By eye not rule


Since my late teens I’ve kept a kitchen notebook. It would be nice to tell you that these notebooks: a well-worn but pleasing collection of soft volumes sit cheek by jowl on my bookcase, that it’s a collection I treasure and refer to daily. They aren’t, they don’t and therefore I can’t. For apart from the five most recent notebooks and a green diary from 1997, my motley crew of dog-eared loose-leaf pads and leather effect WH Smith jotters have either been lost in migration or languish – damp and curling at the edges – in my parents garage. There are also six years worth of Italian notebooks getting dusty in a box at Vincenzo’s. So much unfinished business! But now’s not the time to talk about that.

I’ve mixed feelings about the 16 years worth of notebooks curling in England! Which is why, despite weary pleas from my parents and countless opportunities, they remain exactly where they are. For amongst the recipes written, sellotaped and glued to the pages, descriptions of meals eaten, brief notes about stove successes and long laments about kitchen failures, the to make lists and meticulous plans for suppers that may or may not have happened, is a painful (and tedious) account of my then life in food.


Exuberantly documented periods of feast are all too often followed by tiresome accounts of restraint and abstinence. A pleasant seasonal list or carefully copied quote is probably followed by a raging diatribe about loathing food or myself for eating it. A fanfare to fruit cake is stifled by an ode to fasting. Twelve (very slim) notebooks dated from 2002 to 2004 chart – in painfully neat handwriting –  a joyless weighed and measured routine I’d rather forget. Notes about expansive meals are almost always followed by so much self-flagellation and malcontent it’s exhausting. Fad’s, fantastical allergies and fernickerty disordered eating is well documented.  Lost, forgotten, abandoned and curled. Quite right too.

Well almost. There were gems amongst the goulash of angst and self-flagellation. Real gems. Some of which I pulled, ripped and unstuck a couple of summers ago while sorting through the damp boxes. A series of recipes snipped from the Guardian in the late 90’s, handwritten recipes by Granny Alice and Grandma Phyllis, illustrated recipes for three almonds cakes from my Spanish neighbour, a pile of 1940’s pamphlets about herbs, three A4 pages of recipes from my time in India and the green notebook from 1997, they are all sitting here on my red table.


And so the green notebook. The one I kept whilst living in Camden Town and going to drama school. An angst free notebook – I was, I note on more than one occasion, extremely happy – almost entirely given over to notes, thoughts and several comical accounts of making pasta. I wish I could remember what precipitated this rash of research, kneading and rolling? A dinner? A book? A friend?  It wasn’t a trip to Italy or a man. I wish I could remember from where I copied the most bizarre pasta making advice. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Whatever or wherever, in the spring of 1997, when living in the small but well proportioned North London flat, the sound of evening trains through Camden cutting, I became temporarily obsessed with making pasta. I remember nothing about eating this pasta. I clearly did though! On many occasions, all of which are duly noted: Needs work! Dry dry dry! Rather hard and slightly indigestable! Try another flour!

Sixteen years later, in a small but well proportioned flat in South Rome, the green notebook – although providing entertainment – has been absolutely no help whatsoever in my latest attempt to learn to make pasta. Well except for one note that is. A note I’ve been given more times than I care to remember during my cooking life, and not only regarding pasta – by eye not rule.


By eye not rule. Of course there are rules, like using best semolina flour, working on a clean dry surface and adding a whole egg to the flour before adding the cold water when making cavatelli pasta. ‘It’s an unconventional egg‘ my teacher Daria noted while working the yellow yolk expertly into the equally yellow flour ‘As cavatelli pasta is traditionally made just semolina flour and water.’ An egg however – a trick taught to her by her mother – wether working with 200 g or a kilo of flour helps with manageability and elasticity.

Once you have worked the egg into the flour you can start adding the water, little by little, by eye not rule. Time of year, temperature of your kitchen, the flour, the size of your egg, your mood, your husband’s mood, these variables will all affect the quantity of water you use. Which bring us neatly to Daria’s second piece of advice.: practica (practice.) You can only learn and truly understand how much water is required to bring the ingredients together into a soft, putty-like-dough by practicing.


Our lesson took place a few weeks ago. Cavatelli is a traditional curled pasta shape from Daria’s home town in Puglia,where it’s also known as capunti. Having made a dough from grano duro (semolina flour), the unconventional egg and enough water, Daria taught me to knead. Did I mention how much I like being taught these days, I’m not sure where proud I-don’t-need-lessons Rachel has disappeared to. The heel of your palm does most of the work: pushing the dough forward, folding it in half, turning and pressing again. You should knead for about 8 minutes – again eye not rule – until the dough is smooth and soft as putty.

