Not like mama used to make

Making fresh pasta is easier than you think

By Domenica Marchetti, Special to Tribune Newspapers

September 7, 2011


My mother was the pasta-maker in our house. She didn't do it every Sunday, but certainly often enough that one of my most vivid images from childhood is of her standing at the kitchen counter, working that ragged mound of flour and eggs into a smooth, golden orb of dough.

Then, she would haul out her old hand-crank Atlas, clamp it tightly to the countertop and turn the dough into long, silken sheets, which she would hang from a dowel balanced between two chairs.

If she was making ravioli or cappelletti (tiny meat-stuffed "hats" to be simmered in broth), she would assemble her own small pasta factory, recruiting my sister and me as the line workers to help fill and seal the bite-size stuffed pillows. We did our part for as long as we could tolerate it before slinking back into the family room.

At dinner, we would sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labor — well, her labor, and that's the key word. In those days, making fresh pasta seemed like a lot of work to me. The messy mixing, the kneading, the cranking, the shaping. For years I wanted no part of it, except the good part, eating it.

It wasn't until I was living on my own after college that I felt I should learn how to make fresh pasta. Yes, should. I felt a sort of obligation, as though I couldn't call myself a cook until I had mastered that skill. By then, my mother had figured out a great trick that made the process much less intimidating: She had begun using her food processor to mix the dough. She was an early convert to this shortcut, which became my standard way of making pasta dough.

Even so, the first few times I tried it were hit or miss. I fed the dough awkwardly through the rollers of my hand-crank machine, and the freshly cut noodles would clump together. Eventually, though, as I became more sure-handed, the process became easier and more predictable. The labor aspect of my endeavors fell away, leaving just the pleasure, the real, tactile sense of making a batch of homemade pasta, of seeing flour and eggs transformed.

The truth is, nobody has to make pasta from scratch anymore. Supermarkets and gourmet food shops sell fresh noodles, ravioli and lasagna sheets, and shelves are overflowing with boxes of dried pasta, both mass-produced and artisan.

Still, making fresh noodles is a satisfying and rewarding endeavor. I get an incredible sense of accomplishment when I look at a gorgeous batch I have just finished cutting, coiled into nests on a tray. Maybe that's why it tastes better to me. My pasta is never perfect; my half-moon ravioli are always a little off-kilter. But that is the beauty of making your own pasta.

The key to making good pasta, I quickly learned, is simply to relax. It's an intuitive process; the more you touch and handle the dough, the more familiar you become with what it should feel like — how firm and smooth it should be.

There are lots of variables to consider, from the size of the eggs and the type of flour you use to the humidity in the air. What's more, there are probably as many recipes for homemade pasta as there are cooks in Italy. Some call for nothing more than flour and eggs (or even just the yolks); some add semolina to the mix or a dribble of olive oil; and some are made with only flour and water — no eggs.

It's best to start simply, with basic egg dough. Most Italian home cooks make it using soft wheat flour known as "00." It's similar to unbleached, all-purpose flour, though it is finer and it turns out dough that is slightly silkier and maintains a more appealing chewiness when cooked. But one can easily be substituted for the other, and I often use unbleached, all-purpose flour, which is cheaper and easier to find, with great results.

With experience, I learned to add a sprinkle of semolina flour to my dough because I like the body it gives to the pasta. I also use semolina, rather than flour, to dust my work surface and sprinkle over freshly rolled or cut noodles. It prevents the noodles from sticking to one another but isn't as easily absorbed. I always use fine sea salt to flavor my dough. Coarse salt of any kind is not absorbed as readily and will affect the smooth texture of the dough. And, I add a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg, which imparts a delicate sweetness.

Here is my recipe for all-purpose egg pasta dough, using the food processor. It turns out lovely, silky sheets; fine lasagna and cannelloni; and toothsome noodles. Just remember that when mixing the dough in a food processor, always start with the smaller amount of flour listed in the recipe. If the dough is too sticky you can always work in more flour as you knead.

I'm also including one of my favorite ways to dress fresh pasta: a simple sauce of sauteed guanciale (pork jowl) or pancetta and grated zucchini, with a pinch of saffron for color and flavor. It's hardly a sauce at all, but rather a condimento, to use the more accurate Italian term. It is just enough to coat the delicate noodles and adorn them with splashes of bright green and gold.

Storing fresh pasta

I often make fresh pasta ahead of time to give myself a head start on cooking, especially when I'm cooking for company. I used to leave it out to dry, but this proved to be unreliable. Home-drying pasta is a tricky business loaded with variables: the temperature of the room, the moisture in the air, the air circulation itself, and the moisture in the dough. Sometimes my noodles would dry beautifully and I could store them in airtight containers for any length of time. But often they would crack or splinter.

