Giuliano Bugialli, the Italian cookbook author and teacher, is demonstrating a pasta dish called tortelli di mele . Hands dancing over four or five things at once, Bugialli grabs a very substantial teaspoon or so of salt and drops it in the pasta's filling mixture. "A little pinch of salt . . ." he deadpans in lovely Florentine accents. At least three people in the audience are willing to play straight man: "A little pinch?" they chorus. Bugialli beams. "An Italian pinch," he says.
In town recently to promote his new cookbook, "Giuliano Bugialli's Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking," Bugialli's used two recipes from the book--the tortelli plus a satiny, cold zabaione with whipped cream--to demonstrate his theories of cooking, his professional zeal in the area of Italian food history, a dazzaling technical skill, and an Italian pinch of showmanship.
Watching Bugialli make pasta is an education in itself. Pasta is made from different ingredients according to its region of origin, he said, and fresh pasta "should be very, very thin, otherwise it's not fresh pasta any more." The tortelli being demonstrated started out as flour, eggs, salt and oil. After kneading by hand and assuring himself that the dough had lost its wetness, Bugialli continued the kneading by machine. Finally it was rolled progressively thinner until thin enough to see through.
The audience was enraptured, and not only by the feather-light, see-through pasta. Like any good professor, Bugialli knows how to make the facts palatable. He's opinionated about his cooking and he's not afraid to lay down the law. The zabaione, for instance, must be stirred with a wooden spoon and in one direction only--you do have your choice of clockwise or counterclockwise. This sounds like a bit of superstitious lore, but a reason does emerge. Bugialli's zabaione is thick and rich. Changing directions would tend to incorporate air and make it frothy and light.
A fierce partisan of classical Italian cuisine, Bugialli credits Italy with the creation of puff pastry, ice cream, even pa te'. So many now-classic dishes apparently traveled from Renaissance Italy across the border into France, in fact, that a picture begins to emerge of the notorious Renaissance Florentine figure Caterina de' Medici--also a Bugialli favorite--trudging across the Alps bent with the weight of Italian recipes on their way to France.
The pasta, rolled paper-thin into strips about 6 inches wide, was laid out on a floured board and dotted at intervals with little mounds of an unusual and haunting filling containing porcini mushrooms, apples, potatoes, red onions and walnuts. A second layer of pasta was laid on top, and individual pillows were cut with the help of a pastry cutter. Its edges sealed securely, the tortelli were cooked until soft, not al dente. Only boxed pasta should be served al dente, says Bugialli.
Served swimming in its sauce of butter, heavy cream and walnuts (the butter melted gently over boiling water to avoid "an already-cooked taste"), tortelli is a traditional Christmas Eve dish in parts of Italy but would be a magnificent first course on any eve. The flavor is light, savory and slightly sweet all at the same time. Parsley will not darken the platter on which this tortelli is served, if Bugialli has his way. The garnish should fit the dish, he said, and only a few walnuts would be appropriate.
The zabaione, a custard of egg yolks, sugar, marsala and rum, is cooked very gently in the top of a double boiler, stirred contantly in one direction until it falls from the spoon a single drop at a time. After it cools, whipped heavy cream is folded in. The result is an ethereal dessert that satisfies with only a bite or two.
Bugialli divides his time between his cooking schools in Florence and in New York. He returns to Washington in March for three days of demonstrations at the L'Academie de Cuisine, a Bethesda cooking school.
In the meantime, here are the two recipes Bugialli demonstrated. TORTELLI DI MELE (8 servings) For the stuffing: 1 pound baking apples 8 ounces boiling potatoes Coarse-grained salt 2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms 5 walnuts, shelled but not blanched 1 small red onion 1/4 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons dry marsala Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan 4 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs, preferably homemade Freshly grated nutmeg For the pasta: 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 4 extra large eggs 4 teaspoons olive oil or vegetable oil Pinch of salt For the sauce: 10 walnuts, shelled but not blanched 8 ounces sweet butter 1 pint heavy cream Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel, core and quarter the apples, and bake them at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
Boil unpeeled potatoes in salted water for about 30 minutes, then peel and let stand until cold. Let mushrooms soak in a small bowl of lukewarm water for about 30 minutes. Chop the five walnuts very fine. Drain mushrooms and chop them very fine, along with the onion.
Heat the oil in a small casserole. When the oil is hot, add the onion-mushroom mixture and saute' over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes. Add chopped walnuts and marsala. Let the marsala evaporate.
Pass the cooked apples and potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill and add them to the mushroom-onion mixture. Taste for salt and pepper and mix well. Let this mixture stand until cold (about 30 minutes), then add the parmesan and bread crumbs and incorporate them well. Add nutmeg and taste again for seasoning.
Make the pasta: Mound the flour on a wooden board or a countertop and make a well in the middle. Into the well put the eggs, salt and oil. With a fork mix these ingredients well, then begin to incorporate the flour from the inner rim of the well. A dough will be formed before all the flour is incorporated. Sift the unincorporated flour to remove lumps and begin kneading the dough, incorporating gradually the excess flour until only four or five tablespoons remain.
Roll the dough through a pasta machine with the rollers at the widest setting. Fold the resulting strip in thirds and repeat the process, flouring the strip generously. Repeat this process eight to 10 times, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Then roll the dough through the machine at successively thinner settings until it can't get any thinner.
To form the tortelli: lay one strip of dough on a floured board. Place teaspoon-sized mounds of filling at 2-inch intervals. Lay another strip of dough on top. Run a pastry or ravioli cutter between the mounds, forming little pillows about 2 inches square. Seal each pillow well by pressing the edges together with your fingers.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a large saucepan or skillet laid over the pot of boiling water, melt butter for the sauce. Remove the skillet and place over low heat while you cook the pasta in the boiling water. Freshly made pasta should take about 30 seconds, and should remain soft.
Transfer the cooked tortelli to the skillet containing the butter. Add the cream, salt, pepper and chopped walnuts. There will be unabsorbed cream. Serve hot in a soup tureen. Adapted from "Giuliano Bugialli's Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking" COPPE DI CREMA ZABAIONE ALLA PARMIGIANA (8 servings) 5 extra-large egg yolks 5 heaping tablespoons granulated sugar 1/2 cup dry marsala 1/4 cup light rum 1 pint heavy cream 2 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar 1 teaspoon confectioners' sugar
In a crockery or glass bowl stir the egg yolks with the sugar until the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is light. Stir only in one direction so as not to incorporate air. Stir in the marsala and rum. Transfer to the top of a double boiler set over boiling water and let cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat a wooden spoon and drops off the spoon one drop at a time. Do not let the mixture boil. Remove to a glass or crockery bowl and let cool, then refrigerate, covered, until completely cold.
Whip the cream until almost stiff, then add the sugars and continue whipping until the mixture is stiff. Fold the chilled zabaione into the whipped cream. Spoon or pipe the mixture into eight dessert cups and serve chilled. Adapted from "Giuliano Bugialli's Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking"