Pasta Parcels

The first pasta I ever made was a very soupy looking lasagne when I was a teenager & it didn’t improve much until my twenties – it tasted very nice, but you needed a spoon to eat it (although my boyfriend at the time was far too polite to mention this).  My pasta skills have progressed a bit since then & I am happy to say, you don’t need a spoon to eat my lasagne anymore (although I do recommend wearing an elasticated waistband).

Some people may think of pasta making as a bit fiddly or time consuming (it’s like the bread making scenario all over again).  I appreciate this, because I too had a few issues in the beginning (actually, I still do on occasion) & that’s OK, because your kitchen isn’t a Michelin starred restaurant – you’re making it for family & friends, not paying customers!  It just takes a little practice, that’s all.  The best thing is pasta takes very little time to make from scratch, plus it’s fun to make when the weather is a bit pants & the kids are “bored” – get them making pasta!

What you need:

The recipe I use is 100g of strong ’00’ flour (or strong bread flour) & one large egg, per person (so if you’re cooking for three people, that’s three eggs & 300g of flour).  However, I like to mix half flour with half fine semolina, which gives it that gorgeous golden, sunshine yellow colour (& everyone likes a little sunshine).

Also, I recommend buying good quality free-range eggs – trust me, it makes all the difference.  Here’s a little test to see if your eggs are really fresh.  Half fill a jug with cold water & gently plop the eggs into the jug, one at a time.  If they sink, they’re fine & fresh; if they float, it means they are not that fresh & probably shouldn’t be used.

What to do:

Measure your flour into a bowl & tip onto a clean work surface.  Make a well in the middle, crack your eggs in carefully & combine them a little before using clean, cool fingertips to bring the flour in from the sides & gently combine into a lovely golden dough (it’s messy, but that’s half the fun).

Knead for about five minutes until flexible, then wrap in cling film & leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.  After that, you can roll it out, stuff it with some fabulous fillings, or cut into ribbons (such as tagliatelle) & even hang some up to dry for another day (if you don’t have a rack, use a clean clothes horse).  It’s that simple!

To make ravioli, roll the dough out until it’s almost thin enough to see through.  Lay it down on a flour dusted surface (sprinkle some semolina too – this will stop it sticking).  Then simply add small splodges of your filling (about a teaspoonful), roughly an inch apart, down one side of the pasta sheet – sometimes I use a piping bag to do this (less mess & a bit quicker).  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water, run it along the edge & between the fillings, before folding the other side of the pasta over the top.  Press the edges down firmly, using a cupping action with the side of your hand to separate the fillings into individual bumps & remove any air.  Cut them into little parcels using a ravioli or pizza cutter & set aside on a plate or board, again dusted with flour or semolina (or both).

Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, chuck in a couple of generous pinches of sea salt, then gently add your pasta to the water.  It should cook in about 2-3 minutes, so pick one out & have a taste to check – obviously, if you’re cooking ravioli or similar stuffed pasta, use your judgement on this & make sure the filling is piping hot.  Then drain (saving a cup of the water) & serve as you like it- spoon on some sauce, or just add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & a sprinkle of black pepper.   If your sauce is a bit too thick, add some of the cooking water to loosen it up a bit & make it silky smooth (you really don’t need much).  All you need to do then is eat it!

One of the best tips I can give is to treat yourself to a robust pasta machine – forget brand names here, go for the one that you feel most comfortable with.  When I first began making pasta, I would roll out the dough by hand with a rolling pin (several times until it was thin enough & my arms ached), so my pasta machine is one of the best purchases I’ve made.  With the turn of a handle you can have perfectly precise spaghetti (they are also really good for rolling out fondant icing – bonus!).

So next time it’s a bit dull outside, create some indoor sunshine & make your own pasta parcels!  A x

 

La vita non e’fatta di solo pane (you cannot live on bread alone), but you can bake it!

