Many people think fresh pasta is of better quality than dried, but this is not true. Well-made dried pasta is an irreplaceable component of many dishes. And it always retains more density than fresh, because the gluten in it is better developed.
There are a few key points to bear in mind when cooking pasta:
· Make sure that your cooking pot is large enough. As a guide, you need at least two litres of water to cook pasta, even in the smallest quantities.
· Salt the cooking water to a ratio of 1:10:100 - for example, two litres water, 20g salt, 200g pasta.
· The pasta is ready when it is what the Italians call al dente - "to the tooth", and in my book that means cooked just to the point at which the chalky centre has disappeared.
· Never trust the time advised on a recipe or packet - test and taste the pasta, and use your own judgment.
· Once cooked, drain the pasta and immediately coat in olive oil or the accompanying sauce. Reserve a little cooking water to add to the sauce.
· Never use pre-grated Parmesan - it is awful.
All recipes serve six.
This version of carbonara is an adaptation of the one featured in Marcella Hazan's The Essentials Of Italian Cooking, and is far removed from those unpleasant, bogus versions served in many restaurants that are awash with cream and mushrooms.
600g best-quality dried spaghetti
300g smoked streaky bacon, sliced into 1cm strips
3 garlic cloves
1-2 fresh green chillies, seeds and pith removed, and chopped fine
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
4-5 medium-sized egg yolks, preferably free-range
Extra-virgin olive oil
Peel, halve and cut off the root of the onions, then chop finely. Peel, chop and purée the garlic (sprinkle a little table salt over roughly chopped garlic and then, using the flat of the blade, drag it over the garlic, pressing down, until it is a purée.)
Pour about 75ml of olive oil into a frying pan and add the onions and garlic. Cook over a low to medium heat for 15 minutes, making sure they don't colour. Meanwhile, put the water on for the pasta. Using the ratio mentioned earlier, for 600g of spaghetti you'll need six litres of water and 60g of salt. Add the bacon and chopped chilli to the onion and garlic mix, and turn up the heat. Cook until the onions and bacon just start to catch on the edges.
When the water is boiling, add the pasta, stirring gently to ensure that it doesn't stick together, and boil until al dente . Put the egg yolks into a bowl large enough to hold the pasta. Grate the Parmesan over them, and set the bowl to one side. Chop the parsley leaves.
When the pasta is ready, drain it through a colander and tip immediately on to the egg and Parmesan mix, together with one or two tablespoons of the cooking water. Stir the pasta into the egg and cheese - the heat will slightly cook the eggs and melt the cheese, thereby making the sauce. Tip in the hot onion and bacon, sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve at once.
Gratin of macaroni
With the extravagant exception of morel and truffle sauce, I'm not a fan of cream-based pasta sauces. This Lyonnais classic is the exception, however - this recipe comes from the late, great Alain Chapel. Use the largest macaroni available.
1 garlic clove
300ml double cream
Pinch grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Purée the garlic as before. Grate the Gruyère and Parmesan into separate bowls, and set aside. Put the garlic and cream in a small saucepan, bring to the boil, then add the Gruyère, nutmeg and seasoning, simmer for five minutes, and set aside. Meanwhile, bring three litres of water to the boil and add 30g salt. Pre-heat the oven to 175C/350F/gas mark 4. Cook the macaroni in the boiling water for around eight minutes, then drain and combine with the garlic and cream base, adding a tablespoon or two of the cooking water.
Tip the lot into a baking dish big enough to hold the pasta. Dot with butter and sprinkle over the grated Parmesan. Bake for 15-20 minutes, and serve piping hot.
Spaghettini with clams
Cockles are cheaper than clams and, to be honest, invariably better. Whichever you use, they must be fresh and in their shells.
You will need a large frying pan of at least 30cm in diameter. This amount of clams must be cooked in two batches, because the oil in the pan needs to be smoking in order to flame them open. This is a bit of a pyrotechnic method and gives the clams a lovely, smoky flavour. If it sounds a bit dangerous, place the lid on the pot just after you have put the clams in and keep it there until they have opened.
300g dried spaghettini (this is a thin version of spaghetti)
1kg fresh clams (or cockles)
200ml dry white wine
1 big bunch flat-leaf parsley, picked
1 fresh green chilli, seeded, pith removed and finely chopped
1 garlic clove
1 small pinch dried chilli flakes
Salt and pepper
Thoroughly wash the clams. Chop the parsley and purée or crush the garlic. Bring three litres of water to the boil with 30g of salt. Pour the olive oil into a frying pan to a depth of 1-2mm. Place the pan on a high heat and wait until the oil is smoking. Then throw in the clams and shake the pan. When the flames appear, keep shaking to keep them going - the fire forces open the clams.
Once the flames die down, add the 100ml of water to the pan. Then add the white wine, chilli and garlic, and leave to bubble away over medium heat. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water.
After the clam sauce has been cooking for five minutes, remove the pan from the heat and sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Drain the pasta, tip it into the pan, and mix with the clams and juices, adding a little extra olive oil, if necessary. Generously season with pepper and less so with salt, because the juice will be salty, anyway, then tip into a warm serving bowl and take to the table
· Heston Blumenthal is chef/proprietor of The Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire