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DIY Pasta–no chic gadgets needed

 

handmade pasta, cut for ravioli

A few months ago I was surprised to read an interview with the British actress Emma Thompson–not about her acting, or producing, or screenwriting, or whatever, but about her having acquired a pasta machine so that she and her family could have fresh pasta at home.

What surprised me is that she called it a revelation, or revolutionary, can’t remember which. I think it came up in relation to a short dramatic interpretation of a poem called “Song of the Lunch” that she and Alan Rickman did for the BBC last year. It’s about 20 minutes long, posted on YouTube in sections but in its entirety, and it’s actually not bad, though not as funny about foodieism as “The Trip”. The main thing about it is that it takes place in an Italian restaurant in London. Hence the pasta issue.

Over the course of a misspent youth (which I’m still in, thank you very much) I have tried a number of times to make sheet pasta myself, with varying degrees of success.

  • Buckwheat noodles–grainy and dry. Try this soba recipe instead.
  • Jao tse dough made with flour, salt, and boiling water–a little thick but it worked well enough to boast about
  • Ravioli dough made with half egg, half water (this was a few weeks ago)–grainy, sticky, hard to roll evenly to the right thickness.
  • Yesterday’s classic pasta dough from Marcella Hazan, just flour and eggs–just right. In fact, the only right recipe there is, I’m now convinced.

So of course this post isn’t really revolutionary–I’m about 20 years behind the “Wow, you can make pasta at home” trend. And I refuse to call it “a revelation”, as fresh food that includes actual garlic always seems to be for the British. It’s just that it finally worked, came out pretty well, and wasn’t as hard or as time-consuming as I thought. Take it as read.

I should back up and say I never actually managed to pick up either a proper cranking pasta machine, even though you can sometimes find one at Ross for Less at under $20, or a proper long dowel-style rolling pin, which Hazan deems necessary for hand-rolling. This still worked very well.

Why no pasta crank for the crank? Why no artisan rolling pin? I’m not good about kitchen implements that are hard to store, particularly now that the drawers are out in the garage and the counter space is severely limited. I use an empty wine bottle, the tall hunch-shouldered kind with a long straight barrel and short neck. It stands up in a corner when not in use and doesn’t take up space. I also don’t roll any dough directly, but between two sheets of plastic wrap with a little flour or–my great new discovery, especially for this pasta dough–parchment paper. Works incredibly well, better than the plastic wrap, because it doesn’t wrinkle and stick.

In any case, the one kitchen gadget (other than the microwave, the toaster oven, or the coffee maker) that I’m always willing to give counter space to is my food processor (also not fancy–a $30 Hamilton Beach with a big work bowl, not a $200 Cuisinart).

Because although I’ve watched my share of “Make Your Own Pasta” cooking demos over the years where Mary Ann Esposito or the guest du jour on Julia Child cracks eggs into a well in a bowl of flour and “incorporates them” gradually, I know perfectly well from hard experience that kneading by hand is going to precede rolling out by hand, and that the food processor will make at least one of these ordeals a lot faster and less of a pain. It will also give me a better product. Pasta needs a lot of kneading–8-10 minutes!–to develop the gluten and get it to a smooth uniform texture that will hold when you roll and stretch it very thin.  I’m not that good or that patient. Or at least I wasn’t yesterday.

The rolling is the big thing–you have to get that dough thin enough to the point where you just begin to see through it. You don’t want it breaking, but it really does have to be that kind of even paper-thinness or when you boil the pasta it’ll end up unappetizingly thick and chewy.

stretching the pasta

You need to roll it and stretch it at the same time (if you follow Hazan’s instructions with a broomstick-style pin) or alternate rolling and stretching if you follow mine. Eggs in the dough–and no water!–really help make this possible.

I’m not sure how homemade pasta measures up economically compared with dried, given the degree of labor (which I’m sure gets less onerous with practice, but is still considerably more than dumping ready-made ravioli into boiling water). Dried is, or can be, very inexpensive, under $2 for enough giant shells or lasagna sheets for a large casserole with maybe 8-10 decent dinner servings–then it all depends on your fillings and what else you’re serving with it, and how deft you are with filling it fast.

Fresh or frozen filled pasta is another story–$3-5 for about 2-3 servings if you buy the little chi-chi packages, especially in places like Whole Foods. The 3-4 lb. econobag of Celentano cheese ravioli in the Ralph’s (west coast Kroger affiliate) is something between $7 and $10 and a decent deal but like many packaged foods these days it occasionally comes out tasting or smelling a bit soapy from the plastic packaging.

For the time involved, I might not make an exclusive habit of doing my own pasta, even though it comes to something under a dollar for a cup and a half of flour and two eggs, enough for a mid-sized casserole or about 6-8 servings.

However, I was impressed with the results this time around, even though it’s probably nowhere near the level a seasoned Italian nonna would achieve. Or even Emma Thompson.

rolling cut ravioli sheets for storage in the fridge

Basic pasta sheets for ravioli, agnolotti, tortelloni, etc.

adapted from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook (©1973, Harper Magazine Press)

  • 1 1/2 c. flour (18o g–actually, I used a little less, 150 g., bread flour)
  • 2 large eggs

Pulse the eggs and flour in a food processor until they form a cohesive ball of dough, then run a few more seconds until you’re convinced it’s uniformly kneaded.

Stretching the pasta without a pasta crank–try to work fairly quickly with each half, and keep the one you’re not working with under plastic wrap so it won’t dry out while waiting.  Pat out half of it at a time into a disk between two sheets of lightly floured plastic wrap or parchment paper and roll out to about 8×10 inches–about 1/4 inch thick. Pick up the dough and stretch it gently and gradually all over, with your fingers or over the backs of your hands, feathering out the thick edges and letting the dough stretch by hanging down a little in each direction, until the dough is about 20 or so  inches across and maybe 12 inches vertically, and just a little thicker than a sheet of paper. Roll it out a bit further again between the plastic or parchment paper sheets–this will help make the thickness a little more uniform. If the dough tears, patch it by pressing, but try not to let it tear. When you’re happy with it, take a rolling pizza cutter or an unserrated knife to cut the dough into squares about 2.5-3 inches on a side. Patch uneven edge scrap together into squares and reroll them to fuse together. You can roll up the parchment sheets carefully and put them in a plastic bag in the fridge at this point if you’re not ready to fill and cook them yet, but Marcella Hazan maintains that it’s better to fill them right away if you can.

To fill the pasta, dip one side of a square into a plate with a little water, hold it wet side up and dab a small spoonful of filling in the middle. Fold the dough over and pinch it together, then bring the fold corners back to overlap and pinch them together (tortelloni). Or make triangles. Or take one square, wet it, dab on some filling, and press another square down onto it–and crimp the edges with a fork to seal (ravioli). Or roll it into open-ended tubes around a line of filling for cannelloni or manicotti. Or just layer the pasta sheets with filling and sauce and make a lasagna.

Fillingsspinach and ricotta, butternut squash (or sweet potato)  with feta, artichoke and cheese, etc. I don’t do meat fillings, but the dairy and vegetarian ones taste better to me anyway. Add a bit of garlic and some herbs to whatever filling you’re using–thyme, basil, something like that, maybe even fennel seed.

Sauces–lots of them. Microwave marinara, mozzarella/lemon white sauce (lighter than Alfredo by a lot), pesto, mushrooms, gorgonzola, your pick. Even vinaigrette if you’re doing a picnic pasta dish.

Boil or steam the filled pasta several minutes (or bake covered with a fairly wet sauce, in the case of lasagne and cannelloni) until the dough is cooked through and thickened and the pasta has swollen to cooked size.

You CAN microwave it with a bit of water and a plate on top to steam it, but I think I prefer boiling for next time, at least for tortelloni. The microwave steaming took almost as long as conventional cooking yesterday, about 6-7 minutes (although actually, that’s not counting the time it takes for a pot of water to come to the boil, so it was still quicker by a fair amount) and because I made tortelloni, there were still a few chewy spots in the middle that never got enough exposure to the steam and just turned brittle (the microwave still reached them even if the water didn’t). We were still all pleased with it. I don’t know, it’s your call.

B’te’avon! Mangia bene! (“Eat nice!”, in Hebrew, Italian, and Yiddishe Mamma)

2 Responses

  1. There is nothing finer than a sweet potato, pumpkin, or butternut ravioli. (Safeway does a decent microwave one that isn’t too high in fat and salt)

    And a big LOL for the British being amazed at garlic. It’s so true. I don’t know how many times people I know get off the plane from England and go straight to a Mexican restaurant before going home! Flavor!

    • What amazes me is that they like Indian food, and have for centuries, but until recently, maybe the last 10-15 years, they haven’t connected it with how to make their own food taste better, because it’s not considered haute. Only European food can be haute, apparently–relic of a very conservative, maybe even food-phobic, culture coupled with the long years of rationing after WWII. For a very long time, even the wealthy in Britain ate astoundingly stodgy, overcooked “Continental” classics in their restaurants and at home, and the attitude really does seem to have been “broccoli is gray and dismal and there’s nothing I can do about it”. I think they’re about 25 years behind the US on things like discovering decent tomatoes, fresh produce and herbs, in the big cities anyway, but now they’re going at the foodie thing with a vengeance. The London papers have a reputation for vicious restaurant reviews, but everyone else gets excited every time an Italian or Spanish restaurant comes along and uses garlic and fresh herbs and citrus and olive oil. A year or so ago, the hotel we stayed in (I think it was a Courtyard Marriott, but don’t quote me) just outside of Oxford was being celebrated as having a great new dining room for corporate Christmas dinners and the like–a big attraction because it had a variety of decent pastas and fresh salads on the menu, good desserts and enough space for large groups. It would have been nothing special in the US but it was a big step up for the town–it was actually touted in Oxford’s newspaper. So maybe they’re not as jaded as I am…

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