Pasta has always just been a part of Alec Morris' life. He can't name a particular dish, or a particular moment when he realised what part it played. It was just always egg, flour and family.
Whether it was watching his nonna's wrinkled hands work the dough, or late summer days spent elbow-deep in tomatoes surrounded by relatives, or simple meals served on weeknights, it was always just there.
His grandparents came to Australia from Calabria in the 1950s, worked hard, started a family in Perth, made a new life.
"I guess that when you have few material possessions to carry into that new life, you instead bring with you those little daily rituals that filled your old life," he says.
"And, of course, amongst and central to all of that was food."
When he was starting his own family, he started to think about these traditions and rituals a little more. Sure, he'd continued to make pasta most weekends once he moved out of home, but only because that's what was normal.
When his sons Aldo and Elio came along, something changed.
"Aldo was just a few weeks old, we got the pasta machine out and propped him up next to it and I just started making pasta. It just felt right. It just became part of our week."
When Aldo was about two, Morris's wife Rachel suggested they start a blog, Pasta et Al. It was the middle of Covid, people were looking for connection, maybe it was a way to pass on some of those traditions.
"It started as something of an experiment but the response was amazing. We put up a few simple recipes and people really liked the food, but the stories behind them, and the interaction with Aldo [were what really resonated]. It just grew and grew."
In 2021, the blog won Best Blog in the Sydney Markets' Fresh Content Award.
And now there's a cookbook, Pasta et Al: The many shapes of a family tradition. Thirty different doughs, 42 different shapes, 60 different sauces and the most comprehensive photographic guide to making pasta you'll ever see.
He says pasta is much easier to make than we think.
"Pasta represents that simplicity of cooking, it doesn't have to be complicated, or be put on any kind of pedestal.
"I think it's a great way for people to access real home cooking, to do something mindful that doesn't really take a lot of effort.
"You don't need a machine, you don't even really need eggs, we have plenty of recipes in the book that are just flour and water, semolina and water."
Morris spent most of his adult life in Canberra in the public service as a translator and analyst but the family moved back to Perth to be closer to family.
His nonna Connie is still alive but living with dementia. It's kind of bittersweet, he says.
"The idea that her recipes are in a cookbook is just a crazy thing, that people are cooking them, sharing them, but the fact that she's not quite there to see it, is sad."
He wants to make sure his mother Antonietta gets plenty of credit too.
"Nonna may have taught me fettuccine and ravioli, but Ma taught me food. The old girl might have had her on the technicality, otherwise this would be a book about my mother's traditions."
We talk about how simple dishes can be the most memorable.
"There's something about pasta that is comforting. We do a lot of crazy complex ones in the book [think cocoa-striped sorpresine with butter and balsamic or the hard geometric shapes of a four cheese and white bean fagottini with a pressure cooked bone broth] but the best ones are always the simple ones.
"Part of me thought that some of the recipes were too simple ... there's a oreccgiette with broccoli and potato in there, that's something that nonna would do if we were feeling a bit glum.
"There's one in there that's butter and cheese ... I remember getting home from school, after sport, it was cold and wet, and there was only an hour before I had to go to bed ... a bit of pasta with butter became one of those things born from necessity but it turned into real comfort food.
Aldo is almost five and Elio is almost two.
"I have to say we do eat more than pasta, they love Mexican and stir fries, we make our own sourdough and sauerkraut, but they are a bit particular about their pasta.
"If I ask Aldo what kind of pasta he wants for dinner he'll say spinach and ricotta scarpinocc with a sausage ragu, it gets that bad."
Is it hard to make pasta with two small children?
"It certainly doesn't make it any easier, but at the same time it wouldn't be the same without them.
"Don't get me wrong, they rarely stick around for the entire thing, but we plan for that.
"I keep small discrete processes for Aldo to drop by and participate in, or I set aside enough dough for him to quickly make into one serve of pasta.
"So far Elio has a selection of wooden tools to chew on, and dough scraps to stuff in his mouth when I'm not looking.
"Aldo, in particular, is always present and involved in an integral way if he feels like it but the show can go on if the toddler agenda has a last-minute scheduling clash.
"I don't say this to suggest that you need children in the kitchen, or even children in general, but just to highlight that 30 seconds turning the pasta handle can give anyone a little ownership over the food they're about to eat.
"Pasta doesn't continue to impress because it's difficult, but because someone's hands have toiled to create it from flour and water."
Almost every egg pasta in this book could be made with the old-fashioned recipe of 100g flour to one egg, per person. In fact, this is where they all began, and it remains a perfectly viable option if you're pressed for ingredients.
That said, the more that you experiment and tinker, the more you'll notice the difference that flour substitutions, egg ratios and even a little oil can make.
