I adore homemade pasta. There is something wonderful about the texture, with just a bit of toothsome quality that I love. Other handmade pastas like gnocchi and cavatelli throw me right over the moon. Sometimes, if I’ve very very fortunate, I’ll stumble upon a restaurant that serves something called 5 or 8 finger cavatelli. Regular cavatelli are small discs or short strips of pasta with opposite edges rolled towards each other to form a hollow shape. I’ve heard them described as looking like tiny hot dog buns and that little folded cavity captures sauces so nicely. 5 or 8 finger cavatelli is the same dough rolled into long strips, 5 or 8 finger lengths long, with the same distinctive edges folded in. They are one of my favorite pastas and one you don’t see very often. I decided to make some.
But in the process of figuring out a recipe, I got off track. Instead, I ended up changing direction to another pasta known as Pici. This one is essentially a thick, hand rolled spaghetti. The texture is a bit firmer and more toothsome than other handmade pastas and is perfect with southern Italian sauces built around staples like tomato, beef and lamb. It’s also a lot easier, I discovered, to roll a rope than something long with edges. Plus, I had my eye on a particular butter tomato sauce and thought it would go wonderfully with pici. It did.
The dough couldn’t be simpler. In my research, I found slight variations in the flour used but ended up going with Chef Jenn Louis’ cavatelli dough from “Pasta By Hand“ made from semolina flour, salt, olive oil and boiling water. My first go I made the critical error of not reading the recipe all the way through, a true rookie mistake, and didn’t realize the water had to be boiling. I added tap water, which never would have worked – the semolina needs the hot water to properly hydrate. Argh. The second time I followed the instructions precisely and let the dough rest. So much better. Then came the fun part.
Very small pieces were pinched off, smaller than you’d think – about the size of a shelled hazelnut, and rolled against a marble slab to a long, thin piece about 5 fingers long. I may not have been making 5-finger cavatelli but it was a very easy way to measure for consistent lengths. Those Italians are smart. I rolled and I rolled and I rolled some more. My pile grew very slowly. Due to this I have a recommendation: gather a group of friends for this part. It is not difficult but it is a time-consuming and tedious process to roll at that dough and it will be a lot more fun with friends.
The pici were boiled in salted water for a few minutes until tender and wonderfully toothsome. I then tossed them with the most perfect sauce for this use: that Marcella Hazan Butter Tomato Sauce I made the other day. It was ideal; a simple but delicious dish enhanced only with a sprinkle of parmesan. I ate the bowl happy, content. The noodles were a little chewy, a little more interesting than the regular spaghetti in your pantry. The sauce, velvety and rich, slipped around the strands, coating them in a luxurious tomato gloss. This was the kind of pasta you don’t forget. I was in a blissful trance.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: ROLLING ROLLING ROLLING. I think we all know by now that I enjoy a project type of recipe. Making this pasta dough is not difficult in the least but rolling out the pici strands can be hypnotic. Pinch, roll, stretch. Pinch, roll, stretch. Over and over and over. Your mind wanders and empties then fills again as those little strands build on the tray. By the time you’ve solved all the worlds problems, you have dinner for four.
Eight years ago: Khachpuri (cheesy Georgian bread)
Seven years ago: Pretzel Rolls (my most popular post)
Six years ago: Guinness Stout Floats
Five years ago: Liege Sugar Waffles
Four years ago: Banana Bread Bread Pudding
Three years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Two years ago: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
Last year: Sausage Hand Pies
PICI – recipe adapted slightly from Jenn Louis’ “Pasta by Hand: A Collection of Italy’s Regional Hand-Shaped Pasta”
Serves 4 – makes just under 1 ½ pounds of pasta
Look for semolina flour in the Italian aisle or where Bob’s Red Mill products are sold. They make a fine semolina. Serve with the sauce of your choice – tomato based sauces are particularly nice and as mentioned above, this is wonderful with Marcella Hazan’s Butter Tomato Sauce.
1 cup boiling water, divided
2 ½ cups semolina flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
- In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the semolina flour, ¾ cup of the boiling water, salt, and olive oil.
- Mix on medium speed (or knead with your hands) for 10 minutes, drizzling in the additional 2-4 Tablespoons of boiling water as needed until fully combined and the dough is mostly smooth. Depending on the weather and the humidity, I haven’t always used the full amount of water.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30-60 minutes.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and divide the dough into 4 pieces.
- Working with one piece of dough at a time, keeping the others tightly wrapped, pinch off a small piece of dough about the size of a shelled hazelnut. It’s less than you think.
- Roll the dough between your two hands to create a fat sausage shape then continue rolling against the work surface with the palm of one hand into a long thin rope. Increase the pressure against the ends of the rope to make the ends thinner. It should be a little longer than the length of your four fingers, or about 5-fingers in length.
- Place on the prepared sheet pan and continue with the remaining dough, covering the rolled pieces to prevent from drying.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
- Reduce the heat to medium-high, add the pici and cook until they float to the surface, 3-4 minutes. Simmer for 1 to 2 minutes more, until al dente (4-6 minutes total).
- Drain and finish with your choice of sauce. Serve immediately.
- To do ahead: refrigerate the rolled pici on sheet pans, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days, or freeze on the sheet pans and transfer to an airtight container. Use within 1 month. Do not thaw before cooking.