For many families, recipes form a lessico famigliare, a family lexicon that, like egg yolks in pasta dough, binds its members together in ways that words cannot. A mother tongue can be lost, the dulcet, lilting tones of a grandmother’s dialect forgotten, but a recipe speaks with more than just the tongue.
Just as the smell of orange blossom will bring me back to my nonna’s garden, making pasta brings me into her presence. And there is one type of pasta that does this above all: dundari.
Dun-da-ri. Three simple syllables linking at least four generations. A type of dumpling not dissimilar from gnocchi, but a lot less fussy. Though the origins of the recipe are unknown, for my family, they reside in the hands of my great-grandmother, Eufamia.
FOR THE DUMPLINGS
200g or approx. 1.5 c. ‘00’ flour
225g or approx. 1 c. ricotta
3 egg yolks (the best you can afford)
20-30g or 3-4 tbs. freshly grated parmesan
a little pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
a pinch of salt
a pinch of pepper
FOR THE SAUCE
a good glug of olive oil
2 tins of tomatoes (the best you can afford)
3 cloves of garlic, crushed with the palm of your hand and roughly chopped
1 red chili, chopped (use more or less depending on your tastes)
a handful of basil leaves, torn, not chopped
1. There are no better tools for making pasta than your own hands. I don’t own a pasta machine, and it wasn’t all that long ago that I didn’t own a rolling pin. A lot can be done, however, with the side of an old wine bottle, a clothes horse, and the sweltering Amalfitan heat.
2. The inspiration to make pasta comes to me at the most inopportune times, particularly after white nights of high-jinks and gin. As I mix the dry ingredients together, I reflect that the correlation (and the liminal state linking last night and this morning) is, while strange, easily traced back to a desire for ritual in the face of chaos. To make pasta is a gesture of love, and isn’t that, after all, what we all seek in times of frailty?
3. The eggs seem to sympathize with my physiology as I crack them into the bowl:three merry, deep-orange yolks that bind the dough and impart the color of their souls upon it.
4. When I make pasta, I think of my father’s large, calloused working-man’s hands, boxing mitts next to my own. I think of the stories he would tell of how I would sit neatly in the palm of one of those hands as a baby, weighing little more than a bag of sugar. His hands were not pasta-making hands, but my grandmother’s were, and, as I knead everything together on a floured surface, I wonder at which point I will look down and find that it is her hands that I see bringing the bright crumb together into a delightful, elastic dough.
5. Dundari are traditionally served on the feast day of Minori’s patron saint, Santa Trofimena. A young girl of Sicilian origin, Santa Trofimena is said to have become a martyr after being murdered by her father for declaring her faith. Her remains were put in an urn and thrown out to sea, which the people of Minori collected , carrying them upon two white calves. Along their journey, the calves are said to have stopped and refused to go any further, and where they stopped, a church was built and dedicated to her. A number of miracles are attributed to her, and perhaps this recipe could be said to be one of them. Once the dough becomes elastic and silky, divide it into 2-4 rounds and roll these into sausage-like ropes. Make your dumplings by cutting the ropes at a slight angle to create a rhombus shape.
6. Life on the Amalfi Coast during, and even before, the war was difficult. Families were large, and very little had to go a very long way. Cook the dumplings for 3-4 minutes in a large pan of boiling water, salted like the sea. Recipes such as this one, in their speed and their spread, have sated the families of the Amalfi coast for centuries.
7. To prepare the sauce, heat the olive oil in a frying pan and lightly fry the garlic together with the chili for about a minute before adding the tinned tomatoes. I like to keep the chili seeds in—they are the soul of the fruit—but every palate is different, and it is always good to taste your chilies first.Simmer the sauce for about five minutes to allow for the flavors to combine and for the reduction to bring a silky texture to the sauce.As the scent fills the kitchen, I am filled with the memories of Italian voices: loud, overwhelming, all-encompassing, reassuring.
8. Remove the dumplings from the pan with a slotted spoon and add to the sauce. Again, making pasta is an act of love, and when I serve dundari, I am serving just that: love.To eat together is an act of communion: I am giving not just the work of my hands, but that of my forebears, each mouthful bringing us, for a little while, back into the fold.
9. Serve with liberal amounts of freshly torn basil.
Concepta Cassar was born in South London and is of Irish, Italian and Maltese extraction. She has lived in Cork, Paris, and Florence, and enjoys cooking, reading, traveling and foraging. She is a ghostwriter, researcher, and translator, and writes about food at purepabulum.wordpress.com.