One of the great pleasures of cooking Italian is that it offers an amazing array of culinary styles and it is not unusual even for the experienced cook to stumble across completely unheard of foods, recipes and dishes.
Take this pasta, for example: mlinci. Before reading the recipe a few years ago in Marcella Hazan’s Marcella Says (a lovely, underrated book), I had never heard of this dish. The description sounded intriguing: you make an egg pasta dough with plain flour and polenta (maize/corn) flour; the sfoglia (the rolled out dough) is cut up in pieces and toasted on top of a hot pan. Then these irregular pasta pieces are boiled in the usual way and dressed with sauce.
A pasta that is toasted and boiled? I searched through my library and I could not find anything similar. I then checked on the internet and I did find something, but mainly in the context of Slovenian food. It appears that mlinci are a Slovenian speciality of wheat pasta, toasted and boiled, generally eaten with roast turkey. The only reference I found to mlinci being an Italian speciality too comes from the same source Hazan herself used for the recipe: chef Josko Sirk, owner of Trattoria al Cacciatore, in Cormons, which is actually a stone’s throw away from the Slovenian border, in Friuli Venezia Giulia (North-east Italy). In one interview Josko Sirk says that mlinci were common fare in those mountainous areas between Italy and Slovenia where the weather is damp and cold: fresh egg pasta did not have a chance to dry and toasting was a way of preserving it for future use. So here it is: mlinci is a typical example of cucina di frontiera, the cooking of neighbouring territories, where identities are more fluid. What makes Josko Sirk’s mlinci special is that they are made with a combination of plain flour and (fine) maize flour (their taste is reminiscent of tortillas), whilst most of the Slovenian mlinci I have found are made with wheat flour. Josko Sirk’s mlinci have a lovely, subtle toasted/smokey flavour that goes particularly well with rich, deep game ragùs.
It took a few attempts to get this pasta right. I found that Hazan’s recipe is, for once, a little sketchy. She says to mix 1 1/2 cup plain flour + 2/3 cup polenta flour + 3 eggs into a dough and to roll it through a pasta machine. I used a quality coarse polenta flour and the dough was a nightmare to roll through my Imperia – actually it was impossible. I then switched to a finer polenta flour and things went far more smoothly. However, it was only when I let the dough rest for a few hours and rolled the pasta by hand (as seen in many Slovenian videos) that I got excellent results. The toasting of the pasta (I used a heavy large frying pan and a cooking stone) takes longer than the one minute Hazan says: it must be accomplished on a low heat and for a longer time. You can also toast the dough in the oven.
The proportions I give here are the ones suggested by chef Josko Sirk: the traditional ration of 1 egg per 100 g flour. A sfoglia (rolled dough) made with 2 eggs is plenty for 4 people.
150 g 00 flour
50 g medium-fine polenta flour (if you have only coarse polenta, grind it in a coffee grinder)
2 large eggs
warm water, qb (qb means Quanto Basta= “as much as needed” and it is a lovely, typical Italian culinary expression)
You can mix the dough by hand, with a food processor or with a mixer
I preferred the food processor for this dough. Place all the ingredients (minus the warm water) into the bowl and process until the dough just comes together, using the pulse button. Let it rest for 15-20 minutes. Check the dough and if you feel it is not soft enough, add a little warm water and process again. The final dough should be supple like regular egg pasta dough. Wrap it in cling film and let it rest for a couple of hours at room temperature (or even longer in the fridge).
Divide the dough into 6 pieces, work on one at a time and leave the others covered. Heat up a heavy frying pan on low: the pan must become very, very hot. Roll out each piece of dough, either by hand or by machine. The pasta must be quite thin but it will never be as thin as regular egg pasta. Toast each piece till light gold on both sides and speckled with darker, golden-reddish spots. Cool. Break into smaller pieces if necessary.
Mlinci can be stored for ages, once dried.
You cook them as if they were normal pasta; in plenty of boiling, salted water. I used them with:
a wild rabbit sauce
savoy cabbage and potatoes, treating them as pizzoccheri
with butter and parmesan
and in soups, for pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpea soup)
my wild rabbit sauce:
One wild rabbit, cut up, salted and marinated in red wine, overnight (carrot, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaf, peppercorns, cinnamon, juniper berries). When ready to cook, I fried diced pancetta in a heavy casserole and I then tipped the rabbit & marinade onto the pancetta. I have added some chopped tomatoes too. The meat was half submerged in liquid. I covered it with a parchment cartouche and stewed in a very low oven (90 C) for about 12 hours. I left the rabbit cool down. I shredded the meat by hand and passed all the vegetable through a mouli-legume. The sauce was reduced and the meat returned to it. It was left to mature for one day in the fridge.