Rome – pasta workshop with Elvira Zilli
Before we left for Italy my Roman friend Gabri Ella Stone of Gaby’s Italian Kitchen introduced me (online) to her friend Elvira Zilli, a foodie and a blogger living just outside of Rome. I checked out Elvira’s blog EZy Cooking and More and was taken with her photography, food and engaging prose. I emailed Elvira asking if she was offering any cooking classes or food tours. Here is what she said:
“I think I know what you are looking for. Something like getting lost in the beautiful typical markets to pick up fruits and vegetables, stopping at the bakery for a fresh crusty loaf of bread, choosing the right wine at the enoteca winery shop. Maybe starting it off with breakfast in a lovely place? All of this just before we head home to whip up a meal that you want to remember for the rest of your life because it’s personal and straight forward, nothing fancy but hands on because you want to be part of it actively with someone who has the same passion as yours and knows where to take you.
Am I correct?”
I am sure you can see what I mean, a kindered foodie spirit in the Eternal City. What more can I ask for?
We talked back and forth and eventually decided that it would be fun to travel to her hometown Frascati and have a pasta workshop in her kitchen. My daughter Jade was visiting us in Rome and I was looking forward to cooking with her and Elvira. This was going to be a whole day affair.
Early Monday morning we took the train from Rome Tremini station to Frascati, about a 20 minute ride, and got off at the end of the line. Elvira was waiting for us near the exit, I immediately recognized her, and we hugged and kissed Italian style and as anticipated, clicked as foodies often do. Elvira invited her friend Edvige to help with the workshop and we were excited about the prospect of learning how to make pasta with two Italian women who love to cook.
After leaving the station we walked to a view point where a magnificent view of Rome spread in front of us in the distance. The hill towns surrounding Rome, including Frascati, are known as Castelli Romani and used to be a summer refuge for wealthy Roman families who wanted to escape the summer heat. Some of the gorgeous estates can be seen to this day up and around the hills. It is still an outing destination to Romans who are looking for a short escape and great local food and DOC Frascati wine.
Frascati, the best known of the Castelli Romani towns, is a lovely small town that has everything a foodie may desire: markets, coffee bars, wine cellars, restaurants, bakeries and pastry shops. We first stopped for morning coffee and pastry at a historic local bar around the corner, Bar Degli Specchi, and tried their specialty coffee, the marrochino, made with a little sugar and cocoa mixed in with frothy milk and espresso. I like sugar in my coffee so it was delish and we enjoyed it with their flakey cornetto (croissants).
One thing I could not resist buying was the local specialty: cookie shaped like a three-breasted woman called la Pupazza Frascatana. “Just so you know, the extra breast dispenses Frascati wine instead of milk. Now, how about that?” says Elvira. We bought two and loved the story.
After coffee we followed Elvira and Elvidge on a short food tour of Frascati. One of the stops was a local E. Ceralli Forno A Legna, a historical wood burning oven bakery in operation since 1920 by three generations of bakers. The intense fragrance of the wood burning oven fired with chestnuts branches along with aromas of herbs, butter and breads greeted us as we peeked through the door into the bakery where three women were busy sliding trays in and out of the hot oven. They take tremendous pride in their operation and use only top quality local flour and best butter and oil in their baking with nothing artificial added. Across the street they have the store where the breads and baked goods are being sold. We tasted some of the pastries, including a black focaccia made with carbonized vegetables, all unique and delicious. Later in the day they bake pizza in that oven, that must be quite special and requires a return trip.
Next we walked over to the small and charming piazza dell Olmo to visit the oldest wine making cellar in Frascati if not the entire area. This unique Osteria sells wine the old fashion way: you bring your own flask or bottle and they fill it with their house wine made onsite. Both red and whites are available. You can also bring your own lunch to the Osteria and eat it there along with their wine. A truly local experience that you will probably not find elsewhere today. We tasted the white wine, poured into glasses out of a plastic bottle and it was surprisingly good and crisp with nice acidity. We bought a bottle to go with our upcoming lunch and were looking forward to tasting it with the food.
We then piled into Elvidge Mercedes SUV and drove a few minutes away from the centre to Elvira’s beautiful villa in a gated community up in the hills.
Elvira set a selection of beautiful cheeses, breads, honey and special candied fruits to start us on our culinary adventure. We poured some of the Frascati wine we just picked up in town and wraped ourselves with the linen aprons provided by Elvira. We were ready to cook.
We started with the tomato sauce to be served with one of the pasta we were about to make. Elvira recommends Mutti brand of pureed tomatoes and used two cans, an onion, a little olive oil and salt to make a delicious and quick sauce.
