Adventures in Flour part 2: Pasta

It was thanks to the Cavuto sisters on their bread-making visit that we made pasta.  They had come over, equipped with 00 flour for the dough and semola flour for kneading and knocking back.  They had been a little over generous with the amount they brought and when the bread was finished and proving,
Paola looked at the semola and said
‘Shall we make pasta?  I’ll just throw this flour away otherwise’
I didn’t need asking twice.  Oh yes we shall.
The type of pasta she intended to make is what they call pasta corta (literally short pasta) locally and it’s made without egg.  It’s eaten in a soup-like sauce made of tomatoes, onions, carrot, a sprig or 2 of parsley and borlotti beans.  You can also add a little chilli if you like.  In terms of ingredients, it’s very similar to the pasta dough that makes orechiette but it’s rolled out thinner and is less dumpling-like when cooked.
The semola was tipped out onto the marble table top.  Apparently marble is the best surface for making, mixing and kneading dough which in Italian is succinctly referred to as ‘impastire’.  A well was formed in the centre, water added and mixed in and salt added to the mix.  Once formed, the dough was kneaded to a silky consistency but compared to bread kneading, it was minimal. Then it was ready to be rolled out.
If you are Italian, you will have a long thin rolling pin with no handles because this dough rolls out to quite a large area.  We, however, are not Italian and we had my great aunt’s old rolling pin that my mum had inherited and about 40 years ago, brought out to equip our house in Italy.  The dough was then cut in half to be rolled out and when it was at the right thickness, it was cut into long strips about 4cm wide.  These strips were then dusted with semola, piled up on top of each other 3 at a time and then cut into little strips.  The strips were then separated and put onto a tray that again had been dusted with semola.  More semola was then applied on top to keep them from sticking to each other and to the next layer that would soon be covering them.
Meanwhile the sauce was prepared and the water went on to boil.  Onion, carrot and a sprig or 2 of parsley were sweated in olive oil.  Tomato passata was added.  The borlotti beans were drained and rinsed and added.  We had bottled beans of course but if you were properly traditional, you would have soaked them up the night before and already boiled them for 3 hours before draining and adding to the tomatoes and soffrito.  This all cooked away (seasoned of course with salt and black pepper, we omitted the chilli this time due to my extremely chilli sensitive mother) for about 20 minutes while the salted water boiled for the pasta and it was cast in to cook.  Pasta cooking took a couple of minutes at most and it was then drained but the salted water was reserved.  Sauce was added to the pasta and a ladle full of the pasta water too.
Our timing wasn’t entirely right as it was about half an hour until lunchtime but my mother started to rally the troops anyway thinking that as the pasta was dressed it must be eaten straight away.  Apparently not.
‘Just keep adding some of the pasta water when it dries out’ we were assured and it worked too.  However they did add a condition not to wait too long before eating as obviously it was at its best when freshly done.
This only dealt with half the pasta Paola had made though.  The other half was cooked up a day later, following another recipe they use locally as well.  Strictly speaking it’s a winter recipe but hey we were experimenting.  It is a similar principle to the borlotti beans (Sagne e Faciul in the local dialect) but uses chickpeas and as it has no tomatoes is described as being ‘in bianco’.  Equally good, I have to say.  Happy days.

