Surely we live in The Golden Age of pasta making instruction. In March of this year, Ten Speed Press published Marc Vetri’s Mastering Pasta. Right on its heels, Chronicle Books put out Jenn Louis’s Pasta By Hand. Last year, Ten Speed published Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water Pasta (here), and in 2013, Norton released Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant’s Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way (here). Of these works, Mastering Pasta and Flour + Water Pasta share the most similarities; both books offer an excellent pasta making primer followed by mostly modern (as opposed to traditional) pasta and sauce parings. Sauces & Shapes covers a broad range of authentic Italian recipes for pasta, both fresh and dry, in soups and sauces.
Jenn Louis’s outstanding Pasta By Hand takes a unique and different path from these other books. Louis exclusively focuses on fresh, handmade pasta dumplings. She defines Italian dumplings as “carefully handcrafted nubs of dough that are poached, simmered, baked, or sautéed.” As one might expect, her book covers gnocchi, perhaps the most obvious of Italian dumplings, but as Louis points out, “while all gnocchi are dumplings, not all dumplings are gnocchi.” So scan Pasta By Hand’s Contents and you’ll find recipes for Sardinian malloreddus, Puglian orecchiette, Molisan cavatelli and Ligurian trofie.
But the majority of recipes in Pasta by Hand celebrate what most pasta eaters think of as gnocchi: bite-sized dumplings made by combining flour and a mixture of potato or a vegetable and cheese. Look up gnocco—the singular of gnocchi—in Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta and you’ll learn: “The word gnocco is not of Latin origin, but one of the many words that culinary Italian has taken from the immense pool of dialect terms, in this case probably from the Veneto, where we find the dialect word gnoco. The latter may go back to the time of the Longobard domination and the term knohha, which is nocca or nodo in Italian, or “knot.” Thus, the old name probably referred to the irregular shape of tree knots.” Fascinating!
Pasta By Hand dives deep into gnocchi. Louis explores these dumplings by region. From Campania we get a traditional potato gnocchi bathed in a simple tomato sauce with fresh mozzarella and torn basil leaves. From Emilia-Romagna comes a recipe for potato gnocchi enriched with egg and ricotta paired with a range of traditional sauces, such as Brown Butter and Sage or Lamb Ragù. And from Trentino-Alto Adige, Louis shares a recipe for Strangolapreti that is a close cousin of Michelina Satori’s recipe for Strangolapreti alla Trentina that I shared with you last year (here).
With so many dishes to tempt me, I had a hard time deciding what to cook first. In honor of the Satori Family, I went with a traditional spätzli from Trentino-Alto Adige. I own a nifty German spaetzle plane or spätzlehobel from Küchenprofi—this is the spaetzle maker to buy here in the states—so whipping up these little dumplings took no time at all. Louis’s recipe serves 6.
350 G / 2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 Tsp kosher salt
300 G / 1¼ cups whole milk, plus more as needed
extra-virgin olive oil for tossing
sauce of your choice (suggestions to follow)
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, salt, eggs, and milk. Mix with a wooden spoon or on medium speed until just combined, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir more vigorously or raise the speed up a notch or two and beat until the batter becomes slightly shiny and elastic, 3 to 5 minutes. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, check the texture of the batter—it should be thin and elastic, with more stretch than a typical batter. If it is too thick, add more milk, 1 Tbsp at a time, to achieve this texture.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Bring a large pot filled with generously salted water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Working in batches, press the dough through a spätzli maker or colander into the simmering water. Simmer the spätzli until they float to the surface, about 1 minute. Stir to release any spätzli that have settled on the bottom of the pot. Simmer for 1 minute more, until tender. Remove immediately with a fine-mesh strainer and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Toss the cooked spätzli with a little olive oil, so they don’t stick together. Allow to cool to room temperature. Finish with your choice of sauce. Serve right away.
Louis recommends either a Sage and Speck or Brown Butter with Sage sauce to pair with her traditional spätzli. But it’s hard to go too terribly wrong if you want a sauce that heads in a different direction. I topped my spätzli with Benton’s bacon sautéed with shimeji mushroons and peas. You probably wouldn’t find this combination in Trentino-Alto Adige, but I found these ingredients in my refrigerator and the finished dish tasted delicious.
Louis’s recipe scales down nicely if you halve the recipe. You can add chopped thyme, parsley or oregano to make an herb-version of the dish. Louis also provides a recipe for Spinach Spätzli and Beet Spätzli. I did have to thin out the batter with milk, but I used medium eggs for my batter. If you want to see what the batter should look like, check out Jenn Louis’s “spaetzle prep 101” on Vine, a video posting site. Her Portland restaurant, Lincoln, has posted a number of short looping video clips that help clarify some of the shapes and techniques featured in Pasta By Hand. The loop for menietti is particularly helpful given the rarity of this shape. Actually, Chronicle Books and Louis should film a loop for each pasta shape in the book and post the videos on-line. Why not?