In the beginning there is flour and water. Make the flour be semolina flour (ground durum wheat) and make the water warm. The pale yellow semolina flour may look as if it just stepped out of an impressionist painting, bathed in early morning sunlight.
In the first act of the performance, you make the dough. With a fork, you spread the somewhat recalcitrant water through the flour. When there is no more free water, the fork exits, and your fingers come on stage. Your fingertips mix the semolina flour that is still dry with the semolina flour that is wet. At first, it feels like there is not enough water, but as the fingers coax the flour into getting wet, and as more of your hands participate in the performance, squeezing the crumbly mix, the dough comes together into a cohesive whole. The graininess persists for a while, but, as your hands fall into kneading — pushing the dough away from you with their heels and then gathering it back toward you in the soothing rhythm of a deep-tissue massage — the dough becomes smooth. It is not a soft dough, but one with a strong personality, perfect prime material for shaping pasta.
In about 10 minutes, when the dough feels smooth and firm while you knead it, and the graininess has become a distant memory, it is time to wrap the dough and let it relax. What happens next depends on your planned menu. And your menu depends, in turn, on the imagination of people who invented myriad pasta shapes. The modest appearance of this dough belies its enormous potential.
Pronouncing pasta names engages the mouth in a prelude to tasting. Fusilli and strascinati glide on the tongue, while orecchiette, trofiette and gnocchetti hop on it. You can let your imagination ride on the word.
The musicality of the Italian language is displayed not only in inherently lyrical expressions, like poems and songs, but also in the names of everyday things, like pasta. The "Encyclopedia of Pasta" by Oretta Zanini De Vita contains entries for 310 types of pasta — made with various types of flours, with eggs or without, handmade and/or factory made. Each type is identified by a main name and, when applicable, alternative names. The same pasta shape can have different names in different regions, or even different towns. Sometimes the same name refers to two different types of pasta. Such proliferation can be a bit intimidating, if not maddening, for the visitor.
While names are important, they should not distract you from enjoying the shapes — these celebratory expressions of human creativity in the pliable material that is pasta dough. Traditional shapes were taught by one generation to the next, so the recipes tend to have strong family roots. There is a bit of space, though, for my "rootless" interpretation — and for yours. Instead of a mother, grandmother or mother-in-law, I consult recipes and sometimes online videos, and I usually add a personal touch.
My adventure in the land of eggless pasta started with strascinati, which are made by shaping the dough into small cylinders, then dragging each one on the kneading board while pressing with your fingers. The movement thins the dough and gives it the shape of a cylindrical shell that shows in its cavity, as a special signature, the imprint of the shaping fingers.
Shaping pasta by hand is patient work, but if you focus on each small piece of dough as if it were the only thing that matters in the moment, if you fully inhabit the sequence of gestures, then the process becomes a meditation of sorts. Each piece of pasta comes out a little different, personalized, unique. The amount of dough steadily decreases and the number of shaped pasta pieces increases, until you have a small army lined up ready to jump into the pot of boiling water.
Maybe one day I will come up with a new pasta shape. In the meantime, with so many types of handmade pasta catalogued, not to mention the variations produced by using alternative types of flour, like chestnut flour or grano arso (burnt wheat) flour, I see myself in happy exploration mode for the foreseeable future.
If your fingers are craving some creative exercise, below is a recipe for strascinati that, in line with my philosophy of starting small expounded in my previous article on pasta (see Table Talk Feb. 7), makes a manageable amount of dough. You can read about my adventures in handmade pasta on my blog, www.pulcetta.com. (Some of the posts include short videos of my hands shaping the pasta described.)
A version of strascinati:
"It is practically impossible to make sense of the Babel of strascinati in the regions of southern Italy," writes Zanini De Vita. For the version I make, I use three fingers to shape the dough.
3 ½ ounces of semolina flour
1 ¾ ounces of warm water
A pinch of salt
Work the water into the flour, and knead the dough until it is smooth and firm, about 10 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic film, and let it rest for 30 minutes or so.
Shape the dough into a thick roll, then cut it into five to six pieces. Take one piece (leaving the others wrapped) and shape it into a roll about three-eighths of an inch in diameter. Cut each roll into segments about 1 ¼ inch long. While pressing with the three middle fingers along the length of each segment of dough, drag it toward you. This movement thins the dough and gives it the shape of a cylindrical shell (about 1 ½ inches long) that shows in its cavity the imprint of your fingers. Depending on how you move your hands, you will get strascinati that are the same width as the original cylinder of dough and have a narrow opening, or ones that are wider and more open, or something in between. "The shapes will depend on the particular gesture with which the dough pieces are rolled," says De Vita.
Lay out on a surface lightly dusted with flour.
Repeat with the other pieces of dough.
Makes two small portions (served as an Italian first course).