Adventures in Flour: Wood Fired Oven Bread

Back in May, I spent a lovely 3 weeks out in Italy thoroughly enjoying myself with sea (a little cold I’ll admit but I can now inform you it was warmer than Wales in August), sun and not to put too fine a point on it, food.  It was the season for strawberries, cherries, broad beans, garlic greens, fresh peas, artichokes, asparagus and other lovely tasty goodies.
During our stay, and as it wasn’t too overbearingly hot at that time of year, I voiced the opinion that we needed to light the oven and get baking and so to our assistance came the lovely Cavuto sisters, Paola & Elodia, both of whom have wood ovens of their own in the back garden and for whom it’s nothing to just knock up 8 kilo loaves a week.
Bright and early, the ladies showed up bearing with them all the necessaries for bread production.  They get their own flour in enormous sacks from a local mill and are very picky about what to use.  It is, of course, white flour, as most bread in Italy is white, but tastier than the stuff generally available.  They brought with them a large bag of flour, a pasta pan full of rehydrated levain forming the ‘sponge’ stage of a sourdough, salt and some fresh yeast just to give the levain an extra lift.  The wooden board for breadmaking was brought out of the back room, given a good clean down and we were ready to go.
When I make bread at home, I’m usually making 1 kilo loaf maximum and frankly that can be mixed in a bowl to minimise the mess, although kneading does, of course, need to be done on the surface.  I also rarely have enough kitchen surface to make a great big mountain of flour, a huge well in the centre and then mix together.  However, if you’re making 3 big loaves like Paola showed us to do, then frankly you need space.  And if you’re going to spend the best part of an hour lighting a great big fire in your oven, you’d be daft to only make 1 loaf.  Three is the minimum that they consider worthwhile.
Into the well in the centre of our flour volcano went the levain starter and she began mixing it in by hand, from the centre, adding water as necessary.  For each kilo of flour she added a tablespoon of salt but water was simply added by the feel of the dough as was a glug or two of olive oil.  I still measure things a little obsessively when making bread so I watched with awe.  Once mixed, the dough was kneaded until elastic (again by feel where I tend to time myself still) and again it was all done by hand, with dexterity and speed and energy.  You’ll see from the photos and video clip that neither of these ladies possesses the loose upper arm we call ‘the bingo wing’.  This is why.  It is quite a workout.
The dough set aside in a warm place (didn’t need to worry too much about this as it was a warm day – oh so different to breadmaking back in the UK), we went outside to light the fire in the oven.  The ladies looked critically over the wood store and picked out logs they considered appropriate.  You want a lot of kindling and then thin logs, probably only about 4-5cm in diameter.  Locally, vine or olive prunings are considered the best kindling.  Paola & Elodia favour the olive prunings as they tend to be sprayed less than vines.  In their own non label way, they are both quite organic in their approach.  Unfortunately we had vine prunings but they passed muster and we lit the fire, feeding it with thin logs as it got going and aiming to get the temperature up to 300C.
Back in the kitchen, it was time to divide the dough out into proving baskets and to set a little aside for pizza.  The risen dough was knocked back, this time using semola flour to dust the surface.  It’s coarser in grain than the 00 flour we had used for the bread and this helps develop the crust.  We divided off enough for a couple of trays of pizza and then cut the remainder into 4 loaves which were shaped between tea towels and left to prove.  Meanwhile the pizza was spread out onto the oiled trays and given its toppings: bottled tomato passata that the ladies had made themselves from their own tomatoes the summer before, finely chopped courgette picked that morning from Paola’s garden and dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper and simply oil and salt.  All 3 were then topped with ripped up mozzarella and it was time to bring them outside and check on the oven temperature.
When it had been pronounced good to go, the ashes were all scooped out of the oven and the base of it cleaned over with a wet cloth.  Whilst this was happening, I quizzed Elodia on the nature of pizza dough.  Do you just use bread dough or is there something special you do to make pizza?  She confirmed that if you just want to do a pizza bake, then you make a moister dough and use half and half of the 00 flour and the semola.  However why, if you are baking bread, would you miss the chance to bake off some of it as a pizza just for the fun of it?  Why indeed.
Oven ready, the pizza went in and it cooked in minutes.  Meanwhile a relay team went back to the kitchen to ferry out the proven loaves and line them up outside the oven.  Pizzas emerged smelling and looking wonderful.  It was all we could do not to fall on them right away and devour them.  The loaves were transferred to the peel and deftly shunted into the oven by my father (I really haven’t quite got the knack of this entirely although I did manage one of them – I claim it’s height or my lack thereof).  We were given our instructions by the Cavuto ladies, the oven was at about 240-250C but the nature of wood ovens means that its temperature would drop gradually during the cooking.  We were to leave the bread cooking for half an hour and under no circumstances open the door to look at it during that time.  After half an hour we could check through the little viewing window and from 45 minutes onwards, open the window and check if they were ready.  An hour later, we proudly lifted them from the oven and put them aside to cool.  The verdict?  Best bread of the entire holiday.
Back home in Marple it has proved a bit of an inspiration to get baking again.  For a couple of bakes, I decided to use the yeast from the cupboard that we’d bought to make hot cross buns at Easter and that frankly needs using before it stops being active.  Then in the past fortnight, I decided to make my own levain following the instructions in the River Cottage bread book which is my bread bible.  A couple of days ago it made it into its first bake.  I won’t lie, the process of using a domestic oven is nowhere near as rewarding as the wood oven and the bread undoubtedly bakes better in the wood oven but a combination of ramping the temperature up as high as it will go and judicious lowering of it later seems to yield decent results.  And what it doesn’t have in wood-fired-ness, it makes up for in its mix of flours: spelt, rye, wholemeal and white.