Who knew a bag of flour could give me the same visceral excitement as a wig reveal? I hadn’t managed to get hold of any for weeks. Whilst others pined for a weekend in Chamonix or a coke binge at Fabric, the only white powder I was missing was ground wheat. Just as I was giving up hope of ever baking again, divine intervention struck. I was in my local Asian supermarket, deeply absorbed by the tinned kimchi. I thought I was going to be the next Heston by putting it in a toastie – a grilled kimcheese if you will. (I later found out that the internet was full of recipes to this effect. Embarrassingly there was even a Vice article about it). Lost in my fermented cabbage reverie, I almost missed the bag of plain flour that was hiding near the sushi rice. I would’ve cried, had I not already spend the morning sobbing over a particularly delicious crumpet.
With great power comes great responsibility. Now I was in possession of this precious white saffron, what should I do with it? Everyone and their dog has been baking banana bread, but I wanted my flour to be for a higher purpose. I was a bit late to the party to make the famous numbing noodles and attempting ciabatta felt like a risk. I decided it had to be pasta. Yes the flour wasn’t 00, but desperate times etc.
With only a limited amount of the stuff, my pasta needed to be perfect. I thought wistfully of all the best pastas I’d eaten. A squid ink spaghetti number at a restaurant in Venice. Artichoke, pecorino and bacon tagliolini in Rome. Tahini pasta at a friend’s house in Raynes Park (you may raise an eyebrow but it was delicious). But something I tried recently blew all the others out of the water – pici with pistachios. I ate this in a small Tuscan village whilst deeply hungover, having just watched a reconstruction of a medieval archery contest. The crossbow skills were mediocre but the pasta was in a league of its own. I tried to recreate this dreamy dish when I was in Sicily, which is as famous for pistachios as it is for organised crime. The results were varied at first but I’ve finally perfected it. If you’re lucky enough to have some flour to hand, give muffins a miss. This pasta won’t disappoint.
Pici with pistachios
For the pici:
220g plain flour
130g semolina flour
a generous pinch of salt
1 tbsp olive oil
35g shelled, unsalted pistachios, ground into a powder
35g pecorino cheese, finely grated
Try to buy pre-shelled pistachios. Shelling them yourself is not fun, even with endless lockdown time to kill. When shaping the pici, use a wood or stainless steel surface. This will help create friction, allowing you to roll the dough into long noodles.
- Whisk the two flours and the salt together in a bowl then tip onto a clean work surface and shape into a mound with a well in the middle. Pour the oil into the well, then slowly add about 175ml water, making sure it doesn’t spill over the edges. Using a fork or your fingertips, gradually stir the flour into the well until you have a shaggy dough. You may not need to use all the water and you certainly won’t need to use all the flour. Push any excess flour to the sides and bring the dough together. Knead for 8 minutes until the dough is smooth and springs back when you poke it. It should be slightly tacky. Let it rest under a damp cloth for an hour.
- In the meantime, prepare your workstation. Put the excess flour into a shallow bowl and use some of it to lightly dust your work surface. Line a large tray with baking paper and dust it generously with flour. Have a small bowl of olive oil and a damp cloth ready.
- When the dough has finished resting, roll it out into a rectangle about half a centimetre thick. Rub the top of it with oil to stop it drying out, then cut out a 2cm-wide strip lengthways. Using your hands, roll it into a long thin noodle. Work from one end to the other, gradually coiling it into the bowl of flour. It helps to moisten your hands from time to time by pressing them gently on the oiled piece of dough. Once the noodle is finished, toss it thoroughly in flour then drape it around your hand to form a little nest. Add the nest to the floured tray and cover with the damp cloth. Repeat this process until you have used all the dough.
- Bring a pan of generously salted water to the boil and add the pici. Cook until al dente then drain, reserving some of the pasta water. You want at least two ladlefuls.
- Melt the butter with a splash of olive oil in a wide saucepan, then add the ground pistachios. Stir until the powder and butter amalgamate, then add most of the pasta water. Bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer, stirring vigorously to bring it together. Add the pasta, coat it in the sauce, then add the grated pecorino. Toss the noodles furiously until the sauce has emulsified, adding extra pasta water if it becomes too dry. Season with black pepper and more salt if necessary then slurp up the green worms.