Are you familiar with the expression, You don’t know what you’ve got, until it’s gone? Well, that might be true, but equally true is the following: You don’t know what you’ve been missing, until you have it. For one glorious Saturday afternoon, we had ourselves a Nonna…and we’ve decided that she is exactly what we’ve been needing in our lives.
For many years our lives were rich with the presence of our papoudes (παππούδες or Greek grandfathers) and giagiades (γιαγιάδες or Greek grandmothers). All four of our grandparents are unfortunately deceased, but when they were alive they were an important presence, alternatively living with us in Canada, or hosting us in their village homes when we would spend summers in Greece. It’s been years since they have all died, and we were recently reminded how special that relationship is, between grandchild and grandparent when we met Nonna Giulia. We laughed, a lot, and repeatedly told both Nonna Giulia and her grand-daughter Alexa that we were going to adopt her as our Nonna too. We think they may have thought we were kidding. We were not.
Even before we realized how amazing and fun Nonna Giulia is, we were certainly excited to meet her, and to spend a few hours learning how to make fresh pasta from an Italian grandmother! Those few hours turned into the better part of a day, as our Nonna showed us around her home, spent time describing her huge assortment of homemade canned goods, and the contents of her well stocked freezers (yes, the plural is correct) and refrigerators. This show-and-tell occurred in the context of her life, and she graciously shared stories about her childhood, her family, her love, and her friendships.
Nonna Giulia came to Canada from the town of Rapolla, in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata when she was 10 years old, with her parents and her 3 sisters. The family arrived with little money, but with a strong work ethic and a desire to make the best life possible in a new country. Things started off pretty well; soon after the family arrived Nonna Giulia entered a beauty contest by submitting her picture to a newspaper. Not owning anything nice enough for the photo she was to submit, she borrowed a dress from a classmate and lo and behold, young Giulia won. Her prize was 30$ (a small fortune at the time), and a floor lamp. Seriously!
It seems that young Giulia was in for a string of good luck. It just so happened that there was another Italian family living in Montreal at the time, that shared the same last name as Nonna’s family. This family was from a town neighbouring Rapolla called Melfi. The patriarch was a police officer who had brought his orphaned nephew Flavio to Canada from Melfi as he too was looking for a new start. Craving connections and common understanding, the two families (who were not related despite sharing a common surname) met and became friendly. One afternoon, while Giulia was accompanying her older sister and a boy at the movies, she returned home to find Flavio with her mother, sharing a meal. She commented that he seemed to be spending quite a bit of time at her house, and suggested that she understood he was interested in one of her older sisters; Flavio was in his early 20s at the time, and Giulia a mere 14 years old. To her happy surprise, Flavio announced that in fact, he was always there to see her, and that Giulia had stolen his heart. This declaration of love was sealed with Giulia’s first kiss, and that moment marked the start of a love affair which lasted several decades.
Flavio and Giulia married when he was 22 and Giulia was 17 years of age; certainly young by today’s standards, but those were different times. They led a life full of love and had 2 daughters and 4 grandchildren. Unfortunately, Flavio passed away 7 years ago after a short but aggressive illness, likely precipitated by years of working in marble, granite and stone manufacturing. He sadly did not have the opportunity to meet his great-grandson, Anthony Flavio, however, despite the fact that he is gone, Flavio’s presence is felt everywhere in the home; his memory is very much alive.
As Nonna Giulia gave us a tour of her impeccable home, she pointed out all of the items that were directly linked to her husband. Whether it was the decorative marble stands and sculptures that Flavio had carved by hand, or the astonishingly beautiful granite counter tops that he built, Nonna Giulia was proud to show us all of it. She was particularly excited to show us the marble chess table that Flavio had made, and where he had spent hours playing chess with their grand-children.
When it came time to get down to business and make some pasta, Nonna Giulia took us to the garage (of course!), where Flavio had created a kitchen space, complete with oven, sink and a huge wooden plank laid atop a formica kitchen table from the 50’s, perfect for rolling out dough. This space was incredible. Not fancy necessarily, but so perfect that we each returned home to tell our husbands that we too wanted to have kitchens in our garages. We’re still waiting. In the meanwhile, we remember how happy Nonna Giulia was to be in this special place, where she used to spend evenings with Flavio, rolling out cookies and shaping noodles. And then, when we sat down to enjoy the meal that Nonna Giulia had created, sipping a glass of wine that she had made herself, it was at a marble dining table that Flavio had made. We’re quite sure that every meal tastes just a little bit better there.
We thought that making fresh pasta would be difficult, but we learned that it’s actually not. This is not to say that it is easy however. The ingredients and technique are straight forward, but we get the sense (and Nonna told us) that it takes some practice to get the right feel for the dough. We have described, as clearly as possible with words, photos and videos, how to go about kneading and handling your pasta dough. We suppose you can also do this by using a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment, but we think that using your hands is probably best (Nonna told us that too).
