A funny thing happened recently. After all of the chaos of the semester–tutoring, meetings, technological difficulties–and feeling like somebody who had often been spread too thin, I suddenly noticed that life had become awfully quiet again. Possibly too quiet. Although there was a part of me that rejoiced at my newfound freedom, there were also a few days when I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. Because nothing felt pressing, I would often find myself aimlessly wandering around the apartment, searching the bookshelves for something to read or thumbing through a cookbook and imagining various possibilities. But it was as if all of the possibilities paralyzed me (studies have shown that this can happen; it’s one of the perils of the modern age and of the endless number of choices that capitalism affords us); I had no inkling of what I wanted to do or of what activity should be at the top of my list. Fortunately, I soon realized that I was foolishly squandering precious time; after months of running to and fro, my time was suddenly my own again and, rather than spend my time thinking about what I could or should be doing with this freedom, I just needed to be doing things.
This set off a welcome frenzy of activity. While I certainly don’t want to be overstate the case, it’s amazing to see how far a pinch of decisiveness can go. Suddenly, I was reading again, one book after the next. I started slowly enough, but soon found myself immersed in The Fault in Our Stars (full disclosure: I cried), then The Interestings, a novel that, though it tells the story of a certain generation, feels timeless and pertinent to all generations and, almost before I could catch my breath, I was soon embroiled in the Dublin Murder Squad and the wonders of Tana French‘s first-person narration and gritty psychological realism (believe me, had Dostoevsky written about the Petersburg police force, I would be calling French the Great Imitator). When I could pull myself away from the stacks of novels, I was whipping up one Tex-Mex delight after another–if time were endless, I would already have written about Lisa Fain‘s Tomatillo Cheese Grits and Apple Jalapeno Scones–and then switching gears completely and returning to the Mediterranean with flavorful and bright lentil salads. But as good as these dishes were, my crowning achievement from the past few weeks was making David Lebovitz’s gorgeously speckled fresh herbed pasta from his new book, My Paris Kitchen (by the way, this book is unquestionably a beauty; it makes me feel like I’m 16 again and in love with all things French).
Although making pasta at home really isn’t difficult (especially if you have the proper machinery and/or the ability to roll out and cut the dough in a way that wouldn’t make an Italian grandmother shudder), it can be a bit of a project. There is, however, something terribly gratifying about the whole experience; from start to finish, it’s seems like you’re seizing the day: forming the dough, kneading it, letting the glutens relax and then running it through the machine. For me, not only was it the first time I was making pasta on my own (I’ve always done this under the watchful eyes of my knowledgeable grandparents), but it was also the first time that I pulled the pasta maker attachment that my grandma had given to me two Christmases ago out of the cupboard to put it to its proper use. I really don’t know what I was waiting for, but to be fair to myself, I should say that there was never a moment when I was finishing my dissertation that screamed, “It looks like a good night for making pasta!” In life, there is clearly a season to suffer and a season to rejoice, and needless to say, I’m thrilled to currently find myself in the latter one.
But it’s easy to rejoice when time spreads out before you and you have a relatively foolproof recipe to follow. I say “relatively foolproof” because, while I loved both the look and taste of the final product and found David’s instructions to be clear, I believe that a recipe for pasta can never tell the whole story. Making pasta goes beyond recipes and requires equal parts intuition and skill. I learned this while watching my grandparents make it over the years; just as when making bread or pie crust, you have to be able to assess your dough. There is a moment when it will be just right–not too moist and not too dry–and only you can decide this. No recipe will tell you, although many recipe writers will give you helpful tips: David says that it’s done (i.e. post-knead) when you can “shape it into disk and the sides don’t crack.” Marcella Hazan, the woman who wrote the book on classic Italian cooking, claims that the dough is ready to be kneaded when you press your finger into the center of the mass and it comes out clean; after kneading, she says only that the dough should be “smooth as baby skin.”
Truly, when it comes to making pasta at home, there is a lot of conflicting advice, although the good news is that everybody can at least agree that it’s a worthwhile endeavor. In some books, you will find recipes that call for only eggs and flour (this is David’s ideal, but for me it didn’t work; I had to add a fair amount of water–about 1 1/2 tablespoons–just to get my dough to form. It’s possible that my eggs were smaller than they should have been, though), while others will list water, flour, eggs and olive oil (NB: for what it’s worth, this is how my grandparents make theirs and it’s delicious). Similarly, the question of which flour to use leads to the airing of a lot of different opinions: the general preference seems to be for the special Italian “00” flour, which, according to Marcella, will produce a “plump pasta with a marvelous texture and fragrance,” but because it can be both hard to find or expensive, most recipes call for either a mixture of semolina and all-purpose flour (David falls into this camp; he says this leads to a more tender pasta) or simply all-purpose (here, we return to Marcella; she argues that semolina is too grainy and should be used in commercial pasta only).
Strong opinions aside, I think that it’s pretty safe to say that, regardless of whose recipe you follow or which flour you use, the pasta will be delicious enough that you will want to make it again and again. It may take a little longer than getting a box of pasta out of the cupboard and opening it, but the difference in the flavor and texture is palpable. Even Elektra, my beagle, could taste the difference; whenever a noodle would hang precariously from the baking sheet I was setting them on after running them through the pasta cutter, somebody would make her move and quickly gobble up her stolen treasure. Then, when I would turn my back, she would again start carefully stalking her prey. Who knew that fresh noodles were the way to a beagle’s heart?
