Category Archives: Pasta

Hittin’ the sauce.

I should mention here that to my understanding tomato sauces aren’t usually paired with fresh egg pastas. It’s considered something of a no-no in Italian food circles. In my own defense, this isn’t so much a tomato sauce as it is a meat sugo with a little tomato added. Judges?

I made this pasta using a combination of a pasta machine and simple cutting techniques. I’m not a big fan of the cutting dies that come with pasta machines, you see. I don’t use them correctly I’m sure, but most of the time my spaghetti comes out sticky and stringy instead of long and delicate. I’m probably not using enough flour, but the dies have failed me enough times that I long ago quit trying.

So…making skinny pasta. Start by rolling your dough through the machine, draping it over your hand this way as the piece gets longer:

You want to stop rolling at a setting of 5. Next just take your dough sheet and apply plenty of pasta flour. Plenty.

Then all you do is fold the dough sheet over on itself two or three times and begin slicing it thinly.

Here you can see I sliced mine a little too thick. I was aiming for something along the lines of spaghetti but ended up with something on the order of linguine instead. Eh, what are you gonna do…

Then all you do is pick up the individual slices and they should fall apart into strings. Assuming you used enough flour. Did I mention you should use plenty? You should. Plenty.

Plenty.

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Pasta, Bacon, Peas

…is pretty much all this is. We’ve had a sparse, late pea season here in Kentucky this year, but man, are the ones we have ever sweet. Blanch two cups of them for two minutes, then immerse them in a cold water bath. Next, heat two tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter in your largest sauté pan. Add two finely diced onions. Cook them gently until the onions are transparent. Next add six ounces of cubed slab bacon if you can find it. Here I used smoked hog jowls, which can be found in pretty much any grocery store here in Kentucky (God bless this wonderful state). They’re a great local substitute for Italian guanciale.

Brown the bacon to your liking, then add the peas and several turns of fresh ground black pepper. Warm the peas for about two minutes, then add a pound of fresh pasta that you’ve only just softened in a pot of amply salted water, plus a few tablespoons of the pasta water. Toss the pasta over the heat until it is only slightly firm. Portion out onto plates, top with fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and hand to your guests. Expect no conversation until every last sweet and porky ribbon is consumed.

This is one of those dishes that really must be tried to be believed. Of course it all hinges on the freshness of the ingredients, especially the peas, but fresh pasta makes a big difference. Happily, you don’t need to have any experience with pasta or pasta machines to make the required noodles: tagliatelle, a word which simply means “cut things” in Italian. The only equipment you need is a big, ol’ rolling pin:

Separate a small lump of dough from the larger portion you previously made (keeping the rest tightly wrapped in plastic to keep it from drying out). It should be soft(ish) and plastic.

Flour your board and start to roll, without much regard for the final shape. The trick to rolling pasta in this way is to apply a good deal of pressure, and to roll fairly quickly back and forth, all the way out to the edges of the dough. It’ll take some effort, but if you lean in over the rolling pin, using your body weight instead of your arm strength to create the pressure, you won’t get tired.

Here you can see the pasta starting to roll out. You’ll want to turn the sheet over every so often to keep it from sticking to the board. Simply apply a dusting of flour and keep going.

You’ll be amazed at how the dough will keep stretching without springing back. You can roll it almost impossibly thin, though I stop when I can begin to see the grain of my pastry board through the sheet.

At this pint it’s ready to cut. You can use a sharp knife, though I like my trusty pizza cutter. Don’t get all uptight over consistency here (and in fact I cut mine a little thin for tagliatelle here, they were more like fettucine). It’s the thickness of your sheet that will determine how evenly the pasta cooks, not the width of the noodles. And anyway, the inconsistency will give your finished dish a nice, rustic flair.

Scoop it up (or have your 3-year-old apprentice do it for you) and put it on a sheet pan, covered with a clean dish towel. Once all the pasta is rolled you can put it in the refrigerator until needed (remember, there are raw eggs in it, and though contamination isn’t terribly likely, it pays to be careful). When it’s this fresh it’ll cook up in just a minute or so, which makes timing a pasta dish like this very easy. You simply have your pot of water on the boil as you cook up your onions and your bacon, and drop the pasta at the same time you add your peas to the “sauce”.

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The Briny Deep

Hands down the most common mistake people make when cooking pasta is failing to salt their water properly. A teaspoon or two per gallon is about the maximum for most cooks. Yet that’s not nearly enough. As a good Italian friend of mine is fond of saying: it must taste like the sea! And that means a quarter cup or more of salt for that big dutch oven of yours. Just keep adding, stirring and tasting until you’re suddenly reminded of being a child — and the first time you dove headlong into the ocean surf. Holy cow, this really IS salt water! They weren’t kidding!

Adding lots of salt to the pot seems excessive until you remember that only a small fraction of the salt you’re putting into the water is actually going to make it into your pasta (though it’ll be the perfect amount to season it). The vast majority is going to stay in the water, and then get poured down the drain. But hey, this ain’t the Middle Ages. Salt is cheap and abundant. Live a little.

