It’s no secret that I LOVE Italian food. I’ve lost count of how many love letters to Italy feature in this blog, from passionate pasta rambles to alluring adventures in Tuscany or the Dolomites. There is a lot of Italy on Eat with Ellen and that’s because I love it. The landscapes, the wine, the food and most importantly – the Italians’ attitude to all of that. It’s there to be enjoyed, shared, savoured and dwelled on. Food is an occasion, a celebration, something to share with your nearest and dearest and the centrepiece to a great social occasion.
With that in mind, when Marks & Spencer offered me the chance to join them for an evening of Italian cookery, learning about where they get their ingredients from and then learning exactly what to do with them courtesy of one of their own chefs, I jumped at the chance and found myself tootling along to Food at 52 Cookery School in London hoping to come away with newfound knowledge and cooking skills to replicate some of my fond favourites and, if that didn’t work, at least a full belly of some great Italian grub cooked by someone far more skilful than me.
You know you’re on to a good thing when within 30 seconds of walking through the door you’re clutching an Aperol Spritz, picking at an endless array of antipasti and looking dizzily around a room of far more experienced and influential bloggers than yourself.
Pretty soon we were whisked downstairs to the kitchen (the perfect Insta-kitchen I might add) where M&S Development Chef Jon Jones got ready to talk us through our feast for the evening. On the menu was hand-cut pappardelle with wild mushroom and truffle; Nduja-filled tortellini; spinach and ricotta-filled ravioli with basil pesto, and the obligatory tiramisu.
We started with a demonstration of each bit from Jon, complete with some tips that even the most experienced amongst us (not me, obvs) weren’t aware of. To me it was all new, and I found myself desperately trying to note down all the instructions in the vain hope that one day I might be able to replicate this in my own (slightly less-Instaworthy kitchen).
Up first was the tiramisu, one of my faves, though something I get lots of people don’t like and can often be hit and miss – too much coffee, wrong consistency, not enough booze. Jon walked us through the process of mixing mascarpone, cream and Marsala, then mixing espresso and amaretto to make the perfect ‘dunking liquid’ for the sponge fingers. Layer them together with a layer of what is effectively a zabaglione. He also added amaretto biscuits for extra texture – good plan I thought.
From there we moved on to something far more complicated (in my head anyway). Pasta.
Now it might just be me, but do you find that pasta just tastes SO MUCH BETTER in an Italian restaurant or in Italy than it does at home. Mr M can eat bowl after bowl of dried pasta, but it just doesn’t do it for me. In fact, even when I’ve bought fresh pasta from the supermarket it doesn’t quite hit the spot. Actually, the opposite – it hits my stomach and sits there like a brick, making me feel full, bloated and usually hugely guilty.
So why is it, then, that in Italy or even in a restaurant, I can happily tuck into a plate of pasta and love every moment, floating off afterwards feeling light as a feather despite my carb-fest. I’m fairly sure it must be to do with it being homemade – either that or it’s purely psychosomatic…
Jon takes us through the pasta-making process. It all seems quite simple really – pasta flour and eggs combined together, though in slightly different proportions depending on whether you’re making pasta you intend to cut (stuff like tagliatelle or papardelle) or pasta you want to play with and fill (think tortellini or ravioli). Basically, you want a stiffer dough for hand-cut pasta which has more egg yolks in it, and something a bit softer and easier to manipulate for filled pasta. And fear not – the recipes are AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST (so you have to read the whole thing to get to them ;-))
We’re shown how to roll out the dough with one of those funky pasta machines that I’ve watched my brother use expertly, an Italian chef use expertly, and now an M&S chef use expertly yet still doubt I could manage one unsupervised. It’s times like this I wish I was a vlogger or at least should make more use of my YouTube channel (if you haven’t looked, it’s HERE) because then I could actually show you that I was concentrating and give step by step instructions on how he did it.
Instead, you’ll have to trust me when I cryptically say it’s all about starting on the widest setting and gradually reducing it, and it’s also all about book turns. Yes, book turns. Nuff said. He shows us how to cut it into ribbons to form parpardelle, then also how to form it into gorgeous little tortellini and ravioli to stuff our fillings into. These we’d made earlier and I’m happy to say they’re pretty simple – cooked spinach drained and mixed with ricotta and a bit of lemon zest and nutmeg and pork mince mixed with spicy Nduja.
As Jon regaled us with tales of visiting M&S suppliers out in Italy, including trying to impress a whole bunch of Italian ‘nonnas’ (that’s grandmas to you and me), he made the whole process look relatively simple. But not so simple that it didn’t still put the fear of god into me when he looked up from his perfectly constructed pasta and told us to go off and give it a go ourselves.
Luckily I found myself with blogger and surprise pasta queen Michelle from Greedy Gourmet and between us we managed to make some pretty impressive papardelle, tempting tortellini and ravishing ravioli (sorry, I can’t help it, I love alliteration). Funnily enough, I didn’t find it as hard as I thought and even caught myself wondering if I might actually, just actually, be able to do this at home.
In fact, it wasn’t just me. The pressure was on as our own efforts were going to be dinner for the evening and it seems that everyone rose to the challenge (no surprise since some of them are probably better cooks than some chefs) and between us we produced a rather impressive-looking pile of pasta.
While we took a jaunt back upstairs for drinks Jon and his fellow M&S chefs cooked our creations into a proper meal and we returned to find this waiting for us. Yes. I know. Not just that, they whacked in an extra dish of beetroot-filled ravioli, with a bit more antipasti to add to the feast.
In case I hadn’t made it clear, this is my kind of food. Simple, rustic, convivial. The kind where you all have to dig in, reaching over each other, passing things, all accompanied by some great music and the hubbub of people nattering the night away. It’s one thing to create good-tasting food, but food that brings with it such warmth and ambience is a real treat.
Far too soon, I’d had firsts, seconds, one-and-a-half portions of the tiramisu (which I have to say was one of the nicest I think I’ve ever had – perfectly balanced in terms of booze, coffee, creaminess, bitterness, sweetness, and also in texture) and too many Aperol Spritzes and it was time to go.
I’ve wondered a few times if that night would have been as much fun if we’d been tackling a different cuisine. Perhaps it’s something about the crowd-pleasing world of Italian food that brought a gang of bloggers together to get their hands covered in dough, roll out miles of pasta and share a feast that some might think was more appropriate for a family than a bunch of strangers. Who knows. All I know if I came away with a cemented love of Italian food but also the newfound idea that I might, just might, be able to cook a bit myself.
So here we go, Jon’s pasta dough recipe. Let me know if you try it….
Pasta Dough Recipe
Serves: 4 portions of hand cut or filled pasta
Preparation time: 15 minutes + 4 hours resting
Ingredients for hand cut pasta
130g 00 pasta flour
4 egg yolks
Ingredients for filled pasta
130g 00 pasta flour
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
Mix the dough by incorporating the egg with the flour and work together until a rough textured
dough forms. Continue to knead the dough until its smooth and supple. Wrap in cling film and rest
for 4 hours.
I was invited to the Italian Cookery Evening by Marks & Spencer, who have launched a new pasta feature on their website so you can find out about all the different types of pasta, where they’re from, and some of M&S’s own sauces and recommendations. This is a sponsored blog post.