When we were In Italy all last summer, our friend Maurizio showed us a Super 8 film of his mother cooking homemade pasta. In it, Senora C. stands before the camera looking very serious. Then the frame cuts to her pouring a neat pile of semolina onto a counter and carefully mounding it. She makes a well in the middle of the mound, cracks two eggs into it, and beats them with the efficiency of a trained chef. Little by little the mound of flour mixes with the eggs. Then she adds some olive oil and a sprinkling of water. After a little kneading, the result is a beautiful yellow dough, which she covers with a towel to allow it to rest.
On our visit, we had meant to stay only for coffee, but Maurizio's mother ended up making us a spectacular lunch of pasta alla chitarra and roasted chicken. Then his father was driving back to Pescara from L'Aquila and it would be such a shame for us not to see him, so they invited us for dinner.
It was after a dinner of salad, black olives, Abruzzese sheep's milk cheese, and salami that we saw the film:
After the pasta rests, Senora C. rolls it in long sheets. Her hand cranks the dough through the machine quickly, and she sprinkles it with flour if it gets too tacky. Turn, turn, turn, and the dough is one long sheet. Eight times through, and she switches to the cutting die. One last turn, and perfectly cut strands of fresh pasta emerge from a sheet of dough.
When we got back home, I dusted off the pasta roller that my husband, James, had bought me years before. The only time I had tried to use it, the clamps that fasten it to the table kept slipping and the pasta tasted like heavy glue.
This time I was determined. My 6-year-old daughter, Vesperine, helped me make the dough – and she ran it through the roller as though she had been born to make pasta.
For about two weeks, we ate fresh whole-grain pasta almost daily. I realized that it takes only five minutes to make the dough itself if I use a Cuisinart. That's not as romantic as Senora C's method, but more practical.
The problem was Athena. Four years old, Athena refused to try the fresh pasta.
"Let me smell it," she said. I held some under her nose. She gingerly put her tongue out to taste it and then pulled her tongue back into her mouth as quickly as if she were a snake.
"I don't like it." Athena made a sour face. "Yuck."
Undeterred, we then tried making ravioli with whole-grain pasta dough and a spinach-ricotta filling.
Athena helped James use the pastry wheel to cut out small squares. She fetched a fork from the drawer so she could crimp the edges. Bent over her culinary task with an expression of concentration on her face, Athena looked like a miniature of her father.
"How about trying one raviolo?" James suggested when they were cooked.
"No!" was her emphatic answer.
"Mmm," Vesperine said. "These are yummy."
Every parenting book I've ever read says not to bribe children. Especially not with food. Especially not with sweets. Still, what was I going to do?
"Athena," I began. "I'll make you a deal. You try one raviolo, and you can have ice cream for dessert."
"As much as I want?" She looked at me suspiciously.
"If you eat a whole one, you can have as much ice cream as you want."
"Pinky link." We locked pinkies. Athena tried the raviolo.
"I kind of like it and I kind of don't," she said. But she ate it and asked for more. She ate those and asked for thirds.
There's a game we play in our family called the Question Game. I ask the girls things such as, "What five fruits would you pick for a fruit salad?" and "Would you rather be eaten by a Cyclops or stepped on by a giant?"
This time, I asked them, "If you were stuck on a desert island and you could eat only one food, what would it be?"
Athena didn't hesitate. "Raviolios!" she shouted.
Maurizio's mother would be proud.
2 cups flour (see note)
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Dash of salt (or more to taste)
Warm water, as required (see directions)
On a clean, dry surface make a mound of the flour and create a deep well in the top.
In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork, add the olive oil and salt, and pour this mixture slowly into the indentation, mixing in the flour bit by bit with a fork as you go. (You can also use your hands).
Mix until a dough forms, and then knead the dough for a few minutes until it is supple but not too sticky, adding a small amount of warm water if necessary. (The consistency is tricky, and it may take a few tries to get this right. If the dough cracks when you roll it, it's too dry; if it sticks, it's too wet.)
Form a ball with the dough and let it rest under a moist, clean dish towel for 15 minutes.
Roll out according to the directions on your hand-cranked pasta machine.
We use a mixture of whole grain and semolina flours, but traditionally, Italians use all semolina, available at specialty food stores, co-ops, and many large supermarkets.
Although Senora C. would not approve, you can put all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until it forms a ball (about 30 seconds). Not as romantic, but quick and easy!