Orecchiette literally means “small ears” (orecchie means ears in Italian). To make them, small pieces of dough are drawn across the wooden board with a blunt-tipped knife, or are stretched and turned inside out on a fingertip.
The latter method is the one I showed in my previous posts on orecchiette.1 A video of a woman from Bari making strascnat (the name used in that city for orecchiette)2 revealed to me the beauty of the former method. As the woman interviewed in this article3 (in Italian) says: "the women of Bari use the knife, the women 'from the villages' use their thumb."
The dialectal word strascnat is sometimes written strascenate, sometimes strascinate. All these words come from the verb trascinare, which means to drag or draw and refers to the action of drawing the piece of dough across the wooden board to shape it. (Strascinati on this blog are a different kind of pasta, but as I have said a number of times, names of pasta shapes are rooted in local traditions and have local currency and I avoid getting hung up on them: the important thing is the shape.)
Signora Stella's hands work quickly and precisely. I spent a good amount of time working on my technique and, while I am not as fast as signora Stella, I think my strascnat come out pretty nice. I now always use this method to make orecchiette. The short video shows my hands at work. Watch signora Stella2 and watch me: we use different techniques. I don't make any claims about mine, beyond the fact that it works for me.
You need to get a feel for how the blade thins the pasta and when it is time to release the pressure. If you make a mistake and an orecchietta comes out with a hole or otherwise misshapen (there is an instance of that in the video), remember that you can knead the dough and try again.
The current selection of our Cook the Books Club is A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White, a novel about finding our place in the world, about belonging, love and loss, through the intersecting stories of two main characters plus people connected to them. I enjoyed reading the book and found the characters all interesting and well portrayed.
Food plays an important role in the novel, which revolves in part around a restaurant in New York City. Except for the bread mentioned in a few places, none of the dishes described inspired me (challah made with delayed fermentation4 has been part of my repertoire for years). Then I thought: if I were to work in a restaurant kitchen and could decide what to put on the menu, like Bobby does in the novel, what would I do? The answer came easily: handmade pasta—known shapes, like orecchiette, lesser known ones, plus shapes I invented.
The strascnat in the photo above were made with 50% semolina flour milled by Capay Mills6 from Rancho Llano Seco's durum wheat (which I bought at the Temescal farmers' market in Oakland) and 50% store-bought semolina flour.
Ingredients for the pasta dough (I recommend weighing both flour and water because the quantities involved are small):
- 100 g / 3.5 ounces semolina flour of good quality
- A pinch of salt
- 50 g / 1.75 ounces warm water
Note: if using 50 g Capay Mills semolina flour and 50 g "regular" semolina flour, increase the amount of water to 55 g / 2 ounces.
Ingredients for the cheese dressing:
- 1/2 tablespoon / 7 g butter
- 50 g / 1.75 ounces Crescenza cheese cut into small pieces
How to make the dough and shape strascnat
Make a dough with the ingredients and knead until nice and smooth. [This post (with video) talks about how to make semolina pasta dough] Let it rest, well covered (e.g., in a small ziplock bag or wrapped in plastic film), for 30 minutes or so.
Working on the kneading board, roll the dough into a thick salami and cut it into 5-6 pieces. Keep them covered while you shape the strascnat. Roll each piece into a pencil-size snake (3/8 inch / 1 cm thick), then place it so that it is perpendicular to your body. Cut a 3/8 inch / 1 cm long piece and draw it across the board with a blunt-tipped knife with a smooth blade thinning the dough and curling it into a little dome. Repeat.
As you shape the pasta, lay it out to dry on a lightly floured section of the kneading board (or a baking sheet lined with a cotton kitchen towel). Repeat until you have used up the prepared dough.
Cook the strascnat and dress as you like. The following cheese sauce is just a suggestion.
How to cook and dress the strascnat
Bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil, add some coarse salt, stir and then toss the pasta in it. The time needed to cook it is a bit variable, depending on how dry it is, but it is not long.
In the meantime, melt the butter in a skillet on gentle heat, then add the cheese and stir while it softens. You want to time this so that the cheese is just melted by the time the pasta is ready to join it.
Taste and stop the cooking when the pasta is ready. Pour a glass of cold water in the pot, stir and drain leaving a little bit of the cooking water clinging to the strascnat. Drop the pasta into the skillet with the melted cheese. Stir well over medium-low heat for half a minute or so, until the pasta is coated with the cheese. Plate and serve immediately.
The recipe makes two small portions (served as Italian first course), but it can be easily doubled.
A reminder that there is a page on the blog where you can browse the complete collection of handmade pasta shapes, some of them of my own creation.
1 1) orecchiette with tomato sauce; 2) burnt wheat orecchiette; 3) chickpea flour orecchiette
2 Video of signora Stella making strascnat
3 Article on orecchiette baresi
4 My post on challah
5 Capay Mills
6 Recipe from The Four Seasons of Pasta by Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Sara Jenkins, reviewed in this post
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the orecchiette audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]