The ingredients for the dough are simple, but the tools are a little more involved. To make pasta easily you need to have a large work surface, a handy supply of flour (more on that later), something to scrape up the dough with (more on that later too), and a pasta making machine. The type of machine you will need will depend upon the type of pasta you want to make.
When we walked into Nonna Giulia’s garage kitchen one of the first things we noticed was an old tin container in the corner of her work surface. Nonna Giulia explained that this tin was from the 1950’s; every week a potato chip vendor would travel down the streets in his horse drawn carriage selling these tins full of fresh potato chips. A wonderful bit of history and nostalgia. Nonna Giulia had held onto one of these tins and for years has been using it as a place to store some flour, keeping it readily available and right where she needed it. You probably don’t have a tin like this in your home, but the tip of keeping your flour handy when making pasta is a good one.
Another tool that you will need when working with fresh dough is a scraper; this will help collect any dough which is stuck to the work surface. For this job, Nonna Giulia uses a plaster scraper that Flavio had slightly modified to be perfect for this job. So, if you are in need of a dough scraper, head to the kitchen supply store, or a hardware store. Either will do.
The dough recipe which follows is a basic recipe which can be used to make all sorts of pasta shapes. Nonna Giulia mentioned that there is another pasta dough which uses many more eggs, but she finds this a bit too heavy and prefers this lighter version.
Homemade pasta with meat sauce
- 6 3/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 16 ounces warm water
- On a large, clean work surface mix the flour with the salt using your hands and then make a well in the center of the flour.
- Into the center of the well add the egg and approximately 6 ounces of water. Break the egg yolk with your fingers and then start to incorporate the flour into the water and egg mixture. Watch video here. Continue to do so until all of the water has been incorporated, and then add another 6 ounces of water. Continue to work the flour in this fashion, adding more water as necessary. You may find that you need a few ounces less or more water than what is listed in the recipe, depending upon the brand of flour that you use.
- Once all of the flour has been incorporated, it is time to knead the dough with your hands. Work the dough by shaping it into a ball and then use your fingers to bring the end opposite you towards the middle of your ball. Move the dough around and continue to knead in this fashion for approximately 5 minutes, adding more flour to the work surface if it gets too sticky. Watch video here.
- After about 5 minutes, rub flour into your hands and use that to remove the dough that will be stuck to your fingers. Continue kneading; the dough is almost ready when you don’t have any dough sticking to your hands. The dough will be relatively tough. Watch video here.
- Divide the dough in half; one half will be used to make spaghetti, and the other half to make cavatelli. To make spaghetti:
- To make spaghetti, take about 1/2 cup worth of dough and roll it into a long strip with a rolling pin, getting it to be about 1/2 centimeter thick. Pass these strips through the flat roller of your pasta machine twice, adding more flour to the surface as required to prevent any sticking. Then, decrease the space between the rollers and pass the sheet of pasta dough through it again; you want to end up with a strip of pasta dough which is about 1/4 centemeters thick. Watch video here.
- Coat the sides with more flour and pass this through the slots to make spaghetti. As the spaghetti is made, place it on a flour lined surface and use your fingers to move the spaghetti strands around so that they get coated in flour and don’t stick to one another.
- You can either boil the spaghetti immediately or freeze it to be used in the future.
- To cook spaghetti, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1/2 tablespoon of salt to the water and when it is boiling drop in your spaghetti. Stir with a wooden spoon and reduce heat to medium. Cook pasta for approximately 3 – 5 minutes, until it has reached your desired doneness. If the pasta is frozen you will have to increase the cooking time. Drain and serve immediately topped with sauce. To make cavatelli: By hand:
- Roll out logs of pasta dough about 1/2 inch thick. Cut the strips into 1 inch long pieces and using your index and middle finger press down into the middle of the piece and pull it towards you. You will create a groove in the pasta but it will roll over itself (the groove will not be obvious). Watch video here. If you have a cavatelli machine
- Use a pizza cutter to easily cut strips of dough which are 1 inch wide and about 1 centimeter thick. Feed these strips of dough into the cavatelli maker and when the pasta is formed, toss it in some flour to prevent sticking. You can either cook these immediately, or freeze for later. Watch video here.
- To cook cavatelli, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1/2 tablespoon of salt to the water and when it is boiling drop in your spaghetti. Stir with a wooden spoon and reduce heat to medium. Cook pasta for approximately 8 – 10 minutes, until it has reached your desired doneness. If the pasta is frozen you will have to increase the cooking time. Drain and serve immediately topped with sauce. Ingredients for the sauce
- 1 small onion, grated
- 1 clove garlic, grated
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 7 cups tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 7 large basil leaves
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese, optional Directions
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot and add the grated onion and garlic. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly until soften, approximately 3 – 5 minutes.
- Add the pork to the pot and stir with a wooden spoon, stirring regularly until the meat break apart; meaning, you don’t want large clumps of meat which are stuck together. At this point add the tomato sauce, water, salt and basil leaves to the pot. Stir well and cook over medium heat, covered, for approximately 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Serve on top of pasta, with some grated parmesan cheese if desired. Enjoy.