Cutting and shaping the cavatelli is, despite appearances, pretty straightforward. You need to cut the dough into thick matchsticks. Daria did this by moulding the dough into a rough round, then cutting this round into first strips and then matchsticks. To shape the individual cavatelli  you place your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so the dough curls into a long arc with three in-dents. At every stage of the shaping, cutting and forming Daria launched a blizzard of semolina flour over proceedings to stop the dough sticking.

While I finished shaping the cavatelli, a deeply satisfying task once you master the press and flick required, Daria cooked some cauliflower until unfashionably soft. Having lifted the tender florets from their cooking water (which she left for the pasta) she then sautéed the cauliflower in an even more unfashionable quantity of olive oil before mashing it gently with the back of the wooden spoon until it surrendered into a soft, creamy sauce. A pinch of salt and a handful of chopped dusty-brown olives – surly and salty ones from Gaeta – finished the sauce off nicely.


I’d just like to pause and note how delicious well-cooked cauliflower ripassata in extra virgin olive oil, well salted and studded with olives is. This has been our lunch – give or take a piece of bread and lump of cheese – once a week since my lesson. Noted? Good! But back to the cavatelli. Under supervision I cooked the pasta in the cloudy cauliflower water. It took just minutes, the indented curls bobbing excitedly to the surface. Once cooked, the cavatelli was slotted-spooned into the cauliflower pan – a little of the pasta cooking water still clinging to the curls – stirred and served.

Now as you may or may not have noticed, I am very fond of vegetables – broccoli, crema di rapa, zucchini, broccoletti – that are cooked until extremely soft, turned in olive oil and then stirred into pasta. Such dishes have become a cornerstone of my diet and the saviour of my purse strings. This dish Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive is my new favorite. The soft, somewhat shy sauce given courage by the feisty olives, collects in the curls and coats the tender pasta.

‘This is a good pasta for a complete beginner’ Daria noted. I felt myself bristle, the pride surge through my veins. ‘Well I’m not exactly a beginner.’ I was about to splutter.’ I’ve lived in Italy for 8 years now and I’ve been making pasta since 1997.’  Then I remembered. ‘Yes it is.’ I agreed while noting notes in my scruffy but almost angst free notebook. ‘It’s a perfect pasta for a beginner.’

Serve by eye not rule.


Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive  Cavatelli pasta with cauliflower and olives

Enough for 4

  • 400 g farina di garno duro (semola)
  • 1 medium egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • filtered water – enough
  • 1 medium-sized cauliflower
  • Extra virgin olive oil – plenty
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife
  • a handful of coarsely chopped black olives
  • salt – enough
  • black pepper – enough

Pour the flour into a mound on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break  the egg into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolk and start working the egg into the flour. Now add a little water and continue working the liquid into the dough. Keep adding water until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty.

Divide the dough into quarters. Roll, mould and pat one-quarter into a circle about 5 ml thick. Cut the square into strips about 3 cm wide. Cut the strip into match sticks about 3 mm wide. The end epic of the circle which are too small can be set aside and worked back into the rest of the dough.

Work on  a well floored board. Position your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the dough matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so he dough curls onto a long arc with three in-dents. Move the cavatelli curl onto a tray or sheet dusted with semolina flour.

Break the cauliflower into large florets. Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and the cook the florets for about 1o minutes or until they are soft and very tender.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the cauliflower out of the pan and into a colander to drain. In a saute pan warm the oil and then gently fry the garlic until it is golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic and then add the cauliflower and olives. Stir well so both are coated with oil and gently mash the cauliflower with the back of the wooden spoon until you have a soft, creamy mixture. Add more oil if necessary. Turn of the heat

Cook the pasta in the cauliflower water until al dente which will only take a few minutes. Drain the pasta – reserving some cooking water – and add it to the pan. Stir. Add a little cooking water to loosen and emulsify the dish if necessary. Serve immediately.



Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, vegetables

60 responses to “By eye not rule

  1. Cle

    mmmmmmmm delicious! I made a kind of this recipe some months ago, but without pasta. I will try with the home made pasta as you did!!! Have a nice weekend!

  2. Ann

    Oh, yum! Can this be made with dried pasta — dare I ask? — for those of us who haven’t worked up the courage to make our own?

    • rachel

      Hi Ann – Of course it can, and I do (nearly) all the time. Dried cavatelli obviously but also most twists and tubes work well. Hope all is well with you and the book.

  3. Ha, I recognise that “I’m not sure where proud I-don’t-need-lessons Rachel has disappeared to”. WIth me, I seem finally to have given in to the notion that others might have things they can teach me, oh and I can also admit I’m wrong – but only very occasionally. I like the sound of the cauli sauce very much.

