At flour + water in San Francisco, Chef Thomas McNaughton is known for his stuffed pasta dishes, starring shapes and structures most of us have never even heard of. Each one lends its distinctive texture to a finished dish, creating that perfect balance of pasta, filling and sauce that makes the finished product shine.
For large stuffed pasta shapes, such as tortelloni, Thomas recommends serving 8-10 pieces per person. For medium stuffed pastas (tortelli, mezzalune), aim for 12-14 pieces per person. For small shapes, 18-20 pieces.
Seal the dough firmly but gently. Don’t squeeze the pasta too much; don’t mash it. Once adhered, the dough will stick just fine. The goal is to form shapes with uniform thickness, which will allow for even cooking.
Don’t be afraid to twist and turn the pastas shapes. Many of the shapes are complex and require some dramatic twists. You obviously don’t want to tear the dough, but the pasta should be pliable enough to stretch and twist with ease.
When dealing with stuffed pastas, be sure to push all of the air out of the filling.
What are some of the stuffed pasta dishes you make most often in the restaurant?
We change the menu pretty much every day, so it evolves – dishes don’t stay on that long. But a couple always come back. We do a Taleggio Scarpinocc with Balsamic. It’s one of the most complicated shapes with the most simple flavors. Scarpinocc is incredibly difficult to make, but we just do a simple butter sauce and old balsamic. It’s the most requested dish here, so we always have it. We have seven pastas on our a la carte menu and five on our tasting menu every night, but we always have maybe 25 or 30 things back there. There’s also a Piedmontese-style agnolotti that always comes back. For that, we cook a bunch of different meats in the wood oven.
What are some of your personal favorite shapes to make?
Our vegetable-based stuffed pastas are amazing. The Pumpkin Tortelloni is an extremely traditional pasta from Emilia-Romagna, but in the cookbook we put our own twist on it. In Italy if you do something different within a region, it’s blasphemy. We add toasted pistachios – that would be blasphemous there, but it’s kind of our own twist. It’s still based on something very classic.
What’s the ideal texture and balance you’re going for in a stuffed pasta dish?
Especially for stuffed pasta, it’s all about the ratio of filling to actual pasta itself. They are all completely different. Triangoli a triangle-shaped stuffed pasta, has a large amount of filling, so we can’t have a really funky cheese like taleggio – it’s so intense. Scarpinocc has a high pasta-to-filling ratio, so it works. You have to think about the balance of ingredients and how the texture affects how you’re going to eat it.
Is there an art to pairing shapes with filling and sauces? What are your guidelines?
Italian food is so incredibly regional, even from town to town. In Emilia-Romagna, something like a cappelletti is made differently in every single town, and everyone has their unique take on it.
We really try to stick to, or learn something from, tradition, making regional Italian food without turning our backs on California ingredients. There’s an Italian ideology of, let’s work with what grows around here, treat it simply, and put it on a plate. We start with that basis, so there’s a story that goes behind the heritage of the pasta. But we’re putting our own California twist on it. That’s really important to us.
So, a pappardelle is traditionally done with hearty meat-based ragus and sauces. It’s such a thick, dense noodle – we wouldn’t do a really light, vegetable-based pappardelle. That’s because of a) tradition and b) how that noodle eats.
What’s an unfamiliar pasta shape you’d recommend people try at home?
Pici. It’s one of my favorite noodles. The closest thing like it is udon. It’s made with semolina, 00 flour and salted water – there are no eggs in it. It’s a hand-pulled noodle whose texture is out of this world, completely different from spaghetti. It’s a really great beginner pasta. It doesn’t take a machine; you just need a bench knife. It’s really easy to produce.
Can you share any tips for stuffing pasta?
Every single dough we make is not completely paper thin; each takes a different thickness. It’s just about experimenting and rolling it out.
Always start with a little less filling until you nail down the shape. Get the shape down, then fill it to the max.
Go to a hair salon and get a spray bottle, and use that to seal the dough, as glue. Give it a spritz of water before sealing. In Italy they teach you that egg wash is too thick, and when you seal and boil it, it tastes like scrambled eggs. When you’re using a brush, you’re not evenly distributing it and using too much water. Just spray on a thin layer that evenly distributes it. Then seal the pasta.
Can you stuff pasta ahead? What’s the best way to store it?
Stuffed pasta should go on a semolina-lined tray. Don’t put it directly on the work surface right away, because the moisture will seep through and it will stick. Put it in the fridge, but never wrap it in plastic wrap – keep it exposed to the air. You can put the tray directly in the freezer for an our, then come back and scoop it into a bag so it’s ready to go.
What about pasta ingredients? With just flour, water, salt, eggs and olive oil, what do you look for in each component?
Buy farm-fresh eggs, which have so much more flavor. Flour is really important, too. You can get 00 flour in most supermarkets now, but there’s a shelf life to four, just like spices or carts. You would never go into the grocery store and buy shriveled up carrots. It’s really important to buy flour from a place that rotates through it.
Find recipes in Thomas’s new book, Flour + Water: Pasta.