Orecchiette is a favourite pasta of ours, we love making it as and when we need it, because like most pasta, it’s a very straight forward and quick process, in this instance, with the added bonus of being egg free, important for my girls who are both, sadly, allergic to eggs. If we have any leftover orecchiette, we just leave them to dry and store them away until later and since the kids have pasta almost everyday, later is usually the next day!
The pasta shape itself, known as orecchiette, which means “little ears” (orecchi0 = ear), is a distinctive pasta from the region of Puglia (Apulia), in Italy known as “the heel of Italy’s boots”. If you look at a map of Italy, you’ll see what that means. I have a friend, Laura, who hails from that region and I have been lucky to have visited her family home in Italy a couple of times over the years; it is from her mum and grandmother that I learnt how to make orecchiette.
They lived not too far away from Alberobello, a slightly touristy UNESCO World Heritage site that is almost like a town straight out of a fairytale. The houses have all got these pointy, conical roofs called trulli (trullo, singular), picture above. It’s fascinating!
I loved strolling along the side streets in some parts of Puglia, watching old Italian women making or selling fresh orecchiette, watching their hands work magic on the little shapes, pulling them with a knife. Mesmerising!
Orecchiette has semolina in the mix, the ratio of semolina to plain flour differs from family to family, and indeed, cook to cook. Some even prefer to just use semolina but I find a wholly semolina recipe to be a little too soft and perhaps lacking in “bite” as a finished product. I like a 50-50 ratio so, about say 1 cup of semolina to 1 cup of flour but you know, because cooking is all about “making it your own”, I suggest start with my mix, then find a ratio that works best for you. And let me know how it goes, of course!
Shaping The Orecchiette
Traditionally, you’d roll the dough into a long-ish sausage shape and cut off tiny rounds with a sharp knife. Then, you’d lie these shapes flat, place a butter knife or something similar flat on the shape and pull the knife towards you, while at the same time, pressing down. This will flatten the shapes and make them roll over into little discs with slightly thicker ends. Sounds difficult? It’s not really, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you get the hang of it.
Another method would be to flour your hands, place the little rounds in one palm, with your thumb from the other hands over it. Twist your palm in one direction, while holding your thumb still. This should give you the flat disc shape we’re looking for.
How do you cook Orecchiette?
The classic recipe from Apulia is Orecchiette alle Cime de Rapa (or con de Rapa). Cime de Rapa is Rapini or in the US, I believe it’s also called Broccoli Rabe. This is a quick and easy recipe that we make quite often at home. However, in Puglia, I’ve also had orecchiette served with tomato sauce, with meatballs and with broccoli (which I guess is the alternative to Rapini). I shall be sharing my recipe for Orecchiette alle Cime de Rapa in the next post or two, with suggested alternative vegetables. Look out for it!
Now for the recipe itself. I’m giving you the measurements in cups, instead of grams, to make it easier.
- 1 cup fine semolina
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- half tsp fine sea salt, no additives please
- 1 cup tepid water
- Mix the two flours and salt together on your chosen work surface and make a mound. If you don't have a suitable work surface, you can make the dough in a large bowl, but follow the same process.
- Create a little well in the middle of your flour mound.
- Pour a little bit of the water into the middle and with your fingers, mix in some of the flour from the inner edges. The idea is to mix the flour and water bit by bit from the middle out, until you have used up all the flour. This way, you only use the amount of water you need.
- When all the flour is mixed in with the water, bring the whole mix together with your hands and knead for about 2-3 minutes until you have a smooth dough. It shouldn't be sticky but if it is, flour your hands and the work surface and keep going. If too dry, then wet your hands, not the dough.
- Take a small amount of the dough, maybe the size of a small orange and roll it into a thin sausage, about 2cm/1 inch thick.
- Cover the rest of the dough with clingfilm or a damp tea towel.
- Using a sharp knife, cut little rounds out. Don't worry about the actual shape not being round!
- Taking one disc at a time, place it flat, press a butter knife over it and pull quickly towards you, flattening the discs into little ears. Keep going until you're done.
- If not using immediately, leave to air dry (uncovered) for a couple of hours, then store in a clean jar for about a month, in a cool dry place. The orecchiette and unshaped dough can also be frozen for up to 3 months.