Posted on February 2, 2011 - by

Nonna on Loan: Pasta in a Flash

The room was attentive and hushed, save for the rhythmic squeak, squeak whine of the table. Before us, a silver-haired woman dressed in a fruit-patterned apron pressed and kneaded her dough with intensity. The folding table strained to keep up with her exertions.

I was standing in a cozy recreational room, decorated with yellowing posters of the Pope and an old foosball table, inside of a church in the little town of Guastalla. A local cook, Marisa, had offered to demonstrate the art of making sfoglia, a traditional egg pasta from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. For one night, we would adopt Marisa as our very own Italian grandmother.

To make egg pasta, you simply need flour and eggs. No water, no salt, nothing else. Marisa used a 50/50 mix of durum wheat flour and soft wheat flour, building a basin of flour in the center of a large wooden board. Without any measuring devices or scales, she added an egg for every 100 grams of flour, then whisked the eggs together into a limpid golden pool.

It was time to knead the pasta dough. Without hesitation, Marisa gathered the flour and eggs into a ball, adding flour as needed to obtain the right consistency. She pushed, pressed and scraped in fluid movements, her motions instinctive after so many years of daily repetition. Her hips rotated with her body, like the graceful shimmy of a Middle-Eastern dancer. We were wholly mesmerized.

With the precise expertise that comes from a lifetime of practice, Marisa squeezed the now-smooth dough and announced that it was ready. It was time to roll it into sheets.

In the past, Italian women would be tested on their pasta-making skill before a potential marriage. She would make pasta and the sheet would be held up to a window to check its thinness. If light could be seen through the pasta, the woman was worth marrying. Luckily, this custom is no longer in vogue, otherwise there would be very few young Italian women who could pass the test!

Back in the rec room, Marisa had expertly rolled out a paper-thin sheet of uniform thickness in a matter of minutes. With a teaspoon, she added dollops of filling, a mixture of pumpkin, parmesan cheese, amaretti almond cookies, mostarda fruit and mustard chutney, nutmeg and grated lemon peel. She folded the pasta sheet over and cut it into rectangles with a crimped pasta roller. Each piece was folded into a bite-sized tortellini.

My thoughts wandered back to my own grandmother, living in Louisville, KY. Though I have eaten her dumplings and pickles and cakes since childhood, I have never made the effort to systematically observe and take notes on the way she cooks. The pressures of time and distance were always too difficult to overcome. But here, I was struck by the life and dynamism embodied by Marisa in this dying tradition.

Maybe it was time for me to go home.


What have you learned in the kitchen from your mother or grandmother? What do you want to learn? What can you teach and share with others?

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