Saturday, April 21, 2012


This post explores making fresh orecchiette, a classic pasta with roots in Central and Southern Italy. Although many supermarkets stock the dry version, if you want to try fresh orecchiette chances are you will need to make it yourself; it rarely appears on restaurant menus. Fair warning: learning how to create this shape takes a little time and practice, but pays worthwhile dividends. Fresh orecchiette has a wonderful chewy texture that the dry form lacks. All you need to make it at home are semolina flour, water and a simple dinner knife.

Orecchiette means “little ears” in Italian, but like most Italian pasta, the shape goes by different names depending upon where it is made: it is called recchietelle in Campania, Molise and Basilicata; orecchie di prete in Abruzzo; and orecchini in Lazio. Even within Puglia—the region most closely associated with the shape—orecchiette goes by a variety of names. My favorite: chagghjubbi from the port city of Bari.

Orecchiette’s simple form suggests that it is easier to make than it is. In Flavors of Puglia [2006] Nancy Harmon Jenkins writes that orecchiette is “about the trickiest pasta shape I’ve ever made.” In The Mozza Cookbook [2011] Nancy Silverton introduces orecchiette as follows: “Although this shape doesn’t look as intricate as some of the others, it is one of the most difficult to shape, which is probably why so few restaurants make their own.”

Discouraged? Don’t be. In his excellent new Bocca Cookbook [2011], Jacob Kenedy writes that orecchiette “take some practice before they come right, but after are easy as pie.” Kenedy offers both a recipe for a traditional semolina dough and a lucid description on how to create this tricky little shape. His recipe serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main.

  • 200g semola di grano duro (semolina)
  • 80 ml water
Make a semolina pasta dough with the semola di grano duro and 80 ml water – it should be firm but malleable. Knead well, let rest for at least 20 minutes, then make the orecchiette.

Roll the dough into a sausage (it may help to do this in a few batches) 1cm wide. Cut across to make 1cm dumplings. Take a cheap table knife (like the kind they used to have at school – basic, rounded and bluntly serrated) and make the orecchiette one by one. With the flat of the knife at 30° to the table, use a smearing action (away from your body) to press the dumplings out, using the rounded end of the blade. It should stretch, flatten and curl around the blade, becoming thinner in the middle than at the edges, one of which will be slightly stuck to the blade of the knife. Put your index finger gently against the center of the little curl of pasta, hold the loose edge gently with your thumb, and pull the knife away, so as to invert the pasta over your fingertip and simultaneously detach it from the blade. It should now look like a little ear, with a slightly thick rim (the lobe), and a rough texture on the thinner centre, from where the knife pulled against the dough…Leave them spread out on a wooden or floured surface until you’re ready to cook—they’re best left for half an hour or so, to become a little leathery.

Kenedy’s instructions become particularly clear when watching someone make fresh orecchiette. (Still photographs help, but they don’t do the process justice.) If you don’t have access to a real, live orecchiette maker, I’ve found a particularly helpful YouTube video that documents a similar technique. Search YouTube for “rita mimmo orecchiette”.

A few notes on Kenedy’s recipe. I add slightly more water (90 to 100 ml instead of 80 ml) to make a workable dough. Although Kenedy recommends “smearing” away from the body, I think pulling towards oneself is easier. Try both ways and see which feels more comfortable to you. Cook the orecchiette in boiling salt water for approximately 4 to 5 minutes.

In Bocca Kenedy presents a classic pairing of orecchiette with cime di rapa, a turnip green commonly called broccoli rabe here in the states. Another time-tested combination worth trying: orecchiette and sausage.