Not like mama used to make
Making fresh pasta is easier than you think
A simple sauce of sauteed guanciale and grated zuchini, with a pinch of saffron for color and flavor. For recipe, see below. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
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