This fascinating book is part cookbook, part reminiscence, part social history, written about the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, and its main drag. Carlton, and Lygon Street in particular, has a colourful history, ranging from mid-Victorian beginnings as a focus for small businesses and arriviste residents, through post WWII immigrant settlement, repeated association with the Melbourne criminal underworld (think Underbelly and the Carlton Crew), to late 20th Century inner urban grunge and subsequent gradual gentrification. In many ways it parallels the history and social milieu of Leichhardt in Sydney. Claims that Lygon St had the first grocer, first espresso machine (though this is disputed), first pizza, uphold its reputation as a social laboratory of Australian culture.
Harden’s book could barely avoid a recipe for handmade pasta, given the enormous influence of post-war Italian migrants in the history of Carlton. His recipe is simplicity itself, as fresh pasta recipes should be: 1 kg of flour and 8 eggs. So off I set. As a single bloke, and given that this was an experiment, I opted for a smaller volume of flour and eggs to start with, so I scaled it back to 250 g of flour and 2 eggs.
In the end I added egg #3 — it is always difficult to scale recipes up and down exactly. But I kneaded diligently, and, for the 1st time in all my pasta-making efforts, felt happy about the way the dough started to come together, as a non-sticky, slightly springy and resilient ball.
And I rolled the pasta sheets with equal diligence, achieving something approaching the thin, transparent quality I have read about but never before achieved.
The papardelle were delicious. Fine, with that prized silky texture that pasta fresca can achieve. Rolling thin made a lot of difference — I remember previous attempt where the pasta remained in thick, stodgy lumps. I made a simple autumnal sauce with mushrooms, prosciutto, and pine nuts to go with the best papardelle I have ever made. Then I enjoyed every mouthful.
So, the FAQ of homemade pasta: “Is it worth the effort?” After all, dried pasta (pasta ascuitta) is cheap and easy. It comes down to whether you want to spend time developing a craft skill, or prefer the convenience of making something quick and easy. I think there is a place for both. Certainly, pasta fresca is labour intensive. To get good results, you can’t stint on either the kneading or rolling. It is something to devote a bit of time to, when you fell like putting in the extra effort. Don’t try to knock this off as a quick meal after a hard day’s work ... But, as a project on a wet, cold Saturday afternoon, it is deeply satisfying. As a cook, I am used to seeing the fruits of my labour devoured in a matter of minutes. Don’t do cooking if you want real objects hanging around for years as testament to your craft skills. Become a bricklayer, or carpenter. Take up knitting. Or tie dry flies. Cooking projects disappear in front of starving family and friends as though they have been inhaled. But, when we get it right, they leave happy memories of a good meal, that compensate for the transitory nature of the exercise.
I made pasta fresca about the same time as I discovered A Tavola, an exciting restaurant around the corner in Victoria St, Darlinghurst.
I have been back a bunch of times since. House-made pasta is the real feature here — a screen between kitchen and dining room is formed by a curtain of drying papardelle. The daily specials will include three or four dishes featuring pasta fresca made in house. Expect such seasonal delights as a wintry papardelle al ragu d’agnello e fagioli. Add to this friendly, knowledgeable service, good Italian wine list, and the conviviality of the long communal table.
Thinking about pasta fresca sent me back to re-read parts of Bill Buford’s Heat. This remarkable book is essential reading if you are interested in pasta fresca. Buford was a New York journalist who indulged has passions for food and cooking, by working in Mario Batali’s famed Manhattan restaurant Babbo, travelled in Italy learning kitchen skills, and researched the history of making pasta. His book is part kitchen gonzo, in the style of Kitchen Confidential (albeit less testosterone-drenched), part travel memoir, part scholarly dissertation on la cucina Italiana, and part meditation on the links between food and its culture. On the way he gives fascinating biographical insights into Batali and one of his mentors - the equally demanding and prickly Marco Pierre White; a line cook’s description of a working kitchen life; and an insight into why home-cooked pasta dishes will never be quite the same as those from a restaurant — it’s all about the cooking water. Read this book!
One of Buford’s research obsessions became discovering who first used eggs in pasta, and when this quantum leap occurred. I won’t give the game away by revealing his conclusions — as I say, read the book. Just as important is his discussion about the proportions of eggs to flour. He decides on 1 egg per etto of flour. (An etto is a really useful Italian measure — basically 100 g. But it is just the right quantity to order when you are at the deli counter, making up a mixed antipasto — an etto of prosciutto, one of salami, one of olives, and one of provolone). So Buford’s recipe, at 10 eggs per kilo of flour, is eggier than the 8 egg Lygon St. book makes it. He maintains that all the moisture needed should come from the eggs, with no need to add water.
Next time I will try making my pasta fresca with this 10:1 ratio. And make more, for a bunch of friends.