I went to Back to Basics cooking school at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts a few years back and blogged about it for Misstropolis.com. The website no longer exists so I’m reprinting them here. Enjoy!
What is it about pasta that we love so much?
Certainly, it is inexpensive, filling, quick and foolproof. There’s a linguistic element, too, that harkens romance: the very words Tortellini, Ravioli or Linguine roll exotically off the tongue. But perhaps pasta’s role as the ultimate vehicle for olive oil, butter, cream and cheese trumps all that. In our house, each season features its own sauces. Winter means putanesca; in spring we savor asparagus, morels and cream. Simple fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella are summer night perfection, and it wouldn’t be fall without pumpkin ravioli smothered in sage and brown butter.
In the approximately 1500 times I have served pasta, never once have I made it from scratch. I lump the whole business in the “my last name maybe Baker but don’t ask me to make dough” category. I’m not going to go there. Correction: I wasn’t gonna go there, until Steve Nil at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts gave me a nudge from behind.
“Back to Basics II” begins in the classroom with a lesson in Italian geography. I never gave much thought to the very interesting fact that there is a wheat belt in the middle of Italy where durum wheat is grown and artisanally crafted. The terroir in this region yields dry pasta that is chewy, flavorful, dense and textured. We sample coarse De Cecco, less coarse Montebello and U.S. market leader Barilla, which is smooth as silk.
Pasta-cooking essentials are a list of dos and don’ts. Do salt the cooking water heavily, like seawater. Do stir the pasta after you add it to the water, so it doesn’t clump. Don’t overcook pasta: there should be a faint color of white in the middle of the noodle. Don’t rinse the pasta when it has finished cooking, because the gluten and salt that would wash away are essential not only for flavor, but for sauce integration. Do use a spider, or spoon skimmer, to scoop pasta right from water to sauce; this helps it retain its moisture.
Lesson over, lesson learned: it’s on to the test kitchen and pasta making. We make a well in a soft mound of flour, to which we add three eggs and a sprinkle of salt. We stir it with a fork, gradually drawing more flour from the walls into the well. Once a ball is formed, we knead it for ten minutes. I push the ball down with the heel of my hand, fold it over, turn it one quarter and repeat. It’s tough work and my shoulders ache. We check for bubbles (there are none) and texture–it’s as soft as a baby’s bottom. In the meantime Steve (that rat) makes his dough in the KitchenAid standing mixer in three minutes.
The pressing and cutting of the pasta dough is an art unto itself. My square emerges from the pasta roller looking like a long, wet sock. Steve’s assistant, Liz, laughingly likens it to Italy’s boot. I let these long lasagna strips dry, then feed them through the spaghetti-cutting attachment. In an amazing stroke of luck, my long boots morph into perfectly formed spaghetti. I dip the noodles in flour and arrange them in a mound. They cook in just a few minutes, and I transfer them directly from pot to sauce.
My classmates and I fill our warmed platters with conchieglie al forno with veal and mushrooms, spaghetti aglio e olio, tagliatelle tre colore with proscuitto and red peppers, fennel and endive lasagne, orchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe and squash ravioli with brown butter and hazelnuts. Take note readers: every dish tastes even better then it sounds. I bravely resist thirds, but stuff my containers gladly (and greedily) with leftovers. An afternoon snack looms on the horizon, and maybe…just maybe, a new KitchenAid. It’s true the sauces were sublime, but today, the freshly made pasta was the real star.