is, work in more flour, a little bit at a time, until it smoothes out. This process is so much more about feel than it is about exact measurements so just go with it!
Cover it with a damp paper towel and let it rest for 30 minutes in a comfortably warm room. This step is important, do not skip it in haste!
Cut dough into 4 pieces. Roll out 1 of the pieces to about ¼ inch thick, keeping the other three pieces covered with the paper towel while you work. Once you’ve rolled out the first piece, slice it again into 4 rectangular pieces (of about 3 inches wide and 3-4 inches long). Pass each one through the levels of the pasta machine to transform it into a thin sheet. You’ll start with the widest gauge setting and work your way to the narrowest one, at which point the pasta sheet will be very, very thin. You will want to sprinkle the sheets with flour and keep your work surface well floured while you’re working with the dough. Otherwise, it will stick to things and become a mess. While doing this, you may also want to cut your sheet in half again if it becomes too long to work with.
Once you’ve got several thin sheets to work with, switch to the pasta cutting attachment on your machine. Pass each sheet through and collect the noodles. Toss them generously with flour (either type) and lay in a baking pan. Do not be afraid to use flour throughout this process! Too little flour will make the dough sticky and it will get stuck in your machine and make a giant mess. Do not fear the flour, people! (Spoken by someone who has learned the hard way…a couple of times, actually.)
If using immediately, drop into salted boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes.
If freezing, bunch uncooked pasta into single- or double-serve nests; place in Tupperware containers, keeping each nest separated by parchment paper until ready to use. When ready, drop the frozen nests into a pot of salted boiling water; stir with a fork to break up the noodles and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Recipe from Maria at Agriturismo Nonno Tobia.
Like most international recipes, Maria’s recipes are in weight (typically, grams). I convert to the US system here (we use volume as our primary measurement), but if you are an international reader and want any of the conversions, please just comment below and I’ll provide it.
You’ll want to read the instructions on your pasta machine before using it. Each machine is different. Also, I’ve worked with both the electronic kind and the hand crank kind; while the hand crank is some additional work, I cannot recommend it enough—in my experience, the electronic machines suck.