How Biba changed Sacramento’s food scene forever
This story was originally published Dec. 12, 1984, in the Food section of The Sacramento Bee under the headline, “Homemade pasta may become a forgotten art” and is shown as printed.
Once upon a time in Italy, little girls learned to make pasta at their mother’s or grandmother’s elbow. Weekly sessions saw mounds of white flour, dozens of eggs and endless advice being dispensed, and drill practice with the rolling pin was mandatory.
The results, more often than not, were a sticky paste or a coarse rough dough. Even after many tears and failures, the little girl knew she still had a long way to go before she mastered pasta to perfection. But she knew that eventually she would get it right, then she would marry and prepare incomparable pasta dishes for her husband and children.
You may think all this happened a long time ago, yet less than a generation ago I remember vividly the day my mother said, Biba, this sfoglia looks pretty good. Today things in Italy are quite different. Many women work outside the home and many more will join the working forces in the coming years. Life is faster, more demanding. There is less time to devote to the pleasures and demands of perfect home-cooked meals. It is not surprising, then, that the wonderful tradition of home pasta making is slowly disappearing.
One of the few regions in Italy where the art still holds on precariously is Emilia-Romagna, long considered the best region for homemade pasta. Fine restaurants in Bologna, Parma or Modena still make their own fresh pasta daily, but that may soon change, too.
As Dante Casari, owner of the superlative Dante’s restaurant in Bologna, says, Once my sfoglina (pasta maker), who is 65 years old, leaves I won’t know what to do.
The only alternative is to buy pasta from a fresh pasta store, but, as Dante says, It is not the same quality.
Fortunately, the quality of factory-made pasta is getting better and better.
On a recent trip to Italy, I visited Barilla, Italy’s (and Europe’s) largest pasta factory. Headquartered in Parma, this family-owned company has been producing commercial pasta for over 100 years and they carry 90 varieties.
Using the best semolina flour (durum wheat) which comes from the mills of Abbruzzo and Puglia, they produce innumerable kinds of spaghetti and macaroni. With a combination of semolina flour, white flour and eggs, they produce noodles, lasagnas and stuffed pasta.
The Italian kitchen, once the sole domain of the woman, has now been invaded by men, especially on the weekend. Men find it relaxing and entertaining to tackle pots and pans in pursuit of savory creations.
The modern Italian family prefers lighter and healthier foods that require a relatively short time to prepare. Unless there is a celebration of some kind or a special occasion, the four- or five-course meal is a thing of the past.
The modern woman may no longer learn to cook at her mother’s elbow, but she can and often does enroll in a cooking school, buy the newest cook books and watch cooking shows on television.
With the holiday season at hand, Italians will still enjoy the traditional favorites with perhaps a few shortcuts in procedure. For instance, this Struffoli is a favorite Christmas dessert of Neapolitans and uses honey and candied fruit, ingredients much loved by Southern Italians. My mother-in-law, who has been in this country for more than 60 years, still makes it faithfully every Christmas. She mixes the dough lovingly by hand and shapes the little balls to perfection, but making the dough with a food processor requires less time and patience. I’ll give directions for doing it both ways so you can decided which you prefer.
- ⅛ Struffoli (Neapolitan Honey Balls)
- 2 cups flour
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ cup sugar
- ⅛ grated rind of 1 lemon
- 4 eggs
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ⅛ cup oil for frying
- 1 cup honey
- ½ cup sugar
- Grated rind of 2 oranges
- ¼ pound candied orange peel, finely diced
To prepare by hand, combine flour, salt, ¼-cup sugar and lemon rind. Place this mixture on a wooden board and make a well in the center. Break eggs and egg yolk into the well and beat with a fork. Add softened butter and mash down with a fork. Draw flour from inner rim of well over eggs a bit at a time and beat with a fork to mix. Keep adding flour over the eggs until you have a soft dough. Knead 6 to 8 minutes until dough is smooth and pliable.
Remove one egg-size piece of dough. Wrap remaining dough in plastic or aluminum foil to keep it moist. Shape the small piece of dough into a roll about the thickness of your little finger. Cut roll into ½-inch pieces, then roll pieces into small balls. Repeat with remaining dough. Place balls on a lightly floured dish until you are ready to fry them.
Pour oil 3-inches deep in a medium saucan. Heat to 375 degrees. Fry as many balls as will fit loosely in the saucepan. When light golden, remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
Heat honey with ½ cup sugar in a wide skillet. When honey is hot and sugar is melted, remove from heat. Add grated rind; mix well.
Add fried dough balls and candied orange peel to skillet; mix gently with a wooden spoon until every ball is completely coated. Pour out onto a large round platter. Wet your hands and shape mixture into a large cone. Take care not to burn yourself, since honey and balls will still be quite hot. Cool several hours before serving. To make with a food processor, place flour, salt, ¼ cup sugar, grated lemon rind and butter in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process lightly. Add eggs and turn machine off and on several times to make a compact dough which does not form into a ball around the blade. Remove the dough and knead by hand 2 minutes.
Take a very small piece of dough, about the size of a chickpea, and form a small ball between the palms of the hands. Repeat until all the dough is used. Fry and assemble as directed above.
Note: This dessert can be prepared several days ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator. However, it should be served at room temperature.
Biba Caggiano is a Sacramento cooking school teacher and restaurant consultant with roots in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy.