ricotta

Fresh Pasta, and Why There is No Need for Boxed

I don’t think I would have fulfilled my role as a food blogger studying in Italy if I didn’t post about how to make fresh pastas. Quite honestly, that would be sacrilege! Last week I took a cooking class with the amazing Andrea and Julio, chefs of Florencetown, where myself and 20 other lucky participants got a tour of Il Mercato Centrale through a local’s eyes, and a hands on lesson in fresh pasta, Bolognese sauce, and tiramisu.

Prior to this class I had been to Il Mercato Centrale many times to buy my fresh, local produce, but was always so overwhelmed with the variety of butchers, fishmongers, and cheese counters to know which ones were the most authentic, a rip-off, or a diamond in the rough. Although, exploring it on my own has definitely helped improved my Italian. Thankfully, Julio was kind enough to introduce us to all of his favorite vendors, such as the butcher who sells the best Florentine steak, the bakery with the best olive and truffle oils, and tastiest cantucci, known to others as biscotti, but they are not the same! Throughout the tour Chef Julio was picking up the ingredients for our meal, and once we were ready we headed around the corner to the kitchen to get started.

The one thing I didn’t expect was how easy it is to make pasta from scratch! All you need is 2 simple ingredients!

That’s right, just eggs and flour.

  • 3 cups of “00” flour
  • 3 eggs

Now it’s time to get handsy. Pour your flour onto a cool, smooth surface and make a small well in the center for the egg. Crack the eggs into the well, and working from the center, begin to incorporate the flour with a fork until a thicker consistency begins to form and sticks to the fork. Then get in there with your hands and begin to knead. Be very liberal with the flour here folks and continue to add until dough is smooth and doesn’t stick to your hands.Lastly, wrap it up real tight in plastic wrap and let sit for 15-30 minutes. During this time you can start prepping your sauce or ravioli filling.


IMG_4117

Once the pasta is ready to be cut, roll it out so you can barely see through to the table underneath (about 3 mm thickness). Then fold the dough over itself using at 3-finger width and cut it length wise. The size of your pasta is up to you! Are you in the making a thinner, creamier sauce? Then go for linguine (0.5cm thick) or are you making a hearty Bolognese that needs a pasta strong enough to carry all that meat? If so, pappardelle (2cm thick) is what you’re looking for. You can also cut off the ends and make one wide panel to fill, and make ravioli. During this class our ravioli was a simple Tuscan ricotta and parmesan mixture, but the ingredients you can use are endless. Ravioli are receptive to pretty much anything you can squeeze into them! Just make sure you seal of each ravioli properly, free of air pockets, so they don’t burst. Make them extra secure by pressing down the edges with the prongs of a fork!

The final step, before you get to enjoy the delicious fruits of your labor, is to boil the pasta in salted water for 2 minutes, until al dente. Al dente here in Italy is slightly different from in the states. Italians would consider the way we eat our pasta overcooked. Upon tasting it, the texture should seem slightly more underdone than your used to. But, don’t second guess because it’s actually perfect!

IMG_4119

Ravioli w/ Tuscan ricotta & parmesan in sage butter sauce

IMG_4121

Pappardelle w/ Bolognese sauce

Serve with the sauce of your choice. In class, the chefs prepared a butter and sage sauce to accompany the cheese ravioli, and added the Bolognese sauce to our fresh pappardelle.

I had never imagined making fresh pasta would be this easy, and now I can’t wait to add my own innovative touches! Chef Andrea suggested adding chopped herbs such as sage and rosemary, or even pumpkin puree to the dough to create a more earthy flavor profile. I plan on experimenting with coffee grinds and cocoa powder as well!

It is really as easy as it looks. Also, notice we didn’t use a pasta roller. Everything was done by hand with a little flour, a rolling-pin, and some elbow grease. No, it’s not as quick as 10 minute, boxed pasta, but it isn’t that much longer. Plus, c’mon you gotta know that the texture and flavor is 10 times better, and you get this warm fuzzy feeling from enjoying something you prepared from start to finish!

Eggplant, Fig, & Ricotta Stack

Fig season is in full swing here in Florence, and I must admit I am LOVING it. I had never tried fresh figs until earlier this summer back in the states, and they were okay. However, the figs here in Italy seem to be a whole other fruit! They are sweet, succulent morsels full of a unique pulp and sticky sap. They come in both black and white varieties and are about the size of an oblong golf ball. White figs are on the sweeter and a little tarter side, while black figs have a more subtle and decadent flavor. I am truly infatuated with them both! In fact, earlier today I picked some up at the local market and couldn’t stop myself from snacking on one as I strolled past the other vendors.

But I digress. Since these figs are just such a prime produce item of the moment I wanted to incorporate them into an actual meal, not just an all day snack. So again I dove into the depths of the internet and found a variety of pairings with cheeses such as ricotta and goat. I am in Italy after all, so I went with something that hit close to home, the ricotta. Along with more pondering and considering the other seasonal produce I decided on a take on eggplant lasagna consisting of layers of sautéed eggplant, ricotta, and sliced figs atop a bed of spinach. In my opinion, it looks like the leaning tower of Pisa, but that may be too cheesy of an Italian comparison (oops, there I go again!). My humor is usually much more along the lines of sarcasm than puns, I promise!

IMG_6502

Ingredients

1/2 of a medium-sized eggplant

4-6 fresh figs

Ricotta

Spinach

Rosemary

Salt & pepper

Oil & Balsamic vinegar

Instructions

1. Slice the eggplant into medallions, about 1/2″ thick

2. Roughly chop the rosemary

3. Drizzle eggplant with olive oil and vinegar and season both sides with rosemary, salt, and pepper. Let marinate for about 5 minutes

4. While eggplant is marinating heat sauté or grill pan over medium heat. Place the eggplant in the pan so none of the pieces overlap.

5. Cover and let sit for about 10 minutes, checking on them once or twice, and flipping them after 5 minutes.

6. While eggplant is cooking, quarter fresh figs to be layered between the eggplant. I also like to take the ricotta out of the fridge while the eggplant is cooking so it gets closer to room temp, as to not cool down the dish.

7. The eggplant will be done once it’s tender and the skin is slightly shriveling. Make a nice bed of spinach leaves on a plate or bowl and begin building your tower! I went with a pattern of eggplant, ricotta, fig. And in regards to the amount of ricotta per layer, that really depends on how much you like ricotta 😉 But I spread about a tablespoon of ricotta between each layer and could fit about 4 pieces of fig.

8. Top with a dollop of ricotta and any extra fig and enjoy!

All of these measurements should make enough for 1 dish, but could also be enough for 2 smaller stacks or even multiple mini stacks if you wanted to make this for an appetizer (may be a little messy, but who cares when it tastes this good?!).

I really enjoyed making this dish because it seemed more like an arts and crafts project to me cooking. And I must say folks, this dish is as good as it looks. It’s sweet, savory, and oh so creamy. The perfect transition dish from summer into fall when we all wouldn’t mind something warm and cozy in our stomachs.  Embrace your inner child and really play around with the construction (or deconstruction) of this loose take on no-bake eggplant lasagna.

As always I love to hear feedback, so let me know how this dish worked for you! Did you add some more savory? Bake it like a more traditional lasagna? Make it into a pizza perhaps?! My favorite thing about cooking is seeing all the different interpretations of a dish!