It is beautiful to start a meal with a little tidbit, something to awaken the palate and prepare the mouth and stomach for what is to come. But if you’re like me, you always want the meal to start in earnest. The bagna caÃ´da was delicious and I don’t think I would turn down a bit of bread with robiola, but I was ready for a first course. And in the little menu in my mind, I knew that there was only one option: pasta.
Italy is a pasta nation. This is no surprise. Also not surprising is that every Italian takes the subject of pasta most seriously. For every house you come upon and for every family you meet, you will find a favourite type of pasta, a secret ingredient for the best pasta dough, a little trick to ensure that your pasta is cooked al dente … everyone’s an expert!
Every region, every city, every mountain town is known for its special pasta dishes. If you had to pick the pasta that Piemonte is best known for, there would be only one choice: tajarin (tah-jah-REEN).
Tajarin are long, flat noodles made of flour, eggs and water. The best pasta makers in Piemonte will often make their tajarin with egg yolks only, and sometimes even add a bit of parmigiano to the dough. While tajarin is the Piemontese word for these noodles, they are also often referred to as tagliatelle.
The Piemontesi have many opinions as to the appearance of tajarin, but they do agree on one vital detail: tajarin must be cut by hand! How wide you cut them is up to each individual family. Some Piemontesi like their tajarin finely cut, but most will cut them between a quarter of an inch and half an inch wide. The tajarin are usually served in one of two ways: with a butter sauce flavoured with truffles or herbs or with a sauce made of roasted or stewed meat or game.
But if I wanted to eat tajarin, I would have to make them myself. Now some of you may already know that I have never made fresh pasta dough. This is due mainly to the fact that I have a mother who, at the risk of sounding arrogant and vain, makes the best fresh pasta I have ever tasted. I simply have never had the need to make it.
This time around, however, I was going to have to make the pasta dough on my own. While my mother would be there to guide me, I realized it was time to take that first baby step towards learning how to make fresh pasta.
For the dough, I used the recipe that the women in my family have been using for years. With my mother’s guidance, I piled the flour onto the counter, made the requisite valley and dropped in my eggs, one at a time. With much trepidation I began incorporating the eggs into the dough.
This was followed by kneading. Now being a modern girl, I have come to rely on kitchen equipment doing all the hard work. Sure I’ll knead my pie dough and pizza dough a few times. But kneading something a few times and kneading something for ten minutes are two very different things. While I managed to do it, I discovered that my upper body strength is virtually non-existent! (Note to self: hit the gym!)
So after the spilling of much flour on the floor, I ended up with a ball of pasta dough that, as my mother said, looked pretty good. Now it was time to roll it out. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as complicated as I thought. While the pasta became more delicate the thinner it got, it was quite easy to work with. And before I knew it, I had sheets of smooth, silky pasta dough waiting to be cut into tajarin.
For instructions on how to cut the tajarin, I turned to a book that I have owned for awhile, but have not used nearly enough: The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. In her precise way, Hazan described how to cut the sheets of thinned pasta properly. They were to be folded lengthwise so that they were three inches wide at the base. Then, with a sharp knife, they were to be cut into strips that were a quarter of an inch wide.
Because I was overly-cautious at the beginning, some of my cuts were not smooth. This resulted in some of the tajarin looking a bit ragged. But as I became more confident, the tajarin began to look smoother. Towards the end of the cutting I became a bit impatient so the tajarin were a bit wider than a quarter of an inch. But hey … who’s measuring? Incredibly, I ended up with a tray full of beautiful tajarin. I had made pasta on my own for the first time!
While I considered more complicated sauces for this pasta, I decided on a version from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Tajarin al Burro Aromatizzato (Tajarin with Rosemary-Infused Butter). Patricia explained that she had eaten this pasta at a little trattoria near Torino.
So here you go my friends! As Day 7 of the 2006 Winter Olympics fades away, we find ourselves enjoying tajarin at a little trattoria outside of Torino.
Who knows where our Olympic travels will take us tomorrow?
Tajarin al Burro Aromatizzato
For the tajarin:
- 2 cups of all-purpose flour (use unbleached if you can find it), plus more for rolling out the pasta
- 4 large eggs
- Place the flour on a work surface. Pile the flour into a hill, and then make a valley in the centre, wide enough to hold the 4 eggs.
- Carefully put the eggs into the valley you’ve created in the flour.
- With a fork, begin beating the eggs (gently) and slowly incorporating the flour.
- Once you have incorporated as much flour as you can with the fork, begin working the flour/egg mixture with your hands.
- If the mixture feels too wet, add a bit more flour keeping in mind that it’s easier to add flour than it is to deal with dough that has too much flour in it.
- Once the mixture comes together in a ball, and no longer sticks to the counter, you are ready to begin kneading.
- Flour your work surface and begin kneading by pushing forward on the dough with the heel of your hand. Fold the dough in half and then repeat the pushing forward motion. Fold the dough in half again. Keep repeating this step. Every time you fold the dough in half, turn your dough slightly either to the right or left. Keep pushing forward, folding and turning.
- Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes, or until it has become smooth and soft. If at any time your dough becomes sticky, sprinkle some more flour on your work surface.
- Once you have completed kneading your dough, you are ready to put it through the pasta machine.
- Cut the ball of dough into small portions, 6 or 8 equal parts.
- Spread towels on a nearby surface so that you can lay the pasta sheets down as you complete them.
- Beginning on the lowest setting for the thinning rollers, flatten out your portion of dough slightly, brush on some flour, and put it through the thinners. Fold the dough in half and put it through the thinner again. Repeat this step two or three times until you have a fairly smooth, flattened piece of dough.
- Move the setting for the thinning rollers up a notch. Pass the dough through the thinners. Fold the dough and pass it through again. Repeat this step two or three times.
- Repeating the basic rolling steps, continue to thin the pasta by working your way up to the thinnest setting. Once this is done, lay the pasta sheet on the cloth. If your pasta sheet gets too long, cut it in half.
- Once you have prepared all the pasta sheets, let the pasta dry for about 10 minutes.
- Once the pasta has dried for about 10 minutes, fold each pasta sheet lengthwise so that it is three inches wide at the base. With a sharp knife, cut the pasta sheets into 1/4-inch strips. Unfold the strips and lay the pasta on a sheet or tray.
- If you’re not going to use the tajarin right away, cover with a cloth and set aside.
For the Burro Aromatizzato:
- 6 tablespoons (2-1/2 ounces or 75 g) unsalted butter
- 3 to 4 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves (you can also use sage)
- 1 pound (500 g) fresh tajarin (you can also use fettuccine)
- freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- In a skillet, melt the butter with the rosemary.
- Once the butter is melted, turn the heat off, cover and let infuse.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and stir.
- Add the tajarin and cook until tender. The pasta will cook very quickly, it should take no more than 5 minutes. But keep an eye on the pasta to ensure that it does no overcook.
- Once the tajarin are cooked, drain them and add them to the butter/rosemary sauce. Turn the heat back on and slowly combine the tajarin and the sauce. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste, and continue combining until the tajarin are coated in butter and cheese.
- Serve immediately with additional Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Note: This recipe serves 4 to 6.