If you’ve ever wanted to take a pasta making class, taking one of Meryl Feinstein’s (Pasta Social Club) pasta classes is definitely something you want to check into. My mom and I had wanted to take a pasta making class for awhile (we already have both a pasta maker, and various pasta making accoutrements from ravioli cutters to gnocchi rollers and of course semolina.)
Meryl who has hosted both classes in her home in Austin, Texas and previously in New York City, decided to take her classes into the virtual world, by offering a selection of pasta making classes via Zoom. As expected they book up fast, and we were lucky enough to sign up for both her Hand-Rolled Pasta and Ravioli classes.
Prior to the Zoom, I had the delightful opportunity to chat with Meryl over the phone, and in this interview she shares about when she first knew that she wanted to be in the food industry, lessons she learned during culinary school and the externships that followed, and more.
When did your love of the culinary world begin, and has it always been focused around pasta?
My love of food has been in existence since I was a very small child. I was eating very sophisticated foods for a 4 year old.
As far as getting immersed in the industry… I started in Corporate PR for the art world, but I would find myself reading articles on Serious Eats etc. I didn’t really jump into the industry fully until about two years ago in 2018.
My love of the culinary world hasn’t always been focused around pasta. I discovered by love of making pasta on my honeymoon in Italy. I knew I wanted to be in the food industry before that point, but didn’t know the focus yet. I fell in love with it (pasta making) in Modena. It makes a lot of sense now from someone who was in the art world to develop an interest in pasta. Pasta making can be very sculptural with delicate shapes. Making pasta feels like an art project.
You graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education and spent time in the kitchens of Lilia and Misi in Brooklyn (NYC). What were some of the greatest lessons you learned during those experiences?
When I started culinary school that was the first time I’d been in an industrial kitchen. Everything was hotter and sharper than I’d experienced. From culinary school onwards I was doing things that scared me. I wasn’t afraid to take risks. Safety first of course, but if I had to debone a chicken, or work with others on a project that wasn’t like anything in the corporate world, you really had to trust people even if you weren’t close to them. It’s a risk.
Working in a setting like that can also be a humbling experience, you have to be part of team and have a good attitude. You have to be able to prioritize, be calm under pressure, and take responsibility of things. Those are life lessons that come out of working in a restaurant kitchen. So those skills are the lessons I learned from that experience.
During that time I also mastered my speed which is important when working in restaurants and my production skills (making food on a high volume as quickly as possible, with the same quality.)
When did you first decide to found the Pasta Social Club?
When I was working at Lilia we do what’s call an externship. Lilia was the panicle of pasta making. When I was there I wanted to be on the pasta production team, but since that was a very small team, I ended up working the pastry line. I had Mondays & Tuesdays off and I wasn’t doing as much pasta making as I wanted, so I started the Instagram @pastasocialclub
I didn’t have the resources at the time to start a dinner social club, but I wanted to put the idea in the world and give myself some accountability, to learn as much pasta making as I could during my days off.
When I started the Instagram I had some ambitions, but I didn’t necessarily plan to turn it into a business.
What are some of the essential ingredients in creating pasta dough?
Pasta is usually made up flour and water or flour and eggs. There are variations but it’s a pretty inexpensive thing to make, but it’s not about a recipe to me. I have recipe(s) as a guide but pasta making is a technique. You need to know what you’re looking for in order to make good pasta. You need to know what to do if your dough is too sticky or too dry. Your dough could be different on any given day according to the weather. The ingredients are simple, but it requires practice and knowledge to get right.
What are some of the hardest pasta shapes to make, and what are some of the inventive ways you’ve come up with to create unique shapes for pasta?
Sardinia tends to have some of the most challenging shapes…
Lorighittas is one of them. It made with two thin strands that are braided together into braided rings.
Culurgiones which look like a zipper dumpling. They are Sardinian ravioli essentially.
Rarest is also from Sardinia… and it’s called Su Filindeu “threads of God: and it’s exceptionally rare shape that is pulled into tiny strands over a basket and dried for days. Only a few people in the world know how to make them.