Note that if using these doughs for filled pasta, you can decrease the ingredients by around one-quarter if you want to. We tend to just knead up a full serve and then stuff pasta until we run out of filling, cutting any remaining dough into bonus unfilled shapes.
250g plain flour
150g 00 flour
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
For a wholemeal variation, use two parts plain flour, to one part wholemeal.
Every pasta in this book starts with the process described here.
1. Begin by forming a well out of your dry ingredients, either on a clean benchtop, or in a large mixing bowl. I often use the underside of a bowl to press down and hollow out the well's centre. Place all wet ingredients into the centre.
2. Use a fork or your fingers to stir, gradually incorporating the flour until you're left with a shaggy ball. A bench scraper is particularly handy for keeping it all together at this stage. If your dough is too wet, add flour one tablespoon at a time; if too dry, run your hands under the tap and knead in the extra moisture.
3. Once your dough holds together without sticking to your hands or work surface, knead it vigorously for 10 minutes. I find that it turns softer and silkier at around seven minutes but throw in an extra three to be sure. To knead, stretch the dough down and away from you with the heel of your hand, before folding it back over itself and repeating. Rotate it occasionally to avoid it stretching out too long.
4. After 10 minutes of pummelling that dough like Nonna, flatten it slightly into a thick disc and seal tightly in plastic wrap. Rest (yourself, and the dough) for 30 minutes away from heat or direct sunlight before moving on.
1. Begin with your choice of well-kneaded and rested egg dough. If you're game, or have only a small amount of dough to work with, flatten it out enough to fit into the thickest pasta machine setting. For everyone else, cut the dough into roughly one-person portions and seal all but the piece you're about to use in plastic wrap. This will prevent it drying out while you're hitting social media with progress shots or putting out toddler spot-fires at the other end of the house.
2. Roll the dough through the thickest setting on the machine a few times, folding it over itself in between passes. It should take on a more consistent texture after a few repetitions. Many people add more flour at this stage if the dough is too wet, but I prefer to lay it out on the pasta board for a few minutes, regularly checking how much it stretches and sticks. Any non-semolina flour that you add to the outside of a sheet will help it pass through the machine, but will also likely stay there, turning your cooked pasta a little gluggy. Semolina is a better choice to prevent pasta sticking to itself, but won't help if your dough is more than a little tacky. Learning to control the moisture levels in your pasta by harnessing the elements is a more thoughtful approach, and basically a minor superpower attainable to the home cook.
3. Incrementally step through the settings on your machine, thick to narrow, until you reach the desired thickness for your pasta. I'm going to be bold and say that this is ultimately a personal preference. Nonna always went thicker, and so I tend to do the same.
4. Cut the sheets to length, and then form your individual strands of pasta.
My ma, when she was very young, would wait for her chance to slip unobserved into the kitchen, secretly pour herself half a coffee cup of olive oil, and then hide it away deep inside the bread cupboard. She'd then seize opportunities throughout the day to sneak back in and pinch pieces of crusty bread to dip in her oil. The danger attached to such an innocent snack might not seem immediately obvious to younger generations, but Southern Italian nonnas, to their own kids, are not the eternally forgiving pushovers known to their grandchildren and, by virtue, much of the wider world. The same Nonna leaping to my defence against an undoubtedly well-deserved telling-off from my ma (usually for talking back or straight-up swearing) only one generation earlier would have been flying across the room, wooden spoon or shoe aloft, flames licking at the ceiling, over a little stray oil.
So, when you next choose your olive oil, make sure that it's good enough to have you tiptoeing past a vigilant and wrathful old Italian in a complex plan of juvenile deception. And then keep it in a cool, dark place, ready to save dinner when all that you have supplies or time for is aglio e olio.
1 x quantity whole egg dough
6-8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
120ml extra-virgin olive oil
dried chilli flakes, to taste
1 small handful of parsley, finely chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
1. Form the dough into sheets and cut into tagliolini of around 1mm thickness. Cook in a large pot of lightly salted water for two to three minutes until firm to bite but with no raw dough showing when cut into. Drain, reserving 200ml of pasta water.
2. Gently fry the garlic in the oil over a medium heat, stirring, for four to five minutes; it should be soft but not browning. Stir in the chilli flakes to taste, and then use tongs to drop the pasta directly into the pan from the pot. Add the reserved pasta water and stir well but gently for two to three minutes. The sauce should emulsify and cling to the pasta. Toss in the parsley, season to taste and serve.
Often, a more robust pasta like spaghetti is paired with this traditional Neapolitan sauce, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a pasta that doesn't work with good old olive oil and garlic. When using tagliolini like this, just roll it a little thicker, cut your garlic a little finer, and toss it all together with a little more care.
