Want a fun challenge in the kitchen? Make your own pasta, says Eli Jameson
Ah, the pasta aisle of the supermarket. Fettucini, cavatelli, oricchiette, rigatoni, penne rigate…just reading off the names on the different boxes and bags is enough to make one feel Italian. And so many of these shapes have names that sound cool even in English: Does a plate of priest’s caps (agnolotti) appeal? No? Well, perhaps a steaming bowl of strozzapretti – or ‘priest stranglers’ – will sate your appetite as well as your anti-clerical urges.
But almost every packet of pasta for sale in the supermarket has one thing in common, regardless of shape: it is dried. Which means that it is made by combining water and hard semolina flour and extruded in factories through various shaped dies. Some of these pastas are very good, and indeed gourmet dried pastas are showing up on the shelves of more and more suburban markets (tip: look for noodles that have a particularly rough sauce-holding surface as a sure tip-off of quality), but they lack a certain something. Now, I keep a five kilogram sack of penne rigate in the cabinet because it’s an incredibly economical and convenient base for a huge number of dinners. But there are times that some occasions, and some recipes, that call for more than just a couple of scoops of Barilla tossed into boiling water.
That alternative is, of course, fresh pasta. Contrary to what one might think, fresh pasta is not simply the pre-dried version of what comes in a rectangular blue box with instructions to ‘cottura 11 minuti’. Instead it is made from eggs and flour – which is why the stuff has a pretty firm use-by date – and unlike dried, only takes a few minutes to cook.
So where to get the stuff? Some fresh pasta is available from gourmet Italian delis and even supermarkets, but it is ridiculously expensive considering what goes in to it. Instead, I say, make your own.
I sometimes think that there is a conspiracy out there in the world of TV chefs and cookbook authors to keep certain ideas and techniques just vague and complicated enough so that the average punter remains mystified and unable to fully recreate certain end-products – or at least not regularly enough to become adept at them. I have a fantastic cookbook by the American chef Charlie Palmer which is almost like a detective hunt: every photograph of a finished dish has some extra touch or flourish not included in the printed recipe, and the reader has to study it closely to discern the hidden item. Call it The DaVinci Cookbook school of food writing. The end result is it convinces ordinary home chefs that fresh pasta can only be made with two kinds of imported artisinal flour and lots of kneading, followed by ample time for both chef and dough to have a good rest.
This is, of course, completely untrue, and there is no reason why fresh homemade pasta can’t become part of any home chef’s regular – i.e., at least weekly – routine. The advantages are numerous: though it takes a little longer to prepare on the front end (and we’re only talking about twenty minutes, with a little practice), it takes only moments to cook. One need only be up from the table for five minutes, tops, to knock up a pasta course before rejoining the rest of the party.
Furthermore, the texture is night-and-day to that of dried pasta. It holds sauce much more effectively – one might even say intimately – and as a result, one needs less to coat it. This is where the old adage that pasta is not about the sauce but the pasta comes from, and it’s impossible to understand unless one has experienced the difference. Fresh pasta absorbs sauce in a way dried simply can’t.
To make fresh pasta, one really only needs to get a hand-cranked pasta machine, costing between $60 and $90, depending on brand, at decent homewares stores. Word to the wise: spend the money on the more expensive Italian model if you can. The cheaper look-alike made in Korea will do the job just as well, but doesn’t stand up to regular use over the years, and will need to be replaced far sooner. Beyond that, the only ingredients are flour (I prefer Italian strong, or ‘00’ flour, but the basic house-brand stuff will do just as well) and eggs (see last month’s column on the virtues of fresh eggs – they make a difference here as well). Ready? Let’s begin.
To make a simple pasta like, say, fettucini for two, just place two cups of flour in a bowl, make a well in the middle, and crack the eggs into it. (Rule of thumb: one plate = one egg = one cup of flour). With a fork, begin to combine the eggs with the flour until you have a mass of dough. On a well-floured work surface, knead this well until it becomes a ball, and it starts to get stretchy when worked with the meat of your hand.
Now comes the fun part. Take about a third of the dough, flatten it, and run it through the machine on its widest setting (1). It may take a few goes at this stage to get it fully formed and looking like a square of pasta, but once that is achieved, keep running it through until you reach the second-thinnest setting (generally number 8). Give this sheet a dusting of flour, and repeat with the remaining dough. And when it’s all done, run it through the wide noodle cutters that come with the machine. Presto! You’ve just made fettucini!
So what now? Well, for one thing, it should be lightly dusted with flour and laid out on a sheet so that it doesn’t stick together, and allowed to dry out a bit. One can also make this at lunchtime for an evening’s dinner party without worrying a bit. When cooking time comes, plunge it into a pot of boiling, well-salted water, and let cook for just 2-3 minutes before tossing it into a pan of sauce. Make an alfredo by frying off some finely-diced onion in a large whack (100 grams) of butter, and adding a good slug of cream, a handful of parma cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. (Healthy it up with some greens, asparagus, or mushrooms if you like).
Or make a ravioli – those same sheets can be cut into circles and pressed together around a filling of your own invention, sealed by an egg wash. Use the flat edge of your chefs knife to press them shut so they don’t pop in the water. A favourite stuffing in our house is beetroot, sage, and goat cheese, served in a brown butter sauce jazzed up with beetroot greens.
Whatever you do, don’t be intimidated, and don’t let yourself be constrained by your imagination. Once you’ve got the technique down, you can knock up sheets of the stuff in all of twenty minutes. Your guests – and your palate – will thank you.