True Confessions: How I flunked making pasta in Italy.
I love cooking. I'm really good at it. You want Beef Wellington? I can roll with that. You want chocolate soufflé? It's piece of cake. You want pâte feuilletée? Josephine would have flipped over it. But, I met my culinary Waterloo in Italy!
Chianti. A villa called, “Podere Il Bagno” in Cincino, near Florence.
It was my first day of a week-long cooking class with the famous chef, author and teacher, Giuliano Bugialli. We were going to learn how to make pasta, which would then be included in other dishes throughout the week. Each of my fellow erstwhile chefs was to learn all the ins and outs of the ultimate pasta from Il Maestro.
Stepping up to the raised preparation counter, Giuliano began to demonstrate the finer points of making pasta while I sat thinking, " I can't believe I'm really here!"
Giuliano Bugialli comes from an old Florentine family. He is steeped in the classic tradition of Italian cooking and has written numerous cookbooks on the subject.
Look at how long he can roll his pasta. Thin, translucent and still holds together. He could roll it out the door!
Glancing at our upturned faces, he asked for a volunteer to join him in the process. Clueless as to what I was getting myself into, I raised my hand. Mistake. Note my ‘deer in the headlights’ look.
Despite all of his efforts, I just didn’t have the touch. My pasta was pathetic: it was too dry, too moist, too thick, too thin, disintegrated or stuck together. Basic pasta making and I failed. Big time. Everyone of my classmates commiserated with me. One even gave me a glass of wine. I could have had two.
My pasta might have sucked, but the class thought Giuliano and I should have a television cooking show together. I was his perfect foil, my Gracie to his George Burns. But, still it was, “No! You do not pass. Try again. Fail! Let me show you. Fail! OK, let’s move on. Let’s see if others can do it.”
Our goal was to make Lasagne All'Anitra All'Aretina (lasagne with duck in the style of Arezz0). I mean, who knew that there was a style of lasagne? And Bugialli was a perfectionist. There was no throw this in and throw that in.This had to be authentic and that meant it had to have twelve (!) layers of thin, tender pasta.
I love this quote from Bugialli’s book, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, “Only an authentic version of Peking duck matches the haughtiness with which the duck meat itself is treated after it is used to make the lasagna.”
Simply translated, he means that it’s complicated and delicious.
Staring at us over the top of his glasses, Il Maestro now instructs us to make our very best pasta for the duck lasagne and he will judge each small piece of this Arezzian puzzle. Only the finest, sheerest and most delicate pasta will be included. Standing imperiously in front of the pasta board, he asks us to line up with our individual offerings of pasta sheets. If they pass, they go on to a damp towel to be used later. If they fail, they will be flung with disdain into a waiting trash bin. Guess who’s pasta got flung with disdain? You’re right. Mine. But, I had a chance to redeem myself. Parsley.
For this unique pasta, we needed parsley. But, you can’t just whack off a handful of parsley and chop it up stems and all. No, you must pull off each single leaf and then finely chop the delicate leaves.
My personal scorecard for the day: Pasta: 0, Parsley: 100. And I had almost redeemed myself with Il Maestro. We went on to make the béchamel and cook the duck to his exacting standards. But, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was my parsley that made our Lasagne All'Anitr All'Aretina sing!
Che posto meraviglioso per imparare a cucinare!
For information regarding this superb cooking school: Giuliano Bugialli's Cooking in Florence
Lasagne with Duck in the Style of Arezzo
For the sauce:
1 fat domestic duck ( about 5 pounds) liver reserved Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 Tablespoon ( 1/2 ounce) unsalted butter 1/4 cup virgin olive oil 1 large red onion cleaned 2 large carrots scraped 1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic peeled 10 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only 4 medium celery ribs 1/4 boiled ham in one piece 2 ounces prosciutto or pancetta in one piece Salt, and freshly ground pepper, and freshly ground nutmeg 4 large, ripe, fresh tomatoes ( about 1 pound), or 1 pound canned tomatoes, preferably imported Italian, drained 1 to 2 cups meat or chicken broth, preferable homemade
For the pasta:
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 4 extra-large eggs 4 teaspoons olive or vegetable oil pinch of salt
The ingredients are simple:
1 cup all-purpose flour 1 extra-large egg A teaspoon of olive oil Pinch of salt. Plus: Coarse grained salt 2 tablespoons of olive oil or vegetable oil
For the Balsamella:
6 tablespoons (3 ounces ) unsalted butter 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour 2 cups milk For the filling and topping: 8 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano 1/3 cup unflavored bread crumbs, preferable homemade, from Tuscan bread
Make the sauce first:
Clean the duck very well, setting the lives aside, then sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper. Put the tablespoon of butter inside the duck,, then place it in a large oval casserole, along with the olive oil. Put the casserole over medium hear and sauté the duck until it is lightly golden on all sides ( about 30-35 minutes). Meanwhile, chop the onion, carrots, garlic, parsley, celery, boiled ham, and prosciutto together, all very fine.
When duck is browned, add the chopped ingredients to the casserole and sauté gently for 25-30 minutes more, turning the duck over two or three times. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste and mix thoroughly.
Pass the fresh or canned tomatoes through a food mill, using the disc with the smallest holes, into a bowl and add them to the casserole. Simmer slowly, covered, for 1 hour, adding broth if the sauce becomes too thick, then remove the duck from the sauce. ( The cooked duck may be eaten separately, hut it is no longer necessary for this dish.) Chop the reserved duck liver very fine and add it to the sauce. =Taste for salt and pepper and let simmer for 5 or 6 minutes more.
Transfer the sauce to a bowl and allow it to cool for at least an hour. Remove half of the grease from the top.
Make fresh pasta using the ingredients fin the proportions listed above and stretch the layer of pasta for lasagna.
Make the balsamella, using the ingredients in the quantities listed, then transfer to a crockery or glass bowl, press a piece of buttered wax paper over the surface and let cool for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Butter a 13 1/2 x 8 3/4 glass baking dish generously, since in this type of lasagne no sauce is placed on the bottom, then fit in enough pre-cooked pasta squares to cover the bottom and allow about 1/2 inch to hang out over the edges all the way around. Cover the layer of pasta generously with the duck sauce, then sprinkle abundant grated Parmigiano over the sauce.
Make another layer of pasta (with no overlap) and repeat the procedure with sauce and Parmigiano. Keep making layers( this amount of pasta should make 6 or 7), putting sauce and Parmigiano over each layer except for the last. Cover the last layer with the balsamella and cover the baslamella with bread crumbs. Fold the pasta edges over the ends of the bread crumb layer.
Bake in a preheated over for 20-25 minutes, then allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Note this dish may be prepared a day in advance. If so, after the dish is assembled but not bake, wrap it in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. When needed, unwrap and place in a preheated 400 degree oven for 35-40 minutes.
A side note. Arezzo is the Tuscan town which is home to the frescoes of the great Piero Della Francesco.