Arts & Life

Irish in the Cucina – Voices Column – Central PA Magazine, January 2010

Written by M. Diane McCormick | Dec 17, 2009 6:02 PM

There they were — the Stations of the Pasta. Potato flakes, flour and eggs at the gnocchi table. Ricotta, spinach and eggs at the filling table. Flour, oil and more eggs at the dough table. Pasta machines and drying racks against the wall.

The potatoes, I understood. The rest — well, let me begin at the beginning.

The shopper headline promoted a one-day class on making ravioli and pasta in Hershey. “Learn how to make ravioli and pasta & gnocchi the way Nanna made them — with no electricity, just raw ingredients and a whole lot of passion.”

Nanna? My grandmother could cook, but she never let anyone in the kitchen, including my mother. My orphaned father blackened potatoes on an open fire. Any cooking gene in the McCormick-Kane line died out two generations ago.

So why go? I love pasta. Why not go? I’m hopeless in a kitchen. And I’m Irish. Redundant, but true. So, for a genuine pesce out of water experience, why not put a couple of McCormicks up to their elbows in semolina? My sister, Sharyn, famous for an exploding pizza crust, had a choice that afternoon of preparing a presentation under deadline or pounding out her stress in pasta dough. She chose the dough.

In a corner of the room, before 20 or so students, amply built instructor Gary Macchioni introduced the process. Make filling, make dough, roll dough, insert filling. Take home and cook. Mangia. Just that simple.

We started at the filling table, dominated by a basin of ricotta. “Ri-cah-tah,” I said. “Ri-goh-ta,” Gary corrected. In our circle, some spoke of Italian and Pennsylvania Dutch grandmothers who never measured, so we channeled their spirits and dolloped cheese into bowls. Only egg yolks were needed here, so Gary separated an egg by cracking it over his hand, dropping the yolk in his palm and letting the white flow through his fingers. Ewwwwwww. But I figured, “when in Rome.” My advice: It works, but try not to look.

My spinach ravioli filling was forming well. “That’s a good consistency,” Gary said as I stirred a cakey yellow mixture pleasantly flecked with green. However, Sharyn was showing her heritage. She had also finger-separated the eggs — with her hand over the bowl of filling. Egg white cascaded into the mixture, creating a milky drainage that no amount of ri-goh-ta would sop.

Still, our ancestors persevered through famine and ocean crossings, and so did we. There was dough to be made. Basic instructions: Mix flour, eggs, oil and salt. Knead. Peel glop from fingers. Add more flour. Keep kneading. Peel more glop. Continue until glop no longer sticks to fingers, or until exhaustion, whichever comes first. Exhaustion is likelier.

And when all else fails, I learned, more flour can be added at the pasta machine. “That’s good,” Gary would critique, “but we can dust it at the machine.” I was finding comfort in the Catholic rituals of this process. There is always a final step, Last Rites for absolution from sins of the cucina. The pasta machines narrowed the dough in each pass through the rollers. Even I could manage that, and Sharyn, gamely putting the ravioli-filling incident behind her, was winning raves for her perfectly turned spinach linguini. What could go wrong now?

To make ravioli, drop filling on dough. If the dough has dried, moisten the edges, but not too much. Top with another length of dough. Gently — gently! — press around the filling to eliminate air bubbles. Separate raviolis with a glass or roller, but make sure you left enough room between each piece; the edges need to be secured with a fork, because otherwise they could separate during cooking. And make them directly on the table, not on wax paper, because the raviolis will stick.

Sorry, Gary said. Didn’t notice you were using wax paper.

At last, I had something truly Irish-Italian. Lump O’Ravioli.

The imperturbable Sharyn problem-solved by whipping up another batch of dough. Yes. Sharyn, who never made anything more complicated than Rice Krispies treats. Whipping up another batch. Soon, we were transubstantiating dough and eggs and spinach and ricotta into something resembling ravioli.

Our classmates, too, were producing respectable pasta, and there were mur­murings that the only thing missing was wine. Chianti appeared. We shared wine and broke bread at an antipasto buffet, serenaded by an Italian minstrel singing “Santa Lucia” and “House of the Rising Sun.” We were a communion of hopefuls, ready to buy pasta machines and roll gnocchi just like Nanna used to make — whether Nanna came from Tuscany or Lancaster County or County Clare.

Published in Voices

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