Friday, 2 August 2013

Fresh Pasta Dough: A Novel

I can't believe it took me 28 years to get around to making pasta dough from scratch. I mean, I can't really go longer than 4 days without eating pasta before turning into a zombie-like creature who riffles through the pantry for a bag of spaghetti, eyes blood-shot and twitching. I should know how to make some of the stuff from the basic ingredients I always have at home... just in case...

But fresh pasta dough is a slightly intimidating recipe (at least, it was for me) and while my mother is very proud of her Italian heritage, she was also a single mom with 3 kids, leaving her little time for the delicate operation that is making your own fresh pasta, so it was one of those things I didn't get a chance to learn when I lived at home.

But I left home a long while ago: it was more than time for me to get on the task of pasta dough, but I was quite nervous to try it without some basic guidance. That was when my awesome friend Alex (king of pancakes) came to my rescue! He had the necessary know-how (an Italian chef's recipe) and hardware (the pasta-machine attachment for his Kitchen-Aid stand mixer). I hopped and skipped over to his place with my apron, and we made pasta!

What I learned is that just like pie crust dough and other so-called scary recipes, making pasta dough is a lot more simple than I anticipated! If you have a pasta machine (either the manual type or the attachment for the stand-mixer), it is time-consuming, granted, but also very straight-forward and simple. It's also a remarkably sensual process, because the only way to know if the dough is good and ready is by relying on how it feels as you are working and touching it.

Which means: no making pasta dough in a food processor!! Not ever. Get that idea out of your head right now, wash you hands, use them, and put your back into it when kneading! Alex's trick was to make me take a bit of a judo pose next to the counter (slightly on the side, right foot forward) and to make me support my weight against the counter with my right hand (I am right-handed). That is the kind of resistance you are supposed to feel when kneading pasta dough, and a food processor will never do the "stretch and fold" motion the way your hands will.

Also, when making pasta dough, clear a large working surface and keep it very clean, because this dough is sticky and will pick up anything that's laying around on the surface it's being worked on.

This recipe makes about a pound of pasta dough, which can then be cut into whatever shape your pretty little heart desires!

1 pound all-purpose flour (454 grams)
4 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons very cold water (keep a bowl of water with a couple of ice cubes in it)
Sprinkle of sea salt

Put the flour on a clean work surface and form a deep well in the middle of the flour. Make sure the well is deep enough that it will not break when you pour the liquids in.

Put all the other ingredients in the well.

With a fork, mix the ingredients from the well and out towards the rest of the flour. Be careful not to break the well or things will get very messy.

Using a pastry scraper, scrape the sides of the well to get the flour in and continue mixing until the ingredients are forming a blob that holds itself.

Mix in any crumbs that fall out as soon as possible. Continue mixing until the dough is a ball.

Knead the ball of dough for about 10 minutes, by stretching, turning and folding it until it feels silky.

The dough is kneaded enough when it is pliable and stringy when it tears (this means gluten has developed).

Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature (if using right away) or in the fridge (if using later). When ready to use, cut the ball of dough in manageable pieces and set the pasta machine on the largest setting.

Take a portion on the dough and flatten it by hand until it can be rolled. Roll the dough in the machine, fold the dough over itself, then adjust the machine to the second largest setting and roll it again. Fold the dough, adjust the machine to the third largest setting and roll it again. At first, the dough will be "veiny", a little bit like a leaf. The picture below shows dough that is not ready to use yet because you can still "see" the texture (it's not easy to capture on camera, but once you do it yourself, you can totally tell).

Repeat the three levels of rolling until the dough is uniform and very soft. This picture shows the super-smooth look of dough that is ready to be cut (again, tough to illustrate with a picture). It's really important to trust your senses here: the texture of rough-pasta dough versus ready-pasta dough is quite noticeable. It becomes incredibly light, smooth, silky and pleasant to touch.

Once the dough is ready, adjust the machine and roll it progressively (and I mean progressively! If you try to roll it too thin too fast, it will get caught in the machine and tear, and you will have to start all over again. Take. Your. Bloody. Time.) to desired thickness, then cut into the desired shape. Remember that pasta thickens as it cooks, so roll thinner than you expect to need it. It should have a nice elasticity, so don't be afraid to get it really thin, until it's a little translucent.

Most pasta machines come with cutter-rolls, that will allow you to just roll your sheet of pasta through and end up with a nice pile of fresh spaghetti or fettuccine. They also usually include what is know as a pasta bike, a little manual rolling cutter that you can use to make the little squares necessary to assemble stuffed pasta, like ravioli or tortellini.

When you cut your pieces of pasta, lay them carefully on a piece of parchemin paper until you are ready to use them. If you are making a lot of pasta and want to save space, simply cut a rectangle of parchemin paper, lay your cut dough on top, add another layer of parchemin, and so on until you are done.

If you have any dough you are not using, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and either refrigerate it for a couple of days (bring it to room temperature before you start rolling it), or freeze it. It should keep in the fridge for about a month, like most egg doughs.

You can also dry your cut pasta to cook them later: sprinkle a bit of flour on top of your cut dough and let it air-dry for a few hours, then keep them in a sealed plastic container in the fridge until ready to cook.

Obviously, I wanted to cook with that pasta dough ASAP! The most forgiving recipes when you are still new at making fresh pasta dough is lasagnes, for a relatively obvious reason: no fancy shapes to cut! For a traditional Italian lasagne, you also need a lot of layers, so it's hard to waste fresh pasta dough on that. Alex is a mad genius who came up with an interesting and highly unusual lasagne idea that we had a lot of fun experimenting with and devouring... Stay tuned, because I will post that magnificent creation very soon!

Until then, here are a few more tips: fresh pasta cooks in hardly a couple of minutes in boiling water, so if you make linguini or agnolotti, your pasta will be ready before you've had time to blink. However, if you are baking them in a lasagne, it will take a bit longer to cook, and you really want them to fully cook: about 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven should do the trick. Undercooked fresh pasta has a very flour-y taste and texture that's not very appetizing.  On the other hand, if it is cooked well, it will all but melt your mouth.

I really want to give a huge thanks to Alex for opening his kitchen to my manic note and picture taking, and for patiently and generously sharing his knowledge with me. I had so much fun learning how to make pasta dough with him, and I learned tons of new things watching him cook. I am very impressed and humbled by the experience. I am also terribly jealous of his apron...

Thank you so much, Alex! And thanks for the pasta machine! Next time, it will be my turn to cook for you!!

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