As far as unique shapes… I’ll try to recreate different shapes I’ve seen in books. I’ve made little pasta coins that I stamp with a wooden stamp. I’ve made other shapes using this design, but I try to stick to traditional as much as I can.
The website features quite a few delicious pasta recipes from Garlicky Mushroom Corzetti Ravioli and Pappardelle with Anchovies, White Wine, and Breadcrumbs to Ricotta Gnocchi with Mint and Meyer Lemon (I adore gnocchi). What are some of your favorite flavor profiles/ingredients that you like to add to your pasta dishes?
I love dishes that have a brine-y salty element with anchovies or capers. I also like spicy foods using Italian chili pastes and fish sauce. I gravitate towards funky flavors. So a lot of stuffed pastas are paired with a butter sauce, but I also like to go with something that is garlicky, acidic that packs more of a punch.
During this time when many of us are sheltering in place, what are some of the pasta dishes you’ve been enjoying lately?
I would say the pinnacle of pantry pasta is Cacio e Pepe. You’ve seen a lot of it in the past several years. It’s something that requires planning and technique. It only has a few ingredients, but you need some tech proficiency to get it right. I always love making it, I always have the ingredients on hand and it’s one of the best dishes that I’ve ever have… Just black pepper, pecorino and pasta.
Pomodoro Sauce is definitely one that I’ve been making a lot of lately. I salt my tomatoes in advance when they aren’t in season, and I also use tin tomatoes, so it’s easy to pull together and dishes with tined tuna or sardines.
In addition to the pasta-making events you have had in your home, you also host virtual pasta making classes. What do you enjoy the most about sharing your love of making pasta with others?
The virtual pasta thing is new. It was not something that I always planned to offer. I’m happy it’s happened because I’ve connected with people around the world. You need to learn it (pasta making) once and then practice and refine. I always thought before you had to have a particular kind of flour etc… but this situation (Covid-19) has thrown that out of the window. Maybe it’s not like an in person class, but if it gets people interested I’m all for it. I’ve made so many friends through Instagram DM’s and I love meeting new people and making these connections. To see people empowered and be in the kitchen, to try and fail and try again has been super rewarding.
What can attendees expect from the virtual class experience and how long does each class typically last?
I focus on the pasta dough and shaping the pasta, so it’s a little different from the usual class format. We don’t do the sauce together, but I make recommendations beforehand and the recipes are on my website. I say that pasta is a time consuming labor intensive project, so for me the most important building blocks is making the dough (even though the ingredients are simple) if you make great dough you can make anything. Then the arts and crafts elements in the shaping process. If anyone has questions then I answer them, and we usually wrap up in an hour or hour and a half. You can make fresh pasta in that amount of time. So, I’d rather skip making the sauce in order to show you to make the pasta properly.
Once things return to the ‘new normal’ and people start gathering again, you plan to start hosting supper club dinners in your home in Austin later this year. How will the supper club differ from your classes both virtual and otherwise?
The super club was the initial vision. The classes came later. I had hosted a supper club in New York when I was living there, when I was traveling back and forth from Austin. I was working a company called Resident who was working with chefs to help them release their dreams. I was a chef in residence. When I moved to Austin, living previously in NY it took a while to accumulate the furniture etc that we needed to host. The goal is to have those scheduled later this year. It differs because people are there, and they don’t know each other. They meet new people, and so do I. This is going to be casual (pasta, salads, starters) so more of a family dining experience.
What are some of the pasta dishes that you hope to make for the first supper club later this year?
I don’t want to give too much away. Some of them are on my website. The Garlicky Mushroom Corzetti Ravioli would probably be one of them. I also like to start the meal with a traditional pasta dish, so probably a Tortellini with Brown Butter Parmesan and Balsamic. I worked with a family who makes their own balsamic in Italy and I like to bring back that experience and showcase their product because most people haven’t experienced. If I was able to start the supper clubs during tomato season, I would be stoked.