Never accept a cookbook's recommendation on garlic. Even this cookbook. Those of us who spend more time peeling garlic than sauteing it know what I'm talking about. Double it, triple it, throw whole bulbs in with reckless abandon. I'm just not bold enough to write that in the ingredients list. For an extra fresh taste, warm the oil and let your finely chopped garlic soak in it for a few minutes instead of cooking.
I remember eating carbonara in a tiny upstairs osteria somewhere in Rome, 20-something years ago, harangued by Fabrizio and Lucio singing O Sole Mio, as the staff came out from the kitchen to join them. It was such a perfectly joyous moment, having just reunited with distant family and loaded up with carbs, that I bought their album and play it to this day when I'm making pasta, the roar of the rangehood ironing out any minor imperfections.
Carbonara is a dish as fearlessly Roman as my great-uncle "shortcutting" us through town by taking to the tram tracks in his tiny Fiat Bambino. It too requires a deft hand; a gentle touch is the difference between a velvety, smooth emulsion and scrambled eggs on pasta. A game of chicken, if you will. The heat of the pan, the oncoming tram. Yet master it, and you will have uncovered the great Italian culinary beauty of simplicity with a little finesse. Also, it's very moreish and a crowd-pleaser.
1 x quantity whole egg dough, made with two-thirds plain flour, one-third wholemeal flour
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
280g pancetta, chopped into narrow strips (or substitute with guanciale or bacon)
4 egg yolks
100g pecorino romano, grated, plus extra to serve
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1. Form the dough into sheets of around 0.8mm thickness and cut into fettuccine.
2. Fry the prosciutto in the olive oil over a medium-high heat for two to three minutes until crispy. Remove to paper towel. Add the pancetta in its place and fry for five to six minutes until crunchy.
3. While the pancetta cooks, boil the fettuccine in a large pot of lightly salted water for two to three minutes until cooked through; sit a large metal mixing bowl over the top to warm it while you do this.
4. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, yolks, cheese and some pepper to season.
5. Remove the pancetta pan from the heat and use tongs to drop the cooked fettuccine directly into it from the pot. Transfer to the warmed mixing bowl, pour in the egg and cheese mix, and stir vigorously to avoid clumping. Add a little retained pasta water if the sauce is too dry.
6. Serve with the crispy prosciutto crumbled on top, extra grated cheese and a crack of pepper.
Wholemeal (whole-wheat) is really just a preference, giving the pasta a bit of earthiness and depth that I particularly love paired with simpler sauces. You can quite happily swap in any number of other pasta shapes, but longer is probably better. Spaghetti or linguine would be my other picks.
Some people use cream in their carbonara. I won't say to avoid cream out of any respect for tradition, but I will ask you to consider it as a matter of self-respect. You're better than cream in carbonara.
A note too for those avoiding raw eggs: they are deliberately undercooked in a carbonara (if you heat the sauce too much it will scramble). If this is you, please ensure that you're cooking with pasteurised eggs, or consider a different sauce altogether.
Yes, stuffed pasta does get easier than anolini. Sfoglia lorda, or spoja lorda, is another marvel of pasta design for its elegant simplicity. Spread your filling between two sheets of pasta and slice it into squares with a pastry cutter. By keeping the filling smooth and spreading it thinly, the cutter seals and divides all at once, producing quick little parcels similar to flat ravioli. Like anolini, this versatile shape is suited to broths and sauces alike. We've served it in an easy broth of broccoli and zucchini, but it works just as well in a nice sugo.
1 x quantity whole egg dough
400g broccoli, chopped into small pieces
200g zucchini, diced
4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 litres vegetable stock
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and freshly cracked black
pepper, to taste
60g pistachios, shelled and toasted
30ml full-cream milk
20g parmigiano reggiano, finely grated
salt and freshly cracked
1. Add all the soup ingredients to a large pot and bring to the boil over a high heat. Drop to a low heat, cover and cook for 35 minutes. Mash gently, partially breaking up the vegetables, then season to taste.
2. To make the pasta filling, soak the pistachios in the milk for 10-15 minutes, then drain and use a mortar and pestle to grind to a paste. Mix with the ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano and egg. Season well.
3. Roll the pasta dough out into 1-2mm thick sheets, then spread the filling evenly between them, forming into sfoglia lorda.
4. Bring the soup to the boil, drop the pasta in and cook for three to four minutes, checking for doneness.
Any small, unfilled pasta works well in soup, or even scrappy maltagliati offcuts.
Whenever you're making a predominantly ricotta filling like this, resist the temptation to hit it with a high-speed stick blender or food processor. Definitely blitz any other filling ingredients together, but when it comes to the ricotta, stir it through to avoid it becoming a sudden runny mess.
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