Another perk of making pasta at home is that you can play with different flavors and noodle shapes. For this batch of pasta, I primarily used parsley, but I added a handful of rosemary as well. I also did two different cuts of noodles: one a thin spaghetti, which I served with olive oil, fried green garlic and Italian sausage, and the other fettuccine, whose thicker shape invited a more elaborate sauce of cream, lemon zest, green garlic and red pepper flakes. Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet, I’m envisioning many more afternoons spent making pasta. I can firmly say that in my future there is a tarragon pasta that will be combined with salmon and cherry tomatoes and, come the fall, a sage pasta that will be paired with Delicata squash and maybe some roasted cranberries for some tang. It’s hard to believe, but by mixing a few eggs with flour, water and herbs, dinner can feel like a source of novelty–a very special affair. It also reminds me that, even after four years of blogging (!), there are still more stories to tell and cooking tips to be shared.
Herbed Fresh Pasta
slightly adapted from David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen
easily yields 4-6 servings
The changes I made were slight and mainly based on technique. For example, I know from making pasta with my grandma that after you’ve run the dough through the pasta roller, it’s best to either cover the dough with a towel and let it sit on a lightly floured surface for about 20-25 minutes or to let it hang on a lightly floured hanger (this will prevent sticking; using wax or parchment paper would also work) for about 20 minutes. If you run the noodles through the pasta cutter too soon, it’s more than likely that they will stick together–this is more a problem with the thinner spaghetti than with the fettuccine– even if you flour to prevent sticking.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, although David says that water is optional, I had to use a few tablespoons to get my dough to form. In part, this is because I was working with a set amount of flour (Marcella says that you can’t know how much flour you’ll need in advance; this is always the tried-and-true wisdom that can be found in my grandparent’s kitchen) and my eggs weren’t large enough to get the dough to stick together. I will give David’s measurements below, but, unless your pasta comes together without a hitch, be prepared either to add water or to push some of the flour and semolina to the side and use it only if the dough is too wet.
1 1/2 cups (270 grams) semolina
1 1/2 cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (about 30 grams) mixed fresh herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon), roughly chopped
3 egg yolks, at room temperature, beaten
3 large eggs, at room temperature
water (add 1/2 teaspoon at a time if the dough isn’t coming together)
Rice flour, semolina or all-purpose flour, for rolling
-Whisk together the semolina, flour, salt and chopped herbs and place them in a mound on a table or countertop. Make a deep well in the center and add the egg yolks and eggs; using a fork, beat the eggs and egg yolks lightly, then gradually incorporate a small bit of the semolina and flour mixture into them. Keep stirring, making sure to be gentle (if you break through the sides of the mound, the eggs will flow out) and gradually incorporating more of the dry ingredients. When the dough becomes shaggy, use a metal pastry scraper to knead all the ragged pieces and scraps into the dough.
-Knead the dough (push forward using the heel of your hand, keeping your fingers bent; then, fold the dough in half, rotate it and repeat the process) for about 3-5 minutes or until very smooth (it could take as long as 8 minutes). If it’s too dry, it will crack while you’re kneading it; if this happens, add a few drops of water. The dough is ready when it can be shaped into a disk and the sides don’t crack. Pat the dough into a circle and wrap it in plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature for one hour.
-Lightly flour a surface and then divide the dough into eight equal(ish) pieces and flatten them into rough rectangles with your hand. Dust lightly with semolina or flour (rice or all-purpose) and pass through the pasta machine at its widest (smallest) setting. Then, fold the dough in half and pass through again, decreasing the opening (i.e. changing the setting to 2 this time). Repeat this step on the third setting and again on the fourth. If at any point the dough sticks to the rollers, dust it lightly with flour and brush away any excess.
-Once all the dough has been passed through the machine, it should rest–either on a lightly floured surface and covered with a towel or on a hanger dusted with flour and/or covered with parchment or wax paper–for about 20-25 minutes before being run through the pasta cutter.
-After 20-25 minutes have passed, test a sheet of the pasta dough by running it through the cutter on the desired setting. If the noodles stick together, wait for a few more minutes before running another sheet through; if they fall apart easily, run another sheet through and place the noodles on a baking sheet lightly dusted with flour. Repeat process until all of the sheets of dough have been used.
-Once the pasta is ready, there are several ways to proceed:
1) If cooking the pasta immediately, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and plan to cook the noodles for about 4-6 minutes (the cooking time depends on the thickness of the noodle, so prepare to adjust accordingly). Drain well and serve with the sauce of your choice.
2) Alternatively, the pasta can be refrigerated, covered with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap, for up to 24 hours.
3) A third option is to let the cut noodles dry out–this could take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours; they must be completely dry or there could be mold–before storing them in an airtight container for future use.
4) If you don’t want to dry out the noodles, you can also freeze them; my grandma makes huge batches of pasta and some always inevitably ends up in the freezer in an airtight container lined with wax paper and dusted with flour.