My mother was very proud of her pasta dishes, especially spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna. And she had every reason to be. She was competing against some of the best, most notably Aunty Lena, my Dad’s sister. And Mom was not even remotely Italian, hailing from Czechian and Slovakian heritage.
And, boy, did we love her take on Italian cuisine. I remember once, as a teenager, getting into a discussion with some of my friends. Boys at that age do a lot of talking (contrary to popular belief). Popular topics were, of course, girls and sports. But nothing was more important than food.
One day, the topic was raised: “What is your favorite meal?”
Around the horn we went, with each boy answering, uniformly, “steak and potatoes.”
Until it got to me. “Spaghetti and meatballs.”
The reaction was collectively one of incredulity. How could I possibly believe that spaghetti and meatballs was better than steak and potatoes?
I answered, unequivocally, “You haven’t tasted my Mom’s spaghetti and meatballs.”
The group conceded that I had a point.
That’s because some of them had tasted her pizza, which was legendary in our neighborhood. When other moms learned (through the kids grapevine) that Mom was making pizza for dinner, the other moms would actually put in orders for their families. A cookie-sheet size pizza went for an even $1, about half the price of a restaurant pizza at the time. Needless to say, Mom’s dough was made from scratch.
Mom also made her pasta sauce with all fresh ingredients in the summer months using herbs, vegetables and tomatoes from the garden. In winter, she relied on canned tomatoes (of course she did her own canning) and dried herbs. I still remember her recipe.
But she did not, as far as I recall, ever attempt to make her own pasta noodles. This is something of an anomaly for a woman who:
- Grew her own organic vegetables using compost (long before any of this was mainstream).
- Made her own bread
- Made her own butter (assigning child labor in the form of churning to whomever of her nine children was unlucky enough to be around at the time of this endeavor)
- Ground her own meat (or rather assigned one of her sons to crank the hand crank to achieve said ground results)
- Was fearless in trying new things, including pig’s head cheese (from a pig Dad slaughtered), to bear meat soup (from a bear Dad shot and slaughtered).
Not bad for a city girl who grew up in Milwaukee and had no previous knowledge of how to do any of this.
Carrying on the legacy
With a last name of Paolini, I found it was my ethnic duty (at least 50% my ethnic duty) to pursue the perfection of pasta noodles.
To my delight, I found it to be much easier than I anticipated (or maybe, at the risk of alliteration, easier than I apprehensively assumed).
All it requires is a type of wheat flour known as “semolina,” eggs, flour and water.
You can roll out your own lasagna noodles with nothing more than that.
I prefer Bob’s Red Mill Semolina pasta flour. I have been repeatedly impressed with Bob’s Red Mill for bread flour, pastry flour and other products. So for me, anyways, this wasn’t a surprise.
If you want to get fancy, you can by a pasta roller. They are relatively cheap and easy to use. I’ve tried several. But I have been pleasantly surprised by a unit from Cestari. There’s a number of these little hand-crank roller devices out there. And they’ll all work reasonably well with one exception: They are difficult to keep in place.
Most of them have a little C-clamp device to attach to your counter. But many counters these days are either made of tile or another material that does not lend itself well to any vice-like grip. What I like about the Cestari unit is that it has a suction-cup base that will adhere to virtually any surface. So far, based on my experience, it works splendidly.
Now, back to Bob’s Red Mill and its semolina flour. I have tried many of the semolina flours out there. But Bob’s seems to provide just the right amount of elasticity needed to make, press and cut the noodles as desired.
Other flours I have tried require copious amounts of dry flour to “dust” the pasta machine while rolling and cutting the noodles. Bob’s just seems to work without a lot of fuss.
The basic recipe calls for:
- 1.5 cups semolina flour
- 1/2 tsp salt (optional) (I did not use)
- 2 eggs or 3 egg whites (I used the whole eggs)
- 2 Tbsp water
- 2 Tbsp oil
You can make a mound with the flour, crack open the eggs, pour in the water and oil and mix by hand. Once you have a reasonable, cohesive mound, just knead for 10 minutes or so. It should end up looking like this mound in the attached photograph (mine was a double recipe).
If you go on YouTube or just do a Google search, you’ll find lots of (usually) little old Italian ladies who will do this all by hand, including crafting the noodles.
As I mentioned, I’m using a pasta roller.
The convenient aspect of lasagna noodles is that you do not need to provide any drying time, as you do with spaghetti or other noodles. You can roll them out and simply line your baking pan.
I’ll write about pasta sauces at a later date. But for the lasagna, what I do next, after lining the pans with the “wet” noodles, is pretty simple. Apply a layer of ricotta cheese. Then a layer of past sauce. Then top with a layer of mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Cover with more pasta noodles.
Then just bake for about 45 minutes. And after you retrieve from the oven, do what Aunty Lena says: “Mangia, mangia!”
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