It is easy to write off the process of making homemade pasta. It’s too much effort. It's too much time. The dried boxed pasta is pretty good, too, all things considered, and it’s incredibly cheap and virtually effortless, and really, what more can any of us ask for? Is making your own pasta from scratch really worth it?
Absolutely, says Top Chef Masters alum Jenn Louis, the award-winning chef behind Portland's Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern. And her new book, Pasta by Hand: A Collection of Italy's Regional Hand-Shaped Pasta, makes the case: DIY pasta is a) very doable, even if you are not a Top Chef, and b) better. Also, "it has a wonderful soul to it," Louis muses. "It's a whole different world than something coming out of a box."
"Pasta," however, is no single category: there are a lot of options. Pasta lunga — that's your spaghettis and fettuccines — and pasta corta, a category that encompasses all the short pastas, like rigatoni and penne. Then there's pasta ripiena (the stuffed pastas, like ravioli) and pastina (the little tiny pasta shapes you see in soup). Finally, she explains, there are gnocchi, or little potato dumplings. But the more Louis delved into pasta, the clearer it became: "I realized there's a category that's missing," she says. That category is dumplings.
Here is where pasta gets philosophical: while all gnocchi are dumplings, not all dumplings are gnocchi. There are, she is quick to point out, no hard and fast rules governing what constitutes dumplingness. (This is an excellent dinner table topic, if you're with the right crowd.) For all practical purposes, though, Louis suggests that Italian dumplings are "doughy masses, kind of nubby, and always made by hand." Cazzellitti, from Abruzzo, use semolina. Made with spinach and egg, malfatti, from Tuscany, taste like ravioli filling. Sardinian malloreddus get their color from saffron, which was once cheaper than eggs. The exact ingredients vary from region to region, but "they still have the same place in each cuisine."
But while the recipes vary, the basic tenets of success are the same. If there is one secret to good dumplings, it is patience. "It's a very simple process," Louis promises, but "take it one step at a time.” (Step one: read the whole recipe first, she advises.) Perfecting your technique will take a little practice — to achieve the dumplings of your dreams, you may need to try them two or three times. If there is a second secret, it is this: get a kitchen scale. Measuring by weight is much, much more precise than measuring by volume ("how you measure a cup and how I measure a cup really varies"), and grams are significantly more exact than ounces. For consistency’s sake (and the consistency of your dumplings), use a scale.
Above all, dumplings shouldn’t be intimidating (if you need reassurance, "malfatti" literally means "badly formed"). “This is not fancy food,” Louis says. "It's delicious food" — and certainly, they can be dressed up, as they are at Lincoln — but at their core, they’re “basic things that were made from nothing.”
These cazzellitti ("little hats," in Italian, named for obvious reasons) make an excellent first dumpling. If you're not up for the greens, Louis recommends pairing them with a lamb ragù, or a simple tomato sauce. Alternately, just drizzle them with olive oil, add Parmigiano, and eat them straight.
Jenn Louis's Cazzellitti with Turnip Greens and Garlic
Adapted from Pasta By Hand
For the Cazzellitti
- 170 G/1 cup semolina flour, plus more for dusting
- 300 G/2 cups + 2 TBSP all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 TSP kosher salt
- 110 G/1/2 cup warm water, plus more as needed
- In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment, combine the semolina flour and the all-purpose flour. Add the olive oil, salt, and water. Knead with your hands or on medium speed, adding more water, 1 Tbsp at a time, until the dough is soft and cohesive, about 5 minutes. The dough should not be sticky, dry, or stiff. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust with semolina flour. Cut off a chunk of dough about the width of two fingers and cover the rest with plastic wrap. On a work surface lightly dusted with all-purpose flour, use your hands to roll the chunk into a log about 1/2 in (12 mm) in diameter. Do not incorporate too much more flour into the dough, adding just enough so the dough does not stick to the surface.
- Cut the log into 1/2-in (12-mm) pieces. Using the tip of a butter knife held at an angle to the work surface, gently press down on each piece and drag it across the surface so that the dough curls and forms a tightly rolled dumpling. Put the cazzellitti on the prepared baking sheet and shape the remaining dough. Make sure that the cazzellitti don’t touch or they will stick together.
(To store, refrigerate on the baking sheet, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days, or freeze on the baking sheet and transfer to an airtight container. Use within 1 month. Do not thaw before cooking.)
- Bring a large pot filled with generously salted water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the cazzellitti and simmer until they float to the surface, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove immediately with a slotted spoon.
For the Greens
- 21/4 LB (1 KG) turnip greens, tough ribs removed, tender ribs and leaves reserved (alternately, substitute mustard greens)
- 1/2 cup (120 ML) extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 to 11/2 small red chiles, such as Red Fresno, chopped, or 1/4 to 1/2 TSP red pepper flakes
- 11/2 TSP kosher salt
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for grating
- Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice and cold water. Bring a large pot filled with generously salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the turnip leaves and tender ribs and blanch until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain the greens in a colander and transfer to the ice bath.
- When cool, drain again. Place the greens in a kitchen towel and wring until mostly dry. Coarsely chop the greens.
- In a large sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the anchovies, garlic, and chiles and sauté until the anchovies break apart, about 2 minutes. Add the turnip greens and sauté until the flavors meld, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the salt. Add the just-cooked cazzellitti to the pan with the turnip greens. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cazzellitti absorb the flavors of the sauce. Serve right away, topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.