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How to Make Pasta

I have trouble making my pasta “the authentic way”. That is, mounding up my little flour volcano, dropping eggs in the center and beating them up with a fork. I always get a breach in the wall, which sends partly scrambled egg spilling out all over the place. I don’t like the mess, but even more than that I don’t like raw egg seeping into my wooden board. Not being Italian, I can say nuts to tradition and simply use a bowl.

Of course I could go all the way and employ a food processor for my dough mixing and kneading, but there’s a compelling logic to mixing and kneading by hand. Specifically, that with the hand method the dough only takes up as much flour as it needs, rather than having a pre-measured quantity of flour forced into it.

So, to begin. Normally I use 3 eggs which usually translates to about a pound of pasta. Here I’ve got four since my buddy John’s hens are still just getting going, and are laying little “pullet” eggs at the moment.

Scramble them in the bowl as quickly as you can, incorporating flour steadily from the sides.

When the dough is slack and shaggy, it’s time to remove the whole mess to your dough board:

Kneading is a simple matter of flattening the dough out in front of you with your palm…

…folding it back…

…then giving it a quarter turn.

Repeat and repeat and repeat. In a couple of minutes you’ll have something that looks like this:

…but don’t stop there. You want to press on (no pun intended) until you’ve got something smooth and firm, like so:

Wrap it tightly in plastic and set it aside for half an hour to allow the flour to fully absorb the moisture. At that point you’re ready to turn it into whatever you wish.

Quite a number of recipes call for adding a teaspoon or so of water to the dough at the mixing stage. Personally, I tend not to do this since pasta that’s too moist has a tendency to stick together when it’s cooked. But then even a little water can make your dough smoother and easier to roll. I dunno, it’s up to you. More on rolling and cutting soon.

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It’s all about the flour II: durum and more

Hey wait a second, these taste like egg noodles! And indeed strands of homemade fettucine will if you make them from the same base material as their Swedish equivalents, which is to say soft, finely ground white flour. There’s not a thing wrong with that, of course. Standard all-purpose flour makes fantastic pasta. However to get closer to the taste of Italian pasta, you need use flours like the ones employed in Italy — and that pretty much means durum.

What’s durum? For those that might have missed last week’s exhaustive (—ing?) posts on flour, durum is a type of wheat, the hardest of all wheats. It’s physically hard, which means it’s got “bite”, it’s also “hard” in the sense that it’s high in gluten, which is what gives pasta its integrity, keeping it from dissolving as it boils.

So OK then, let’s get us some durum and we’ll make us some pasta! Oops, hang on. It’s not quite that simple, for there are many types of durum, from finely ground “extra fancy” durum flour to coarsely ground semolina. Which do you use to make pasta? Not to be obtuse on the matter, but it depends. Fresh pastas tend to be made from finer grinds, so I’ll typically put in a healthy dose of durum flour into the mix, but for interest (like the mix masters over at King Arthur) I’ll add some semolina too, for texture.

But that’s just the beginning of what’s possible. Just about any artisan flour can be used to brilliant effect in fresh pasta. That bag of fresh ground whole grain flour your cousin brought back from Vermont? Bingo. What about a little buckwheat, rye, or spelt? Maybe even some chestnut flour or even corn meal? Why not? In the right proportion (say, about a third to half of a mostly wheat and/or durum flour mix), it will very likely be excellent.

The point is to experiment, for while things can and do go wrong with pasta, it doesn’t pose anywhere near the same technical challenges as bread.

Reader Dave points out that in Italy fresh pastas aren’t made with durum flour, that durum is reserved for factory-made dried pastas. That’s entirely true. Italian fresh pastas are frequently made with Italian all-purpose flour, which has a lower gluten content even than our all-purpose. However because the character of Italian gluten is different than that of American gluten (it’s firmer whereas ours is stretchier) I still recommend the addition of some durum flour. It will give the pasta more character than the average egg noodle.

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Pasta Recipe

I know, it’s not pastry. And no, for those of you who remember the 80′s, I’m not planning on making any of those dessert pastas that were all the rage back then: chocolate lasagna, blueberry tortellini, raspberry ravioli with white chocolate crème Anglaise…what a nightmare all that was. Nope, this week it’ll be standard homemade egg pasta. Sure, it’s a savory item, it isn’t even baked, but it does start out as a dough. Its preparation also employs a lot of the same equipment: a bowl and a big ol’ rolling pin. Believe it or not, you don’t need a pasta machine to make great pasta. In fact a lot of purists out there (most of them Italian) don’t think it’s possible to make great pasta WITH a pasta machine, but more on that later. As far as ingredients go, all you need is:

The freshest possible eggs
The freshest possible flour

That’s pretty much it. I’ll get into the actual recipe a little later or tomorrow, depending on how much work I can get done. More soon.

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