Sunday 8 July 2012

Making perfect pasta with L’atalier des Chefs

Day #112 of #project366 - fresh tagliatelle and ravioli with pesto

The best chefs continue to develop their skills by constantly exploring new gastronomic experiences and experimenting in their kitchen. For a novice cook like me, the list of culinary techniques still to learn is extensive, so I figure it's important to get a good grip of the the basics before tackling the tough stuff.

If I was only allowed to eat one type food for the rest of my life, I would choose pasta without a doubt. You could never get bored with so many varieties on offer - long spaghetti strands to twirl around your fork, thick lasagne sheets to layer into a hearty bake, pretty shapes to coat in sauce and delicate tortellini parcels containing all manner of surprising fillings.

Italian food always been one of my favourites, and I've become so confident at recreating classic dishes like meatballs that I'd rather enjoy my homemade interpretation than that produced by the numerous restaurant chains specialising in this cuisine.

Beppinos pasta turned into a homemade mediterranean supper

But whilst I have no trouble whipping up a spicy arrabiatta or creamy mornay from scratch now, I've still had to rely on the supermarket (or Beppinos at the Real Food Festival) to supply the pasta to serve alongside it. So when my boyfriend bought me a voucher for a cooking class at L'Atalier des Chefs, I decided that this would be the ideal
opportunity to learn how to make the fresh version myself.

I was impressed by the number of recipes being covered within the two hour course, and intrigued at how the tutor would squeeze everything in. According to the course guide, not only would we learn how to make fresh pasta dough, we would then transform this into tagliatelle served with pan-fried salmon and peas, and ravioli filled with goats cheese and walnutsplus discover the secrets behind making red pepper and pecan pesto. Would we actually get to do any cooking ourselves, or would we just be watching from a distance before tasting the final products?

Chocolate cakes cooling at L'Atalier des Chefs

Observing another class as I nosed around L'Atalier des Chef’s cookshop, I was relieved to see that this would definitely be a hands-on experience. The kitchen resembled a busy restaurant service, with groups of students frantically putting the finishing touches to their main courses whilst an appetising array of chocolate cakes cooled on the counter.

Work station ready at L'Ataliers des Chefs

Only six students had signed up for that day's pasta-making course (including myself), which was a real bonus as it allowed our tutor Louis to share even more of the knowledge and expertise he'd developed during more than 12 years as a professional chef. We were split into two trios, and all of the ingredients required for our various dishes had already been helpfully weighed out and set aside so they would be instantly available once the pace picked up on the pasta prep.

As someone renowned for being somewhat of a control freak in the kitchen, I was nervous that working as a group would somehow lessen the learning experience. But it turns out that it helps to have a second (and even third!) pair of hands when making pasta...

After combining the ingredients, the first step in the process focuses on kneading the dough to develop the gluten. It's vital that this rolling and tearing motion is repeated vigorously for at least 20 minutes to achieve silky smooth pasta, so we needed to take turns at venting our frustrations on the edible punchbag.

Roasted red pepper and pecan pesto ingredients

Jamie Oliver has always implied that bashing out a batch of fresh pasta is quick and easy, so I was amazed to discover that we had to leave the dough to rest for 30 minutes. But thankfully no lesson time was wasted watching the clock – this break gave us just enough time to blitz up a vat of red pepper and pecan pesto. I was surprised at how little time this piquant sauce was to make and how vibrant it was compared to its shop-bought cousin.

Once the dough’s siesta was over, we next had to split it into thirds before gently winding each smaller ball through the metal rollers seven times in order to stretch them all out into thin sheets. We had to be careful that no folds appeared within the pasta sheet, and since it reached the length of our workbench once fully flattened this meant that it took two of us to manoeuvre it through the machine.

Goats cheese and walnut ravioli ready to cook

Finally, we were ready to shape our pasta! Whilst the dough was resting we had mashed together goats cheese, walnuts and chives with a splash of double cream as the filling for our ravioli, which was then dolloped in equidistant spoonfuls onto one of the three rectangles of pasta. Then we delicately placed the second pasta sheet on top, pressing the layers together in the gaps between the cheesy spheres to remove any air bubbles that would cause the ravioli to split when cooked. Louis showed us the trade secret of using a round cookie cutter to form perfect ravioli disks, then we finished our pasta parcels by crimping the edges with a fork.

Fresh tagliatelle ready to cook

One last step in our pasta-making challenge was to pass the third strip of pasta through the machine's blades to slice it into long slivers of tagliatelle, then coat it in a sprinkling of semolina to prevent it sticking together.

Pan-fried salmon

We were now approaching the finish line (or to be more precise, the dining table!). The delicate pea and dill sauce to accompany our tagliatelle was just as simple to prepare as the red pepper pesto, and even the beautiful salmon fillets only took a few minutes to pan fry.

Not only does fresh pasta taste far better than the dried version, it also takes far less time to cook. Within a couple of minutes of being dropped into a pan of salted boiling water, our raviolis had floated to the surface again and our tagliatelle was absolutely “al dente” (an Italian term translated as "to tooth", meaning easy to bite into – ie. that crucial stage between being crunchy and soggy!). Louis then showed us the cunning trick of using a carving fork to plate up tagliatelle like a pro, and we dished up our raviolis with a coating of chive butter.

Goats cheese and walnut ravioli with chive butter at L'Atalier des Chefs

The only thing left was to sample our handiwork! The combination of rich creamy goat’s cheese and crunchy walnuts inside the ravioli worked perfectly both in terms of texture and flavour…

Pan-fried salmon and pes tagliatelle at L'Atalier des Chefs

…and I loved how light the fresh tagilatelle tasted! The pan fried salmon and peas were a wonderful pairing for the pasta, but I would have been tempted to steam the salmon and flake it into the sauce to make it even more refreshing.

As an initial experience of a cookery school, L’Atalier des Chefs was excellent. It was great to take an active role in every step of the cooking process, but being under the watchful eye of a master craftsman meant we wouldn’t make too many mistakes and could quiz him over any queries. Being able to enjoy our dishes afterwards was a real treat, and I skipped out of the lesson feeling confident to recreate the recipes in the comfort of my own home. I just needed to invite Jean Claude Van Damme to knead the dough and Mr Tickle to flatten it out through the metal rollers!

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