I’ve decided that I’m going to master making pasta completely by hand. This thought first came about a few weeks ago when I was trying and (mostly) succeeding in making a Puglian dough out of water and semolina flour, but was cemented when we finally sat down to watch the season two premiere of Master of None. Earlier that evening I had been feeling rather vulnerable and grouchy but thought that a solid workout and some soothing yoga had calmed my nerves. Then Aziz Ansari has to go and make a big, soaring love letter to classic Italian cinema and show this sequence:
Reader, I all but burst into tears, it was so beautiful to watch (OK, it might have been the PMS too). Now keep in mind, this isn’t the first time Ansari has subjected us to pasta-making porn (see: “Mornings” from the first season), but given how much more assured his hands are in pulling together the dough, it was a great way to show some character growth in a subtle way.
The really challenging thing of any pasta dough is incorporating the liquid portion (water/fat/protein) into the well without making a giant fucking mess. Michael by his own admission is not terribly great at this, and I think when I first attempted this recipe a little over a year ago I was blessed with either beginner’s luck or a low-humidity day becaThe use it came together almost effortlessly. This time? Not so much, and I definitely spent a day or two after the fact cleaning blotches of semolina off of the shirt and shorts I was wearing while I tried to mix everything together. (At least it was water and neither egg nor oil.)
Like any pasta recipe that requires you to form shapes rather than run sheets through a roller or a cutter, you have to be willing to be patient and devote an hour or two to going through the whole mass of dough; putting on a movie or similar definitely helps move the time along. The shaping is relatively easy: using a bench scraper and your index, middle, and ring fingers you measure out lengths of dough that’s been rolled into 1/2-inch wide ropes, flatten them, and then use your fingers to create little grooves. You have to press hard and not all of the pieces will fully retain their shape; if you’re trying to impress a nonna this might be problematic, but if you’re only cooking for yourself, don’t worry about it. Letting them sit out while the sauce comes together does help them hold their shape, but I’m convinced that boiling them can take away some of their nuance.
In other words: I’m pretty sure that any Puglian nonna would call them ugly, and therefore I need to work on my technique. I’m OK with this.
The sauce, on the other hand, I’m pretty amazing at because I’m really good at making some garlic, basil, and canned tomatoes come together in a lovely way. Some 20-ish minutes is enough to make this sauce taste really good, but if you want it to taste better a little extra time on the stove isn’t a bad idea. Adding the cheese and the additional fresh basil gives the final dish a nice contrast of saltiness, fattiness, and crispness. Making it is not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and these days it’s pretty easy to find semolina flour online if your local grocery store doesn’t carry it.
Strascinati with tomato and basil sauce (strascinati con pomodoro e basilico)
Adapted from Puglia
For the pasta:
- 24 oz semolina dough (the original recipe calls for just under this, but this is the size of the bag that comes from Bob’s Red Mill so instead of using all but a tiny portion I just went and used the whole thing)
- Kosher salt (just a pinch)
- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
- grated pecorino cheese, for serving
For the sauce:
- Olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1 3/4 lb canned chopped tomatoes (28 oz can works perfectly here)
- Large bunch of basil, stemmed and divided in half
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the pasta, make a mound of the semolina flour on a clean cutting board or work counter. Make a well in the center, add a pinch of salt, and then carefully add the lukewarm water to the well, slowly incorporating the flour and water together. (You can do this in batches to keep the water from going everywhere). Once the water and flour have been incorporated into a smooth and dense dough, knead it for 10 minutes and then let rest for 30 minutes, wrapped in cling.
When you’re ready to make pasta, give yourself some space on the clean work counter and start pinching off pieces of the dough. Roll it into a rope about a half-inch in diameter, and then use a bench scraper to cut out lengths about 1 1/2 inches long–basically the length of your index, middle, and ring fingertips put together. Use those three fingertips to press into the pasta to make an indentation, and then set aside on a floured surface. (I actually use my silpats as resting spots which works quite well.) Repeat through the rest of the dough, and when they are all done let them rest while you work on the sauce.
In a large skillet, heat some olive oil and add the garlic and fry until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and half of the basil leaves and season with salt and pepper, letting them cook for about 10 minutes until the tomatoes have reduced.
While that’s going, bring a large saucepan with water to boil, season with salt, and cook the pasta for about 4-5 minutes until they start to float. Reserve a cup of the cooking water before draining, and then add the pasta to the sauce and stir well to coat each piece. Add the cooking water if needed to loosen the sauce, and then scatter the remaining basil over the pasta and serve immediately with freshly grated pecorino cheese.