I found my solution in the freezer. Freezing pasta that has been stretched and cut, including stuffed pasta such as ravioli, is easy, and works beautifully. Arrange the cut pasta on semolina-dusted rimmed baking sheets. Place the baking sheets in the freezer and freeze the pasta until it is firm, about 1 hour. Transfer the frozen pasta to one or more tightly lidded containers or zipper-lock freezer bags and return it to the freezer. Pasta may be frozen for up to 1 month. Beyond that there's a risk of freezer burn and absorption of freezer odors.

Fresh egg noodles

Prep: 45 minutes
Rest: 30 minutes
Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from "The Glorious Pasta of Italy" (Chronicle Books, $30), by Domenica Marchetti

2 to 2 1/4 cups Italian 00 flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon semolina flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
3 large eggs
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1. For the dough, put 2 cups 00 flour, the semolina, salt and nutmeg into a food processor; pulse briefly to combine. Add eggs; drizzle in 1 tablespoon oil. Process until mixture forms crumbs that look like small curds. Pinch together a bit of the mixture and roll it around. It should form a soft ball. If the mixture seems dry, drizzle in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil; pulse briefly. If it seems too wet and sticky, add additional flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing briefly.

2. Turn the mixture out onto a clean work surface sprinkled lightly with semolina; form into a rough ball. Knead the dough: Using the palm of your hand, push the dough gently but firmly away from you, and then fold it over toward you. Rotate the dough a quarter turn; repeat the pushing and folding motion. Continue kneading for several minutes until the dough is smooth and silky. Form it into a ball; wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at room temperature before stretching it, 30 minutes.

3. Set up a pasta machine with the rollers on the widest setting. Scatter a little semolina on the work surface around the machine.

4. Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces; re-wrap 3 pieces. Knead the remaining piece briefly. Patting it with the heel of your hand, form the dough into a flat oval 3 to 4 inches long and about 3 inches wide. Feed the dough through the rollers of the pasta machine; lay the strip on the work surface. Fold the dough into thirds, as you would a business letter; sprinkle with a little semolina. Pass it through the rollers again.

5. Repeat the folding and rolling a few more times, until the dough is smooth. Move the roller to the next narrower notch; feed the strip through twice, sprinkling it with semolina if necessary to keep it from sticking. Continue to pass the dough through the rollers twice on each setting, until it is about 1/16 inch thick or slightly thicker (the second- or third-narrowest notch on my machine). Lay the sheet of dough on a semolina-dusted surface; cover it lightly with plastic wrap while you stretch the remaining pieces.

6. Cut the noodles using the cutter attachment with the width you prefer. Feed a sheet through the cutter, sprinkling noodles liberally with semolina to keep them from sticking. Wrap them gently around your hand to form a nest. Set the nest on a semolina-dusted baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pasta sheets.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 321 calories, 8 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 159 mg cholesterol, 50 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 344 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

Pasta with guanciale, zucchini and saffron

Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from "The Glorious Pasta of Italy." Guanciale, cured pork jowl, has a more pronounced pork flavor than pancetta, cured pork belly. If you are unable to find guanciale, substitute an equal amount of pancetta, which is more commonly available, or regular bacon.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces guanciale or pancetta, sliced 1/4 inch thick, cut into strips 1/2 inch long
1 small to medium zucchini, shredded, patted dry
Generous pinch saffron threads
Fine sea salt, optional
Freshly ground pepper
1 recipe fresh egg noodles
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Heat a large pot of water to a rolling boil; salt generously. While the water is heating, warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the guanciale; stir to coat with the oil. Cook until it has rendered some of its fat and has just begun to crisp but is still mostly soft, 5 to 6 minutes. Turn off the heat; add the zucchini and saffron, stirring to combine. Taste and add salt, if you like; grind in pepper to taste. Cover to keep the sauce warm.

2. Gently drop the noodle nests into the boiling water; use a large serving fork or wooden spoon to separate them. Begin checking the pasta for doneness within 1 minute; fresh egg noodles cook quickly. They should be just tender but not at all soft or mushy. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 cup cooking water.

3. Transfer the pasta to the skillet with your sauce; toss gently to combine the noodles and sauce thoroughly, adding a splash or two of cooking water if needed to loosen the sauce. Transfer to a warmed serving bowl or individual shallow bowls; sprinkle with the Parmesan and serve immediately.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 520 calories, 27 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 174 mg cholesterol, 51 g carbohydrates, 17 g protein, 672 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.