Pizzoccheri is a substantial, earthy buckwheat pasta dish from Valtellina, the northeast, mountainous part of Lombardy, near to the Swiss border. It is an earthy dish with lots of cheese and butter, with potatoes and savoy cabbage, suitable for cold weather and big appetites – comfort food. Actually, there is also a lighter, more spring-like version of pizzoccheri, where cabbage is replaced by fagiolini, fine spring green beans. In other words, there is always a right time to enjoy this beautiful pasta dish.
Strictly speaking pizzoccheri is the name of the finished, assembled dish, while the actual pasta is called tajarid (in the local dialect), but even in Italy few people know this difference and everyone tends to use the word pizzoccheri for the finished dish and the pasta itself. Pizzoccheri are short, more or less chubby noodles made with dark, coarse buckwheat (grano saraceno in Italian) and a small percentage of wheat flour: the buckwheat gives them a pleasant chewiness, the wheat brings in some lightness.
They are eggless, fresh pasta that, ideally and according to purists, should be made not long before cooking them. These days, however, unless one happens to be in Valtellina, most Italians are more likely to have sampled the good quality dried version of pizzoccheri that most supermarkets stock and the ones I too have found here in the UK. Actually, fresh pizzoccheri are not that difficult to make at home, with one caveat: buckwheat flour is gluten-free so is not easily worked with – you must add some wheat flour to it in order to achieve a cohesive, supple pasta dough. The ratio varies: I have seen recipes calling for half wheat, half buckwheat, which makes a dough that is easy to work with but lacks character; I tend to adopt a ratio of 3 or 4 parts buckwheat to 1 part wheat flour, using room temperature water as a binder. I sometimes make the dough the day before rolling it.
The fresh pizzoccheri I tasted in Italy were generally like small tagliatelle, 10-12 cm long and 1 cm wide, the box version is shorter and fatter and that is they way I make them at home – nothing is written in stone. Egg pasta dough is generally rolled very thin, pizzoccheri on the contrary can, and actually must, be a little thicker, 3 mmm is about right: the lack of gluten in the buckwheat flour means that if they are too thin, they will break up.
They are generally cooked with savoy cabbage (and/or swiss chards) and potatoes and then layered into a large casserole dish, alternating pasta & vegetables with grated Grana/Parmesan cheese and the local, beautifully melting cheese Casera, ideally a young mild one. A copious quantity of hazelnut butter, flavored with garlic and, sometimes, sage, is poured over the dish, which is then quickly dispatched to the table. This is the most traditional way of serving pizzoccheri. I also love the more unusual version where the whole pasta dish, once cooked and assembled, is baked in a very hot oven, until a light crust is formed. If you like this approach, check also this Mark Bitman link: he tops the pizzoccheri with breadcrumbs, which adds an extra dimension of delicious buttery crispiness, untraditional as it is.
Many English language versions of this dish suggest using fontina cheese instead of the more difficult to find Casera cheese and I have occasionally used it myself. Sometimes I have even used raclette. These strong cheeses work but make the dish almost too rich. To be truer to the original version, a better choice would be to find any local not too assertive young cheese, with good melting qualities. On the vegetable front, the dish works equally well with mature spinach, swish chards, spring greens and brussels sprout tops.
Before starting check this lovely video and this useful video.
PIzzoccheri/buckwehat pasta with cabbage, potatoes and lots of butter
buckwheat flour – 300 g
00 Italian flour or plain white flour – 100g
water – 200ml approximately, each brand of buckwheat absorbs water differently
savoy cabbage – 500g, finely sliced
boiling potatoes – 4 medium, peeled, sliced and left in cold water
unsalted butter – 100g
garlic – 3 peeled cloves
grated Grana or Parmesan cheese – 100g
mild, melting cheese – 250g
Before starting, remember that buckwheat dough does not behave like traditional pasta dough: it is always a little wetter and you will need plenty of flour to avoid it sticking to the counter. The pasta can be made by hand or using a food processor. If using a food processor add three-quarters of the water to the flours and process until the dough barely comes together. Let it rest for 15 minutes to fully hydrate the flour and add the remaining water until a soft, supple dough is reached.
If making by hand, place the mixed flours onto a working surface and create a crater in the middle of it; pour the water gradually and start mixing it in with a spatula, with a cutting and folding movement. Finish by hand and knead until a supple dough is reached.
Rest the dough covered for 30 minutes.
To make the sfoglia, divide the dough into few pieces and roll them to a disk shape 3mm thick. Cut into strips 12 cm wide. Place few strips on top of the other, dusting them with flour and cut them into small tagliatelle: 12 cm long x 1 cm wide. Here you have: fresh pizzoccheri.! You could also pass the dough through the rollers of a hand crackled cranked pasta machine, rolling the dough up to the last but two notches. Cut each stripe into pizzoccheri as above.
Bring a pot of water to the boil, salt it and add the potatoes. when they are almost done, add the pizzoccheri and the cabbage: the pasta should cook in about 6-7 minutes and this short cooking time keeps the cabbage bright green. Meantime melt the butter in a saucepan, with the garlic and sage, if using. The butter must reach the noisette/hazelnut color stage.
Grate the Parmesan and cut the cheese into thin slivers.
I do not follow tradition and instead of fishing the pasta out with a spider and then layering it in a dish, I prefer to drain it normally, without shaking it too much and reserving some of its cooking water. I pour the pasta back into its cooking pot and add the condiment. I then transfer the pot back onto a medium-high heat and I coat everything in the flavored butter. When everything is super hot again I add the cheeses and mix, adding some of the reserved hot water if necessary to loosen the whole. If you want the baked version, pop the dish in a preheated very hot oven for about 15 minutes. Let it settle for a few minutes before devouring.
Pass some black pepper around: a very nice final touch
Leftovers pizzocheri are delicious: reheat them in a buttered pan, without stirring too much, so that they have the chance to develop a good cheesy crust
Sometimes I have treated myself to “pizzoccheri without pizzoccheri”: just the vegetables, lightly steamed, dressed with beurre noisette and cheeses.
Once by mistake I used rye flour instead of buckwheat and the result was equally good
Traditionally pizzoccheri is an eggless pasta and in contemporary Valtellina they still do not use eggs. However I have also seen reputable printed sources using eggs, Marcella Hazan, Anna del Conte and Luigi Veronelli, for instance.. Eggs tenderize the dough, make it easier to work with and richer. I make my pizzoccheri without eggs because I like the unadulterated taste of buckwheat.