Nonna's kitchen: authentic Italian food
From the creator of the popular YouTube channel Pasta Grannies, Vicky Bennison's new book shares the secrets of Italy's best home cooks - who have spent a lifetime cooking for love, not a living.
Rosetta's Trofie with basil sauce
Basil pesto, or pesto alla Genovese, is the world's second-most popular pasta condimento, or dressing. Pesto has now come to mean any herb-and-nut combination you can think of pairing. Rosetta and her friends add an un-classic fresh cheese called prescinsêua to their pesto. This has a tangy, yoghurt-like flavour with a consistency similar to ricotta. Of course they like the taste, but it's also a way of making expensive ingredients go further.
Because of this, I have called Rosetta's recipe a basil sauce rather than a strict pesto, as it is creamier than usual.
Authentic pesto alla Genovese is usually served with trofie pasta, and it is only fairly recently that manufacturers found a way to extrude this shape through their bronze dies. Prior to this, the local pasta business in the little town of Sori commissioned ladies in the area to make it, and Rosetta is one of them.
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After she married, she wanted to earn some money while bringing up her children, and so learnt how to make it. She says it took several days of practice to get the twirl tight and the pasta all the same size; now it's second nature and her skills are such that she appears on Italian TV and YouTube (Pasta Grannies, thank goodness).
For the pasta
400g '00 flour' or plain (all-purpose) flour
180ml boiling water, or enough liquid to bring the dough together
For the basil sauce 2 tbsp pine nuts, preferably Italian
1 plump garlic clove, one that has not developed its anima or green shoot
75ml extra virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian or other grassy-tasting oil
150g fresh basil leaves
4 tbsp prescinsêua cheese, or live Greek-style yoghurt
80g Grano Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
20g Pecorino Sardo, grated
½ tsp fine salt
To serve 150 g (5oz) green beans, halved (optional)
1. Place the flour in a mixing bowl then gradually add the water. Use a fork to make a dough that feels soft but not sticky. Turn it out onto a floured pasta board and knead it until it is smooth and silky. This will take around 10 minutes.
2. Cover the dough with the bowl so it doesn't dry out and leave it to rest for 30 minutes.
3. Pinch off a pea-sized piece and roll it outwards over the board with the palm of your hand to create a spindle shape. Pull your hand back diagonally across your body, pressing down gently but firmly on the pasta with the edge of your hand. You should create a twisted piece of pasta, which looks like a corkscrew. You can also try it with a bench scraper if you cannot get the hang of it with your hands.
4. Make the basil sauce by blitzing everything together in a blender until smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
5. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the trofie for about 2 minutes. The length of time will depend on how big your trofie are, so test one for doneness. Use a sieve or slotted spoon to scoop out the pasta once it's cooked and place in a large serving bowl. Add the green beans, if using, to the hot water; blanch for 3 minutes and add to the pasta. Stir through the basil sauce. No extra cheese is needed.
Franco and Alllesandra's corzetti with fresh marjoram dressing
Liguria looks like it has been stapled to the mountains with the motorway that loops down its length, a rumpled shoulder seam of Italy.
Its tumbled terrain is inhospitable to mechanised large-scale agriculture, and so market gardeners still flourish. Consequently, Liguria's local food markets have avoided the fate of so many in Italy, with their lacklustre stalls reselling produce from major distributors.
In Chiavari there is an open-air market with banks of newspaper-wrapped posies of Genovese basil and crimped tomatoes smelling like they had been grown in soil and sunshine - for me, it's a dusty, herbal, hazy afternoon version of geranium leaves. We had been given a tour of the town by the totally charming Franco Casoni and his wife, Alessandra.
Franco is an acclaimed wood sculptor specialising in figureheads for boats, with a sideline in making stamps for coin-shaped pasta called corzetti. His tiny workshop is an Aladdin's cave of carvings: nymphs, Neptune faces and mermaids with buoyant breasts waiting for a life at sea.
For the pasta 600g (1lb 7oz/3½ cups) 0 flour or plain (all-purpose) flour (it doesn't need to be the more finely ground 00 flour)
5 egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg, beaten
About 150ml (5½ fl oz/scant ⅔ cup) dry white wine (enough to bring the dough together)
For the dressing 100ml (3½ fl oz/scant ½ cup) Ligurian extra-virgin olive oil or other grassy tasting olive oil
120g (4oz) Italian pine nuts
25g (1oz) fresh marjoram leaves
2 garlic cloves
1. First, make the pasta. Tip the flour onto a pasta board or into a bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the beaten egg yolks plus whole egg. Use a fork to mix the flour into the eggs and then gradually pour in the wine. Bring the dough together. Knead until it is smooth and silky. This will take around 10 minutes. Cover the dough with a tea towel (or put it in a lidded bowl) and leave it to rest for at least 15 minutes.
