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Silk Handkerchiefs with Basil Pesto from Liguria



From Pasta Grannies: Comfort Cooking by Vicky Bennison, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $45 AUD, available in-stores nationally.

PREP 45 minutes


Mandilli di saea’ translates as silk handkerchiefs; these large pasta squares should be very thin and light. And our Pasta Granny who shared her recipe with us is artist Nadia, who lives in the mountains of Liguria near Lumarzo. She is keen on living in harmony with nature; she won’t even disturb spiders’ cobwebs because she says ‘they have a job to do’. And she is in the right spot to enjoy her surroundings: from her kitchen-sink window she looks out at the edge of a forest and regularly sees deer and the occasional wolf.

She loves growing her own vegetables and cooking from scratch. She even makes her own flour using locally grown whole wheat; it has a wonderful nutty aroma, but don’t worry, you do not need to do this! We tested her recipe using 00 flour. If you do want to copy Nadia and use your own wholewheat flour, then sift the flour first, to remove the flakes of bran, otherwise your silk handkerchiefs will be more hessian in texture.


400 g (3⅓ cups) 00 flour

220 g egg or 4 large eggs


1 garlic clove

70 g Italian pine nuts, raw or lightly toasted

60 g Genovese basil leaves

120 ml (½ cup) extra-virgin olive oil (ideally soft, grassy-flavoured Ligurian oil)

50 g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated

50 g Pecorino Sardo, grated

fine sea salt, to taste

To begin with, weigh out your eggs and flour separately. Tip the flour onto a pasta board and make a generous well in the middle in which to pour your eggs.

Crack the eggs into the well. Use a fork or your fingers to scramble them as if you are making an omelette; the liquid should not be clumpy with yolk and white but properly mixed together. Then, slowly draw in a bit of flour at a time, making sure there’s a consistently smooth mixture with no flour-bergs. Eventually you’ll end up with a bit of a shaggy mess which you should heap together; start working this dough into a ball. Use a light touch when the egg is still wet, so you do not get too much stuck to your hands.

When you have a ball of pasta dough and no flour left on the board, start kneading the dough. This is a soft massage where you use your body weight to lean in on the pasta and make a dent with the heel of your hand and push forward on the board. Flatten, push, then pull the pasta back over itself constantly for 10 minutes. Time it. You will end up with a smooth and bouncy ball of pasta.

Once it’s kneaded, place the dough in a bowl that fits the size of your ball and cover it with a close-fitting lid or dampened cloth which has not been cleaned in perfumed detergent; air is the enemy of pasta, and you don’t want it to dry out. Let this rest for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough as thinly as possible; you should be able to read through it! This equates to 0.5 mm thickness. You can use a pasta machine if you think you won’t be able to manage this.

Dust flour over the pasta sheet then roll it up around your rolling pin, take a knife and slice lengthways through all the layers. The pasta will fall from the pin in rectangular strips which are magically the same width. Pile the strips one on top of the other and slice them horizontally to create squares. The exact size will depend slightly on the thickness of your rolling pin, but they should be about 15 cm (6 in) squares. Well done if they remind you of silk hankies!

To make the pesto, remove the skin from the garlic clove and halve the clove lengthways. If there’s a green shoot (or anima, as Italians call it), hoik it out and discard.

Put the clove in a mortar with the pine nuts, then pound with the pestle and grind the two together into a rough paste.

Wash and dry the basil leaves thoroughly. Add a handful at a time to the mortar, with a pinch of salt, then pound and grind the leaves into the paste.

Stir through the grated cheeses and loosen the mixture with some of the extra-virgin olive oil; you may not need all of it. You now have a thick but stirrable pesto. If you want to use a stick blender or food processor, the result will be smoother and the flavour very slightly different, but not significant enough to cause face-pulling at the table.

Photography: Lizzie Mayson

Photography: Lizzie Mayson

Photograph: Lizzie Mayson


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