Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nanny's Kitchen Table

Food plays a far too important symbolic place in my life. That's the kind of thing that interferes with dieting and really argues against the Weight Watchers' mantra of "nothing tastes as good as being thin feels." Not true. Not at all. Food is about family and friends, good conversation, great times, and comfort.

My mother's mother died when I was 10. Before that, she was the person who watched over us while my parents worked. Some of my earliest memories are of watching her cook for her extended Italo-Americano family in a long kitchen with an old stove and refrigerator. She had six children, a husband, and a mother-in-law who died only a few years before Nanny did. There were always lots of people around, the married children dropping in for the weekend, along with nieces, nephews, cousins, and the inevitable grandchildren. While most of the family would head out to Sunday mass, Nanny would be in the kitchen from dawn, preparing a massive mid-day meal that everyone would eat before heading home--often to New York City or Long Island.

When I think of my maternal grandmother, I always smell flour and eggs. She was constantly making pasta--or "home made macanoni" as the first of my brothers called it--on that Formica-topped kitchen table which could not have been as big as I remember it. Noodles and cavatelli, all made by hand, were a daily occupation. I still sit in wonder at the idea that she cut her long noodles evenly with a knife after rolling them out with a rolling pin. I've got a pasta machine for that, thank you. I've never really been able to master the cavatelli, rolling the little balls of dough and doing the three-finger drag that create the elongated shape that curls into itself of sufficient thinness that it cooks evenly and doesn't taste of raw flour when it is done.

My other grandmother and namesake, Nanny Christine, was Czech and had a whole different culinary heritage. I've heard tales about how she could hand-stretch a strudel dough paper thin on a table. She died when I was seven or eight, so I don't remember her well. I do have her recipe for kolachki, a time-consuming, filled-pastry cookie which I sometimes make at Christmas.

I also own a piece of furniture which came from Nanny Christine's family: the bottom half of a Hoosier kitchen. It has an enamel top which is the best surface for working dough short of a marble counter-top, I suspect. For many years, my cousins used it for storing clothes or toys and then my mother managed to get it from one of her sisters-in-law. I honestly don't remember where she had it in the house, and I'm not entirely sure how I managed to wrangle it away from her around 30 years ago, but I am awfully glad I did. It is my favorite prep space because it is about 6" lower than the kitchen cabinets' surface and I can get much better leverage when kneading bread or rolling pie crust. I sometimes wish I had the upper cabinet for storage, but if it was a choice between them, I'm glad I've got the lower half.

Homemade Pasta

2 Cups Semolina
3 Large Eggs
Pinch of Salt

Mix the semolina and salt in a mound on a clean work surface. Make a well in the middle and break the eggs into it. Using a fork or your fingers, work the semolina into the eggs until there is a mass of dough. Knead the dough until smooth, sprinkling the surface with flour as necessary. (Depending on the size of the eggs or the humidity in the air, the dough might be very stiff until kneaded. It is also possible to make the dough in a food processor.) Let the dough rest, covered with a bowl or plastic wrap to keep it from drying out, for about 20 minutes before proceeding.

To make noodles, break off a piece of dough, knead it a little more, flatten it, and use a rolling pin or pasta machine to roll it out to desired thickness (it will take several, successively narrower, passes through the machine.) Let it rest while repeating with the rest of the dough. Then, use the cutting device on the machine to cut to desired width. Or, roll up the dough unto a cylinder and use a sharp knife to slice the pasta into the desired width. Allow the cut dough to air-dry until ready to cook. Cook in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, which can only be determined by tasting. Serve with your choice of sauce.

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