2. Keeping the board, pin and dough well floured, roll out the dough until it is about the same thickness as a foil-wrapped chocolate coin (3mm). As Alessandra explains, if you roll the dough too thinly the patterns from the two sides of the stamp will cancel each other out.
3. If you have a stamp, use the cup end of the cylinder block to stamp out the circles in the dough with a twisting motion - it's the same as cutting scone or cookie dough. Place the disc on the engraved end of the stamp block and press down with the handle. The result will be a double-sided embossed corzetto. Repeat until you have used all the dough. If you don't have a stamp, use a small glass or cookie cutter.
4. Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil, add a teaspoon of salt, return the water to a boil and shovel in the pasta. Cook for 4 minutes, until the pasta tastes cooked and feels firm and not soggy to bite. Drain.
5. While the pasta is cooking, warm the oil in a small pan and add the pine nuts, marjoram and garlic. Leave them to bathe in gentle bubbles for 4 minutes. Keep a close eye on the pan, as you don't want the pine nuts to burn, but they can turn a little golden. Remove the garlic cloves and pour the dressing over the pasta. Eat immediately.
Leondina's nettle tortelli
Leondina lives in the hills to the south of Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, on the way to Florence, and she says: "The success of tortelli d'ortica depends on the quality of your ingredients. Usually I make my own ricotta; I like sheep's milk ricotta for flavour and cow's milk for texture, so I use a mixture. I always buy Parmigiano Reggiano that has been aged at least for 24 months for this dish." The tortelli can be frozen successfully - cook them straight from the freezer.
Makes about 90 tortelli - for 6-8 people
For the pasta 120g (4 oz) fresh nettles (or spinach)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
400g (14oz/3⅓ cups) 00 flour or plain (all-purpose) flour
Semolina flour, for dusting
For the filling 500g (1lb 2oz) ricotta (sheep's or cow's or a 50/50 mixture), drained weight
150g (5oz) nettles or spinach
125g (4oz) grated Parmigiano Reggiano (preferably aged for 24 months)
Freshly grated nutmeg (to taste)
60g (2oz) butter
18 sage leaves
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1. Make your pasta. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, then blanch the nettles for 30 seconds. Scoop them out and drain them through a sieve, then rinse the leaves under cold water. Squeeze out the water. The resulting weight of the nettles should be 60g (2oz). Put this in a blender with the eggs and oil and blitz together into a gloriously green liquid. It's the colour of spring.
2. Make a mound of flour on your pasta board (or do this in a large bowl). Create a well in the middle and pour in the green liquid. Use your hands to bring everything together, then start kneading. Knead your dough for around 15 minutes, until it is completely smooth. Cover with a tea towel (or put it in a lidded bowl) and let it rest for 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.
3. Sheep's milk ricotta has a tendency towards wateriness, so if you are using it, make sure to drain your ricotta in a sieve first. Blanch the nettles or spinach for the filling as you did for the pasta dough, squeezing the water out as thoroughly as possible. It should weigh about 90g (3oz) after squeezing. Chop it finely, then mix with the ricotta and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Grate in some nutmeg and add a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more of either if you think it needs it.
4. Have a tray dusted with semolina at the ready. Roll the dough out in batches to about 1-2mm thickness. Cut the dough into 6-7cm (2½-2¾in) squares, then put a walnut-sized blob of filling into the middle of each square. These tortelli are a triangle shape, so take one corner of the square and fold it over diagonally. Press the edges to seal it. (Leondina uses the edge of a ravioli stamp.) Place each tortello on the tray and repeat until you have used up all of the filling.
5. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil then gently plop in the tortelli. Cook them for 3-4 minutes, tasting one to check if they're done. Meanwhile, in another pan, melt the butter then add the sage. Use a slotted spoon or sieve to lift the cooked pasta from the water and into the butter. Gently toss the pasta with the butter and sage, adding a few tablespoons of cheese to help emulsify everything.
Serve immediately with more cheese on top, if you like.