    • Lauren

      For me it disappeared as this tiny human was plonked on my chest! ❤

      • rachel

        Hi Kath and Lauren, i think we are all in agreement that the arrivel of a small person helps swish away the pride a little. Hope you both have a good weekend. Oh and Kath, do you still have chickens and if so, are they producing eggs for cavatelli? xxx

  4. Ah, lady! I love the scope of this piece.

  5. Natasa

    Oh my, I’m so trying this as I love cauliflower and olives so much and I haven’t tried it yet in this combination… But I think I’ll use dry pasta, for time-saving purposes

  6. laura

    “By eye and not by rule” … a great eye to live by. Complimenti for your courage in setting out on the pasta path; I keep using the excuse of a wonderful fresh pasta stand in the mercato to avoid trying. But I also LOVE being taught. Maybe one day …
    for now, as posted above, I, too, love the scope of your writing. Thank you.

    • rachel

      Morning Laura – It is, I just wish my eye was better at times. Maybe one day we can learn something together! have a great weekx

  7. A goulash of angst and what was it…self-flagellation? I will never be able to feel sorry for myself again if I remember that!

    And I probably already mentioned, but I have memories of waiting up to an hour for a patient flatmate to finish cooking us cauliflower pasta, adding just a touch of his secret stash of Calabrian chili sent up by his mother. I was extremely hungry, but it was worth it.

    Mental note: add olives. Approve.

    • rachel

      I do remember! And yes a touch of chili, that would have worked brilliantly – next time. Self flagellation us both. I wonder how you are and what tasty things are being stirred, sifted and baked in your kitchen? Coming over xx

  8. WAIT also I forgot the the compliments: you made your own pasta? Special Pugliese pasta with a press and a flick? All by eye? Aces. You can be very proud. It will hopefully be a page of honour in the iteration of notebooks!

  9. sarah apperley

    Rachel, Does Daria teach or would she play host to me? I have some free time and want a break, a chance to cook and learn?

    Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2013 11:59:15 +0000 To:

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  11. Amy

    That’s some very (very!) beautiful writing, and some pretty damn beautiful pasta. There’s always such good words of wisdom in your posts.

  12. Cooking by eye is one of the most satisfying accomplishments ever. 🙂 These cavatelli look delicious!

  13. A lot of people dismiss cauliflower, but I can vouch for this dish – it’s yummy.

  14. I love this post, Rachel. I, too, have several kitchen notebooks dating back to the 80’s. Yikes. Gone are the days of my formal dinner parties consisting of multiple courses, the first of which was always homemade pasta. Having never tried mastering rolling out the dough, I occasionally still use my old Atlas crank machine that clamps to the table. As Daria’s trick is a nunconventional egg, mine is a teaspoon of olive oil–forgive me Marcella.
    Hope all is well.

    • rachel

      …..having seen the Ladies of Bologna Rolling I’m not sure I will ever try! This cavatelli is more patting and shaping than rolling. I would love to sit with you, a glass of wine and our note books and compare (and probably giggle uncontrollably) We are pretty good, hope you are too? x

      • Wouldn’t that be fun! I recently bought a copy of Zuppe, and was wondering if your photo is on the flyleaf in the back? The lovely pregnant woman with the curly hair? (I tried e-mailing, but I must have wrong address)

  15. For some reason, making my own pasta seems impossibly hard. Making it without a precise recipe seems even harder- although, what is harder than impossible? Not sure, but I am definitely a rule-following chef at this point. Somehow, I do think trying might be good for me. Thank you for this lovely post, and beautiful blog.

    • rachel

      Thankd Emily. I was pretty daunted by homemade pasta, but now with good teachers and lots of practice (with no pressure) I seem to have overcome. I highly recommend some by eye not rule pasta making x

  16. Susan

    What is better than a plate of pasta like yours? I’d like to push thru my screen and have a bite.

  17. Lovely post in every way. Thanks for sharing.

  18. This recipe looks so delicious and has convinced me to finally, after much thought and a bit of angst, to make some homemade gnocchi…this coming weekend. You have inspired me. Beautiful photos as well.

  19. As always I love reading your posts, even more so now that I am (temporarily) living in Rome as well. And I love your little ode to the ‘unfashionably soft’ vegetables Italians love to eat with Pasta. As much as I love cauliflower cooked al dente with a drizzle of olive oil, a crack of black pepper, some fleur de sel and a few shavings of pecorino romano (one of my go to quick dinners at the moment), ‘pasta con le mappe’ (as this dish is known where my boyfriend’s family lives) is a revelation on how much flavour one can squeeze out of this plain-looking vegetable.

