Midway through her demonstration, Kelly Messori sprinkled a pinch of salt around a ring of flour on the metal table in front of her. Inside a ragged circle, nine egg yolks beamed like little liquid suns.
It wasn’t until several minutes later, after she’d kneaded the mixture into a tight, yellowish ball, that Messori realized her mistake. This was ravioli dough, meant to be tender, thin and easy to fold — she hadn’t meant to add salt at all.
Turning to the assembled class in FEED Kitchens, Messori laughed.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” she said.
Messori, the chef and owner of Big Mouth Pasta, has been teaching classes and hosting pasta pop-ups around Madison for the better part of a year. A former pastry chef, she was inspired to learn the ways of fresh pasta from her husband Damián Messori’s family in Argentina, using a pasta machine once owned by Damián’s Italian grandmother.
On this day in FEED Kitchens on the north side, Kelly Messori had gathered a dozen aspiring home pasta makers around a table, distributing powder-fine "00" flour, semolina, eggs and ricotta cheese for the hands-on preparation of silky pappardelle and ridged raviolis.
With her minor salt slip-up, Messori had inadvertently illustrated one of the class’s most important lessons. Fresh pasta forgives.
“Not all of your doughs are going to turn out the same. You’ll learn how to adjust,” said Messori. “Pasta’s different than baking. Baking’s so precise. When I went to pastry school we had to measure out everything with a scale.”
At times, for a Big Mouth pop-up dinner at Macha Tea Company, Pasture & Plenty or Gib’s cocktail bar, Messori will use a scale to portion pasta ingredients by weight. That way is faster, but it’s not necessary.
“When I’m just at home I do it by cups,” Messori said. “You can always add a little more flour, a little more water. It’s pretty forgiving.”
Over three hours on a winter Sunday afternoon, Messori coached pasta newbies into “confident pasta makers.” Each team rolled and pressed, piping soft cheese from a bag and pinching ravioli pillows into rectangles, each about as wide as a 50-cent piece.
“The ingredients are simple,” said Spencer Holten, who with his wife Katie Holten takes cooking classes for fun. “But the strategy, how you go about making it, is labor intensive if you’re making it by hand.”
After incorporating the dry ingredients (flour, semolina, salt) into the wet (eggs, olive oil, water) using a fork, each pair of pasta makers gathered the mixture into a dough, rolling and folding until it wasn’t sticky anymore.
The dough experienced a kind of alchemy as it started to stretch. That elasticity seemed even more extraordinary as cooks fed the pasta, sheet by lengthening sheet, into hand-crank pasta presses and a royal blue KitchenAid with a pasta attachment.
“You can follow a recipe,” Messori said. “It’s good, though, to take a class. Pasta dough is really about feel. You have to learn how it feels.”
Turning out rank and file of raviolini is not the kind of task most would undertake on a weeknight. And while a pasta maker (like one from Imperia, $75 on Amazon) isn’t strictly essential — a heavy rolling pin has done Italian nonnas fine for centuries — it does make the process easier and faster for novices and busy cooks. The dough can even be mixed in a food processor or stand mixer.
“It takes about 15 minutes to make a ball of dough,” Messori said. “That’s me now — it might take you 30 minutes at first. I know a lot of people think it’s so much work.
“Well, it is. But it’s worth it, I think. It doesn’t take too long and you get a really superior product.”
Once it’s made, fresh pasta cooks in a matter of minutes in salted boiling water.
“I always just grab one out and cut off a corner and test it,” Messori said. “And save your pasta water. All that starchy water will be good for your sauce.”
Big Mouth has offered several pasta classes like this already. Her next offering is an advanced make-and-take pasta class on hand shaped pasta and gnocchi (a basic class or some pasta-making knowledge is a prerequisite) on Sunday, March 18 at FEED Kitchens. Another intro class, this one at Madison Sourdough, is set for Saturday, March 24.
For those who just want to eat, Big Mouth’s next pop-up dinner is Thursday, March 22, at The Robin Room cocktail bar on East Johnson Street. And until March 24, Big Mouth is taking orders for freshly made pasta and sauce, ready to be picked up or dropped off (in Madison) by March 26.
Big Mouth’s intro to pasta making tends to draw those who have never attempted pasta before. Barb Hellegers, a Belleville woman who came the class with her friend Christy Pier, said she relied on Barilla or Creamette dried pasta before this.
“I learn by doing so much better than watching,” Hellegers said. “I’m going to throw a dinner party now.”