Pasta Makes Perfect
At The Cooking School at Irwin Streeet, pasta-making skills come with a side of humble pie
A dull ache is pulsing through my forearms, fingers and shoulders, and a strand of hair that’s freed itself from my ponytail floats tauntingly in my face. “Come on, guys! Who’s gonna get it first?” teases a voice from across the room. For all of the sweat that’s beading at my hairline and the adrenaline that’s coursing through my veins, I might as well be racing 15 classmates to the finish line in spin class. Instead, I’m working furiously to knead the mound of semolina flour and eggs before me into a smooth, shiny ball of dough. And that voice on the other side of the room? It’s not a spin instructor, but Chef Jake, who’s presiding over tonight’s ravioli-making class at Old Fourth Ward’s Cooking School at Irwin Street.
I’ve loved to cook for as long as I can remember, and I still do. I collect cookbooks—Mexican, Scottish, stirfry, vegan—and I save recipes on Pinterest by the hundreds. Experimenting alone in my kitchen provides a kind of catharsis that some people find in a warm bubble bath and a glass of red wine. But I’m perplexed by pasta, and making it alone at home— following a recipe in a cookbook, no less—just seems sacrilegious.
As a kid, I had a close, Italian- American friend whose house became a culinary hub during the holidays. Whether it was Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, her family’s kitchen transformed into a small factory where her Italian-born nonna, her mom and any other female family members within reach assembled to make spaghetti. And not the pin-thin, stick-straight variety that comes in a rectangular box. Rather, the homemade noodles that eventually covered every flat, wax-papered surface in my friend’s kitchen were thick, knobby and seldom uniform in their shape and length. And no matter how many years or holidays have passed since then, I’ve never forgotten how heavenly they tasted.
Nor, it turns out, have I been able to recreate them at home, which is what’s brought me here to Irwin Street. On the evening’s syllabus is ravioli, not spaghetti, but the sentiment is the same: Pasta-making requires not cookbooks, nor Pinterest, but other people. There are a dozen others here tonight—some couples enjoying a date night, others out for an evening with friends—and we spend three hours kneading our mounds of flour and eggs into smooth balls of dough, rolling them into sheets, carefully cutting them into squares, filling them with a fluffy mixture of ricotta, mozzarella and herbs before watching them bounce around in a pot of boiling water. There’s not a KitchenAid mixer or a pasta machine in sight. Instead, we do everything by hand, which is just the way it should be. We sip wine while we work, and Chef Jake offers praise for straight-edged squares of dough and encouragement to students who haven’t quite gotten the hang of it.
When everyone’s pasta has finished cooking, we plate it, smother it in tomato sauce (made by Chef Jake as we worked) and seat ourselves around a long table to taste what we’ve just created. I take note of my raviolis’ varying sizes and for a moment wish I’d been more precise with my knife. But then I think back to my friend’s kitchen and remember that there’s no right or wrong way to do this, that part of the fun of making pasta is in its imperfection. I split a square of ravioli in half with the edge of my fork and watch with wide eyes as a gooey ribbon of ricotta and mozzarella oozes out. I push the pasta across my plate to soak up some of Chef Jake’s sauce, and I lift the bite to my mouth. Suddenly, I’m back in my friend’s kitchen, feasting on homemade pasta that’s flavored with, among other things, love. And I’m pretty sure that her nonna would be proud.
The Cooking School at Irwin Street
660 Irwin St. N.E., 30312
STORY: Lindsay Lambert Day
Photo: Sara Hanna