It’s pasta day in the kitchen. We are making orecchiette, the little thumbprint-shaped, or more accurately, ear-shaped pasta from Southern Italy. I like orecchiette particularly for catching and holding saucy flavors into small-cupped crevices. We’re also making ribboned pasta with herbs and flowers.
A new chef has arrived in our kitchen and today he is conducting his first cooking class for our lodge guests. His name is Casey.
I hire six chefs to work in three different lodge kitchens for the summer. This year, Casey will leave behind urban life to cook Alaska cuisine from now until the first snowfall. I like to see what creative dishes and new ideas my visiting summer chefs might bring to the table. Casey has been working for a famed California celebrity chef and he breezes through the homemade pasta demo. He’s done it a thousand times.
To make pasta dough, Casey starts by piling 2 cups of all-purpose flour onto the kitchen table. He makes a well into the center of the pile of flour and adds in 6 large egg yolks, 1 whole egg, 1 1/2 teaspoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of milk, and a pinch of salt. He mixes the dough with his hands and feels if it might be too dry. It all depends on the humidity of the kitchen, the age and style of flour being used, and other variables whether he’ll need to sprinkle in a little more milk. He finds it hard to explain what we should be feeling for. He does this by touch.
“Here, feel this, “ Casey says to one of the students. She feels the flour between her fingers and nods an understanding.
Casey kneads the dough once he can gather it into a ball. He pushes the dough with the heel of his hand, turns it slightly, folds the dough back onto itself and repeats the motion. When the dough is smooth, Casey stops kneading and lets the dough rest. He cuts it into manageable chunks and rolls each piece out with a rolling pin.
For the orecchiette, Casey uses a small metal cutter to punch out dime-sized disks from the sheet of rolled dough. He then shows his attentive students how to press their right thumb into the disks to make a little dimple. Everyone seems to talk at once as they cut and twist and pile up completed orecchiette onto a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal.
Next, Casey makes a wide, flat sheet of pasta he fills with herbs and flowers from our garden. He places another sheet of dough onto the top of it. He runs the pasta through the rollers of our pasta machine to “laminate”, or press together the dough.
We have an electric pasta machine in our kitchen. It’s not necessary, but if you make pasta on a regular basis, I recommend you at least consider the investment. Electric pasta machines are expensive but they are durable workhorses that should last a lifetime. There are several good quality hand-crank pasta models on the market. And, truth be told, many of the best pasta varieties can be done by hand (like our orecchiette).
Casey uses only all-purpose flour for his pasta but I like to use semolina flour – or perhaps a blend of semolina and all-purpose flour. It’s a personal preference and you can play around with flour mixtures as you like. A trick to making good pasta is to not add in too much liquid (Casey uses a touch of olive oil and milk — this is personal preference as well). If you add too much liquid, the tendency is to correct with more flour and you end up with tough, chewy dough.
Most chefs recommend letting fresh pasta dry out slightly, about an hour, before cooking it so it won’t break up in the simmering water. Drop the pasta gently into salted simmering water for just a few minutes. Fresh pasta cooks fast.
Casey saw a little black bear today out in the back of the lodge behind his cabin. He’s already been picking flowers from the garden to add to his desserts. By the end of the summer, I’m sure he’ll have lots of Alaskan adventures to tell.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 whole egg
- 1½ teaspoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon milk (perhaps a little more if the dough is dry)
- Pinch of salt
- Place the flour onto a clean dry surface. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add in the eggs, olive oil, milk and salt. Use your fingers to begin to combine the flour and egg mixture. At first it might not feel like the dough will come together. Just keep mixing with your fingers. (If you are not feeling old school, you can drop the whole lot into a food processor). The dough will eventually come together into a ball. Brush aside any shaggy bits of dough that are left behind and add a little flour to your table surface as necessary.
- Knead the dough until it is smooth and shiny, about 10 minutes. Use a knife or bench scraper to cut the ball of dough into several pieces. Let these rest for about 30 minutes covered in plastic wrap so they will gain a little elasticity.
- Take one piece of dough and roll it out onto the floured surface with a rolling pin until it forms a rectangular piece about ¼-inch thick. Either continue to hand-roll the pasta or use a pasta roller to continue to thin the dough. Cut the pasta into a preferred shape. Cooking time varies for different shapes of pasta, but make sure you have plenty of well-salted simmering water to cook the pasta in. If there isn’t enough volume of water, the pasta might stick to itself. Fresh pasta cooks quickly – usually within a couple of minutes so watch it closely. You want the cooked pasta to be tender to the bite (al dente).