During my extreme shopping trip today (which is where I hit three supermarkets before 10.00am like some sort of ninja with a trolley), a couple of people asked me about baking bread & how come it’s so hard/messy/time-consuming (you get the picture).   My reply:  it’s not (well, it’s not the way I do it).

Firstly, I don’t possess a bread making machine (save your money – buy a pasta machine instead).  I make all my bread by hand – I’m not built like a brick shed with muscles & you don’t need to be either.   Baking bread is like creating some sort of magic in the kitchen!  There really is nothing quite like that heady, warm scent of a freshly baked loaf – especially if you’ve made it yourself.  Both my husband & son bake bread – I taught my son this recipe when he was at junior school (which he proudly told his teacher was better than her packet bread mix & refused to make it – she wasn’t impressed!).

Now I’m not disputing that there are some beautiful artisan breads out there which take time, effort & years of experience, but if you just want some good, basic bread to feed your family, then this is for you.   It’s cheap, really easy & you get a free mini workout with every batch (“Yay – free stuff!” I hear you say).   So, let the floury fun commence!

What you need:

12g fresh yeast (or the equivalent of dried)
500g strong bread flour (I have tried them all & my favourite is Allinson’s), plus a bit extra for dusting your worktop
330ml (approx just over half a pint) lukewarm water (stick your finger in it & it should be the same temperature)
Half a teaspoon of ground sea salt
A little olive/sunflower oil or melted butter – to brush around the inside of your loaf tins
2 loaf tins (standard size) – you can do it free-form too, just dust a baking tray with a little flour
Cling film

Optional ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive/sunflower oil – this is down to individual taste
Seeds/herbs/dried fruit – you can put whatever you like in (my favourite is to mix a teaspoonful of poppy, linseed, sesame & pumpkin seeds together).

How to do it:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, which should go a light muddy colour (give it a good stir with a fork).

Put the flour & sea salt in a large mixing bowl, slowly pour in the yeast water (add the oil at this stage, if using) & stir into the flour until it forms a dough ball & the bowl is clean.  Sprinkle a little flour in the bottom of the bowl & set aside for later.

Dust some flour on a clean worktop, place the dough on it & start kneading – here’s your free mini workout!  Kneading is simply stretching the dough, making the gluten in the flour flexible & will make your bread rise well.  Give it ten minutes, firmly pushing the dough away from you with the heel of your hand, then pulling it back on itself. Once kneaded, it should feel more elastic, so just put it in the floured bowl, brush a bit of oil on some clingfilm & put this on top of the bowl (oiled side down), making sure there are no gaps.  Put it on a tray in the airing cupboard or a warm place, where there are no draughts & leave it for about half an hour.  This is called proving the dough.

Heat your oven to 220*C.  Brush the inside of your tins with a little oil & place on a baking tray.

Take the now risen dough from the airing cupboard (put the oiled cling film to one side) & put onto a floured worktop.  To knock out any large air bubbles, I like to throw it on the worktop a couple of times, knead it for a few seconds, then split it into two equal balls.  If you’re putting seeds/fruit/etc in, gently stretch it with your hands into a rectangle, sprinkle some seeds on a third, fold it over, sprinkle some more, fold it again, then sprinkle the rest.  Fold it gently again to distribute the seeds/fruit in the dough, shape it to fit your loaf tin & pop it in.  Repeat with the other dough ball.  Cover with the oiled clingfilm & leave for a further half hour to prove again.

Now you’re ready to bake!  Remove the clingfilm from the tins – the dough will have risen again & is ready to go into the oven.  Put the tray in the middle of the oven & bake for about half an hour.

Once done, it will be golden & risen above the tins, so just tip out onto a wire rack to cool.  To test if it’s cooked, give your loaf a tap on the bottom – it will sound hollow if it’s ready. Resist the urge to eat it before it’s cooled a bit! Once cooled, slice it, spread it, dunk it & dip it! Whatever you do, share & enjoy it.  As the old Italian saying goes “La vita non e’fatta di solo pane” (“You cannot live on bread alone”) – but you can bake it!   A x