Flour quality is very important when making pasta and Elvira uses organic, stone ground hard durum flour for her pasta, sometimes mixing it with another flour to make it more elastic. She makes pasta with only flour, salt, water and olive oil. She doesn’t add eggs unless she is making a more delicate pasta. To make the pasta by hand she piles the flour on the counter, makes a well in the center, sprinkles some salt, pours in the olive oil and drizzle some of the water into the well. With her fingers she begins gathering the flour into the liquid until it begins to form a mass. She continues to gather the flour into the center until all the water is absorbed. “Depending on the type of flour you use, you may need to add more water,” she says, “some flours absorb more water, some absorb less. You have to develop a feel for the dough until you have the right consistency to keep it moist but not wet”.
Elvira puts us to work mixing the flour and water and then kneading the dough. “Press as hard as you can, you have to keep going, the more you work it the smoother it gets” she says. She demonstrated how to press the mass of dough with the heel of the hand, break it down and knead some more. “The more you break it the more it breaks down the gluten and the smoother it gets” she says.
When the dough is smooth enough we stop, roll it into a smooth ball, wrap in plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes in a quiet corner on the counter to allow the gluten to relax and become pliable.
Rolling the dough after it has rested is a lot of fun. The dough is silky smooth by then and beautifully pliable. Using a rolling pin and a lightly floured surface we rolled the dough into a circle and continued to roll it until it was rather thin (but not so thin that it’s fragile). Every few rolls you lift the dough and give it a quarter turn said Elvidge who was demonstrating the rolling. “There is nothing better than making pasta” she said “don’t be afraid, you can’t hurt it”. You can tell she loves to cook.
Today we are going to make a pasta shape that I have never seen before. It is a Sardinian pasta called culurgiones. “Every time I go to a different region I discover a new pasta shape” says Elvira. This one is sort of a ravioli stuffed with a mixture of potatoes, fresh mint and pecorino cheese. The shape though is very different than a regular ravioli. The pasta is cut into rounds and stuffed with the filling and the edges are then braided over the filling in a wheat shift style, pinched along as you fold each side over the other.
For the filling Elvira cooked starchy potatoes and proceeded to rice them into a bowl, adding chopped mint leaves, garlic, olive oil and pecorino mixing the ingredients together until well blended. Elvidge demonstrated the braiding and folding method for making these treasures and Jade and I tried our hands at it as well. Let’s just say that in spite of the brava… bellisima…molto brava…perfecto…you could tell which ones we made and which ones Elvidge made, but it was all good, we got the hang of it after making a few. The full recipe is available on Elvira’s blog here and there is also a video demonstration of the folding and pinching method.
Next we were to make orechiette and Elvira prepared the cime di rapa (a.k.a Rapini in North America) to go with the pasta. She only uses the tender part of the greens and cooks them straight in the pan without blanching them first. You could blanch them if you want to soften the flavour a bit as it can be a little bitter. We didn’t blanch it and it was delish. Elvira sauteed a garlic clove in olive oil and a pinch of peperoncino, then added the cime di rapa to the pot and let it cook until it softened considerably. Once the pasta is ready we would add it to the pan and cook them together until heated and serve immediately.
Next we made the orecchiette, little ears of pasta, a shape originating from Puglia, one of Elvira’s favourite regions. I never thought I would make orecchiette and was excited to have the opportunity to see how they are made. She rolled the dough into logs and then cut them into small pieces that she then flattened into small disks. You have to shape each piece by hand and Elvira uses a table knife to press the small disk of dough onto the counter rolling the dough under the edge of the knife toward her as she presses, then folds it over her thumb inside out to create the familiar ear shape with the rough surface on the outside.
With the leftover pasta dough Elvira and Elvidge demonstrated and we practiced making several other pasta shapes. We made cavatelli, fusilli, strozzapreti (priest chokers) and others I can no longer remember the names of. I should have taken notes.
Time flew by as it does when one is having fun. It was now time to cook the pasta and sit down to lunch. Elvira dropped the culurgiones into boiling salted water and as soon as they floated to the surface she removed them and arranged them over the tomao sauce on the plates. A little more sauce on top, but not so much that it would hide the design, a sprinkling of pecorino and we were ready to eat. What can I say, they were perfect, with just the right texture and flavour. The filling was just right and I can think of many uses for it with other pasta shapes. We all had seconds.
Next it was the orecchiette. Elvira cooked the pasta in boiling salted water, drained them well and add them to the cime di rapa in the skillet to warm up and absorb the flavours. This was another success, a full flavoured dish with wonderful al dente texture against the softness of the cime di rapa.
All good things must come to an end they say, and so we ended a fabulous day of learning, laughing and making new friends. We caught an early evening train back to Rome still talking about the day and unique opportunity we had learning to make handmade pasta in someone’s private home. It was a special experience that I am sure I will repeat next time we are in Italy.