In January, once the kids head back to school (one to Vermont, the other to Michigan) things slow down just a bit in my kitchen. On cold, overcast mornings, I watch from the window as the cardinals and finches vie for space on the backyard feeder. I flip through cookbooks new and old, tagging recipes I want to make. I focus on the kind of quiet, relaxed cooking I don’t always have time to do.
Last week I made a batch of quadrucci, little pasta squares for simmering in broth. The only way to make them is to cut them by hand, an “unplugged” task I enjoy. I also like the way they look, dusted with semolina and piled onto a tray ~ like confetti. And the fact that they dry easily and perfectly and can be stored in the pantry for weeks.
Whenever I make quadrucci I think of Antonietta, my mother’s family’s housekeeper, who made them often when I was growing up. Antonietta was from Palena, a hill town on the south side of the Majella mountain range. But she lived with Mom’s family, first in Chieti, then in Rome, for many decades, from the time she was a teenager until her death in her 80s. She had no teeth and spoke a heavy Abruzzese dialect, so between those two things I could not for the life of me understand her when I was little. When she spoke to me, it always sounded like she was confiding a secret or imparting some country life wisdom, so I would simply nod my head and pretend I got it.
Antonietta was small, under 5 feet, but she was sturdy. She wore her hair (grey by the time I knew her) pulled back tightly into a braided bun and had big round eyes that reminded me of those Big Eyes paintings from the 1960s. On both her feet, the second toe was crossed over the big toe, which fascinated me, and she shuffled around in plastic ciabatte. Her hands fascinated me, too, especially, her squat, wide thumbs, which she employed in the kneading and pinching of dough. I remember watching her in my aunts’ small kitchen in Rome, stretching the sfoglia by hand with a rolling pin, loosely rolling it up and cutting it, first into noodles, then into tiny squares for soup, then finally swiping away excess flour with her palms and broad thumbs.
My sister and I teased Antonietta when we were young, usually by sneaking up behind her and trying to lift up her house dress. She would (rightfully) react by unleashing a torrent of words in dialect and pushing us away with those thumbs ~ which, of course, was what we were after.
In her last years Antonietta had dementia. She would shuffle from the kitchen of the apartment in Rome to the front hall and converse with a small carved wooden statue of a vecchio (old man) with a cane that stood in a corner, using that same confiding tone. At the beach house in Silvi Marina she would sometimes wander off, so I took it upon myself to escort her to the beach in the morning. I would set up her umbrella away from the rows of umbrellas near the water and close to the cabana, and the bagnino (lifeguard) and I would keep an eye on her as she napped or watched the shoreline. Then I’d walk her back to the house at lunchtime. My mom and aunts thought I was doing them a favor, but in truth I enjoyed spending time with her.
Antonietta has been gone many years, and yet here she is on a January afternoon, keeping my company in my kitchen while I make quadrucci.
* * * * * *
NOTE: The recipe below does not have super detailed instructions for how to stretch the pasta dough. That is all covered in depth in my pasta book, and also in numerous articles I’ve written on the subject, such as this one. Things to keep in mind when cutting quadrucci:
* Once you’ve rolled out the four pasta sheets, let them dry just a little before rolling them up and cutting them into strips and then squares. This will prevent the pasta from sticking as you cut it.
* Sprinkle a generous amount of semolina on each pasta sheet before you roll it up and cut it. Don’t be stingy ~ once the pasta squares have dried you will be able to shake off all the excess semolina.
* Use a well-sharpened chef’s knife or Santoku knife to cut the rolled-up pasta sheets to give your quadrucci clean edges (see above pics for reference).
* * * * * *
DOMENICA COOKS IN ITALY 2018
- May 21-28: Join me for my inaugural Italian Riviera Culinary Tour, in collaboration with Beautiful Liguria. We still have a few spots left for what promises to be a unique week. We will explore the undiscovered culinary and cultural treasures of this region.
- September 12-17: Come learn how to preserve the Italian way! I’m excited to be teaching my first Preserving Italy Workshop, in collaboration with Annette Joseph Style, at La Fortezza, Annette’s beautiful, restored fortress in the hills of northern Tuscany. This workshop is limited to 6 people.
- September 23-30: Our fourth annual Abruzzo Presto-Domenica Cooks Culinary Tour! Spend a magical week with Nancy, Michael, and me as we explore food, wine and cooking and cultural tradtions from the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic coast.
In order to make this comforting soup properly you need two things: homemade pasta and homemade broth. Both take time but aren't difficult to make. And they can be made well ahead of time. I usually make a large pot of meat broth in winter and then freeze it in quart-size containers. As for the pasta, the little squares dry beautifully and can be kept for weeks in an air-tight container in the pantry. If you don't have homemade broth on hand, use a good-quality commercial broth that isn't laden with sodium.
- All-Purpose Egg Pasta Dough
- Semolina flour for the work surface
- Brodo di Carne (meat broth), your favorite homemade broth, or best-quality commercial broth
- Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving
Follow the instructions for making homemade egg pasta dough. While the dough rests, set up a pasta machine (I use my Atlas hand-crank machine) and dust the area around it with semolina flour. Once the ball of dough has rested, cut it into quarters and rewrap three pieces in plastic.
Stretch the first piece of dough by running it through the pasta machine, starting with the widest setting and continuing on narrower settings until the strip of dough is about 1/16 inch thick (#5 setting on my machine). Lay the strip out on a semolina-dusted surface and sprinkle a generous handful of semolina over it. Don't be stingy ~ the semolina will keep the dough from sticking when you slice it. Stretch the remaining pieces of dough in the same way and coat them with semolina as well.
Starting at one end, loosely roll up the first strip of pasta, jelly roll-style. Cut the rolled up strip crosswise into 3/8-inch-wide ribbons. Then cut the ribbons crosswise into quadrucci (small squares). Transfer the squares to a semolina-coated rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle more semolina over them. Cut the remaining three strips of dough into small squares and transfer them to the baking sheet. (The pasta does not have to be in one layer, but if the baking sheet gets too crowded, use a second to allow for proper drying.) Sprinkle more semolina over them and toss them gently to coat them well. Let the quadrucci dry completely ~ I usually put mine in an out-of-the-way place like the dining room table and leave them there for a couple of days, tossing them now and again.
Once the quadrucci are dry, transfer them to a sieve and shake out the semolina. Store the quadrucci in an airtight plastic container in the pantry.
To make quadrucci in brodo, simply cook the pasta squares in boiling broth ~ preferably homemade. For every serving, I use 2 cups of broth and 1/3 to 1/2 cup of quadrucci. Cook the pasta until it is just tender, then ladle into bowls and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano cheese.