KNEAD TO KNOW: Reporter Nathalie Craig and Mark Hankinson learn the basics of pasta-making at Sandalyns vineyard in the Hunter Valley.WHEN she was five years old, Luciana Sampogna’s nonna told her ‘‘Lucia, here in Emilia, if you do not know how to make pasta when you turn eight you will not find a husband’’. And perhaps her nonna was right: in Sampogna’s book she reveals that it was her ‘‘pici’’ pasta – made by rolling dough made from flour and water between the thumb and index finger – that won over the heart of her husband.
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Now pasta is a big part of Italian-born Luciana Sampogna’s life: she runs the Sydney-based cooking school Cucina Italiana and is author of the cookbook Light of Lucia: A celebration of Italian life, love & food.

As with many Italian women, some of her earliest memories rest with the age-old wisdom of her nonna unlocking the secrets of making the best fresh pasta.

While pasta is, unromantically, simply the Italian word for paste or dough, this basic ingredient is loved throughout the world.

Pasta has great versatility: it’s made in an abundance of shapes, sizes and textures and it marries perfectly with vegetables, herbs, cheeses, meats and seafood.

It can be transformed into one of the fastest meals – dried pasta placed in boiling water takes barely 10 minutes to cook – yet there’s something deeply enticing about the idea of home-made pasta.

Some may have tried making fresh pasta with varying degrees of success and failure.

My own first attempt resulted in dough that was pale, flimsy and full of holes, the pasta itself barely edible.

There’s no denying that there’s an art to it, but is it all that hard once you get the hang of it?

‘‘Like most things in life, it’s easy once you know how,’’ said chef Caiman Rea, who runs a Tuscan-style pasta course at Sandalyns vineyard in the Hunter Valley.

Mario D’Intino, from Newcastle, who grew up in the Abruzzo region in Italy and regularly makes pasta, agrees.

‘‘The first time it’s hard but then it becomes easier each time,’’ he said.

Pasta-making has become a ritual for D’Intino since his retirement. He even dons a chef hat each time he makes it.

‘‘Pasta is a hallmark for every occasion in our family,’’ said his granddaughter, Erin Cummings.

The secret to making successful fresh pasta seems to rest in the adage ‘‘practice makes perfect’’, but what are the best ingredients to use? There’s no simple answer as Italian cooking differs from region to region.

Sampogna explains in her book that in the Emilia-Romagna region, of which Bologna is capital, pasta has only two ingredients, egg and flour, yet further north in the region of Piedmont they may add white wine to the dough, while in Tuscany they add olive oil.

In Rea’s classes, he uses semolina and duck egg but tells his students that 00 flour and chook eggs can be used in place of these ingredients.

D’Intino believes any sort of plain flour will do and that an egg should be added for each person. ‘‘I don’t measure my flour, I just see how much flour the eggs will take,’’ he said.

Rea also measures by feel but says if looking for an approximate measurement, around 100 grams of flour to one egg is about right. This amount may vary slightly, depending on the humidity in the air and the size of the egg. Ingredients can be mixed together by hand on a clean bench or in a bowl. One universal truth is that the right texture of the dough is crucial. But what should it feel like? ‘‘You learn the feeling,’’ explains D’Intino.

Rea tells his students to aim for a texture similar to that of playdough.

Pasta-making requires patience, particularly in the process of kneading the dough.

‘‘If you do not knead it properly, you cannot develop the gluten … which gives it elasticity, and therefore no matter how long you cook the pasta, it will remain hard,’’ advises Sampogna’s nonna.

It’s important to keep your hands dry during the process to avoid sticky dough. This can be done by sprinkling your hands with flour.

Sampogna kneads her dough for about six to 10 minutes, advising not to work it for much longer or the pasta will be too soft. The dough should be rested for 30 to 60 minutes to let the gluten settle. Next it’s time for the smooth, well-worked dough to be broken into two balls and flattened by hand. The pasta machine should then be turned to the widest setting, then each slab of dough put through the machine, shaping it almost the same width as the rollers.

Let the dough run through on this setting three or four times, resting it on the back of your wrist as it rolls out of the machine.

The dough can be run through until it reaches the smallest setting on your machine although some types of pasta, such as fettuccine, work well with slightly thicker dough.

‘‘The thickness of the pasta, that’s just a personal preference. Some people like it very thin and others like it a bit more gutsy,’’ Rea said. Once you have made it this far and still have intact pasta sheets, there’s a good chance you will have a tasty finished product.

‘‘Once you know how to make the slab of pasta, you can then make all types,’’ D’Intino said.

Pasta machines often have fettuccine and spaghetti settings and other varieties can be crafted by hand or with stamps and cutters.

After allowing your pasta to dry for about half an hour it’s time to put it in a pot of boiling water and wait until it floats to the top; this should only take a few minutes.

The result should be silky, fresh egg pasta. If not, don’t give up, it will come with practice. ‘‘After growing up eating Nonna’s pasta, I’m a pasta snob. Nothing beats home-made pasta,’’ Cummings said.

There’s something magic about well-made, fresh pasta.

As Sampogna’s nonna says: ‘‘Good pasta can take you many places. It can win hearts too’’.

See today’s Good Taste for some delicious pasta recipes.