A few weeks ago, I was shown how to make orecchiette, an “ear-shaped” pasta traditional in Puglia, by two lovely ladies from Puglia. Many recipes give directions that include pressing each individual orecchiette three times. While this does provide a zen-like experience (along the lines of chewing a grain of rice 100 times), the women in Puglia kitchens don’t have time for this.
The technique that Margarita and Debora were brought up with involves rolling the pasta dough into a long cylinder then cutting off little pieces of dough. The little coin-shaped nubs are then shaped into orecchiette. Place the tip of a butter knife in the nub's center, then drag it through the pasta until the pasta rolls over itself (at this point the pasta looks something like a shell, and if you’ve ever eaten orecchiette in Puglia, you’ll often find pasta with this shape mixed in with orecchiette. It’s called trofie). Finally, you flip the shell-shaped piece of dough inside out on your thumb, gently pulling the outer-most edges.
Sound easy? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.
Listen. I’ve made orechiette many times with pretty good success. Learning this new technique however, has truly tested my abilities. It takes practice. There’s no way around it--but once I got it down, it’s a much faster and more graceful method.
Above: Can you perceive the progression of sloppy to decent, left to right?
So here’s my advice, and a few tips.
Lay the coin-shaped piece of pasta dough on its side. Place the knife’s blade edge close to the top edge of the coin. Pull toward you almost like you’re spreading butter. Don’t worry if you cut through a few pieces of dough at first. If the dough is rolling over itself completely--and trust me, you’ll feel the difference when it rolls correctly--then you’ve carved out a good center.
When you flip the shell-shaped piece of dough inside out on your thumb, you shouldn’t have to do much smoothing or stretching. Because of the shell shape, you don’t have to pull down the entire circumfrance of the circular pasta, you can just squish the two main edges. If you’re spending a lot of time shaping the pasta on your thumb, then you should reevaluate your knife work.
The spreading of the dough with the knife blade results in a rough texture on the orecchiette (see above), which saves you from needing to go out and buy a ridged, orechiette board.
Don’t hesitate to comment with questions or to report on what you’ll be drinking with your pasta.
Dough recipe: for two people I use 1 1/2 cups of semolina flour, a pinch of salt, and a ratio of 1:4 water to semolina. That's it.