    • rachel

      Hi Sophia – I love the sound of your quick supper, I used to do a similar thing with broccoli but haven’t for a while! mental note made. Pasta con le mappe! I love it, do you know why it is called as such. In Rome too! Then you will understand when I shout spring spring spring is in the air.

      • I asked Alessandro and he said that ‘mappe’ was just the word for cavolfiore in dialect (he is from Frosinone). And yes re spring – it’s bizarre how it went from weeks and weeks of grey rainy weather to suddenly being so bright outside! Cannot wait for spring to really show it’s face – sick of wearing warm coats and can’t wait for spring produce to hit the markets!

        Love the idea of doing this with broccoli as well, haven’t tried that but must work equally well.

  20. Coolit3

    Your stories always draw me in and then I am starving by the time I’m through reading. I would like to try pasta making this year for thank you for the inspiration.

    • rachel

      If my stories draw you in and make you hungry then my job is done! That is so good to hear. This really is a great pasta for a beginner (i should know!) I hope you try.

  21. HI Rach, sorry to have been so absent, head down low in cookbook deadline pursuit, but what a pleasure catching up in your world.
    yes, to most things, foodwise: by eye not rule–I love these 4 words that we come to know through practice.
    and really,” the goulash of angst” is its own gem.

    • rachel

      Hi nancy – I wouldn’t want it any other way, after all, you have a book to write, which I for one am extremely excited about. Hope it is going well? That said you seem to be keeping up pretty well. Coming over Rx

  22. I’m so happy to have found your blog. I’m to live in Rome for 5 months and rent in a building with amazing cooks, judging by the smells, but speak no Italian. I hope to use your blog to learn to cook some of the native dishes while I’m here. Thank you for posting them!

    • rachel

      Hi Chris, it’s great to have you reading! ‘A flat with amaazing cooks’ sounds promising and hopefully means the offer of some nice meals. You are coming to Rome for the loveliest part of the year – have a wonderful and tasty time here.

  23. I think this a great way to cook… by eye and not by rule. I’m sorry about the notebooks. Hopefully someday you’ll have them all with you again!

    • rachel

      By eye not rule is quite a good mantra for life too. Well sometimes at least . I’m not really sure I want all those notebooks to be honest. Maybe I will just pick the least damp, least self flagellating ones next time I am in the UK. R

  24. Christine

    You know, despite having a Sicilian mother – or maybe because of it – I’ve never made home made pasta – lack of a proper press always discouraged me. But no more! Thank you for the recipe and the tips and the lesson.

    I make cauliflower similarly, but usually sautéed in garlic and anchovies. The green olives are a brilliant idea.

    Hope you and Luca are well! xoxox

    • rachel

      Hi Christine, the lack of a press held me back too! Then I got one (on loan) and I still pasta procrastinated. This is a great way to start. Next time I think I might try olives and anchovies.
      We are pretty well thanks, Hope you are too? x

  25. Bloghaus

    well this thoroughly unfashionable dish makes me want to jump up and buy a cauliflower and get the rolling pin out. Sadly – there is already sauerkraut on the stove and a roesti in the making…

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  28. catfriend99

    This is one of my favorite recipes from your site. I make it regularly; in fact, I’m just about to start up a batch. I have altered it over time. I start the sauce by sautéing an onion, then adding a clove or two of garlic, and either a fresh chili pepper or crushed red pepper flakes to taste before adding the cauliflower and olives, then the pasta, and sometimes a little parsley. I like the additional flavor, especially the heat, but that’s all to taste. I’ve discovered the leftovers, pasta and all, are a great base for a frittata. Start a sauté with the leftovers, top them with beaten eggs, add a bit of cheese on top, then under the broiler, and it’s delicious. YMMV.

  29. A long time later and I’m reading this and it’s all feeling very familiar. I have books and books of notes in three columns: food, grams, calories – with a running total. A recipe says half a cauliflower, that was 312g, which is xyz kcal. Even – recipes says a “splash” of oil = 10ml = …kcal. Endless. Boring. So excruciatingly, heart wrenchingly, painfully boring. And yet i keep them because of the huuuuge smily faces that i drew when all that effort of choosing and weighing and counting and cooking turned into something delicious that made me happy to have a living, breathing, tasting, digesting body (instead of wanting to punish it/disappear)
    Actually, my notebooks are only from 3 years ago, I still have no idea what to do with a recipe that says ‘olive oil – plenty’ but at least I’m not deep in that anorexia place any more and your words have really helped me to say “oh yeah, that was horrible, i would never want to go back and the world is a much more interesting place on the other side”. Thank you!

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