Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fear Itself

Often, when I am trying to muster the courage to try or learn something new, I remind myself that people have been doing such-and-such a thing for thousands of years, and that if they can, I can too. This is how I encouraged myself to learn to cook, knit and sew. Obviously this technique doesn’t always work—if I were trying to teach myself molecular gastronomy, the argument doesn’t hold up, but since I am not inclined to learn molecular gastronomy, I think I’m OK.

Where it did come in handy recently was in pasta making. I have wanted to make my own pasta for a very long time, but have always been a bit shy of it. It seemed so…daunting, somehow. But why? Recipes aren’t accompanied by the dire warnings that are sometimes delivered with yeast breads and things like hollandaise sauce. They’re generally fairly breezy and simple, just a couple of ingredients and some technique. Maybe it was that pasta machine piece. It looks to me rather like the receiving end of the guillotine with a crank in it to automate the process of removing anything left over after the business at hand is concluded.

After dithering for months, I finally made up my mind. It was time to conquer pasta. I borrowed a pasta maker from a friend and wasted no time.

And I found it to be ridiculously simple. People often imply that they reserve making pasta for special occasions, dinner parties and the like. If I were making ravioli, I can see doing that. Making the filling and stuffing them would take some time, I can understand. But for your basic strands, heck, you can make that up in 45 minutes (15 minutes of hands-on time).

I did a little research and found a sort of generally accepted recipe: 1 egg to 1 cup flour, plus a little salt and olive oil. Not too intimidating. And mixing it up was a snap.

I did hit a bit of a snag when it came to the machine. I had to actually throw the first batch out because I cranked it through so many times that it came out looking not unlike something the Founding Fathers would have used to write up a document listing their further grievances against King George III and declaring that all Americans have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of a decent meal that didn’t involve brown gravy, boiled potatoes, or sticky bland bread sauce (which I was served once by the British mother of a former boyfriend and found to be so nasty that I couldn’t eat more than a bite, in spite of the fact that it was considered a tremendous treat by the whole family much, I suppose, as our own stuffing is at Thanksgiving and everyone thinks their mom’s was the best and gets very snippy when anyone suggests that actually, dried fruit is really gross in stuffing, or whatever. But I digress).

But Deborah Madison came to my rescue. As a brief aside (yes, another one), I find it interesting that when I’m not looking for a recipe for a certain kind of thing, I stub my toe on dozens of versions. But when I am looking for a certain kind of recipe, I either can’t think where to look, or the sources I choose are all completely devoid of that which I seek. I must have checked four cookbooks for basic pasta making recipes, and they were all sources I was positive would have some kind of guidelines, but to no avail. Finally, drawing on the assumption that vegetarians would eat pasta and therefore a vegetarian cookbook could reasonably be expected to have a recipe for homemade pasta in it, I checked “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Bingo.

But what really made it outstanding was that the machine making instructions included the tip that the first four or five passes through the machine should be on the widest setting, and each time you should fold the resulting rectangle (or rectangleish shape, because of course it’s not a perfect rectangle) into thirds, squish a bit here and there to thin out any significantly thick bits, and put it back through the machine with the “rough” edge first. That is, fold it, rotate it 90 degrees, then pick it up and put it back through the machine. Eureka!

In no time at all I was cranking out pasta like Sophia Loren. Or someone. Anyway, it was a breeze and I loved it. I made skinny strands and wide strands, rolled it out paper thin and made strands of that, and stopped one or two positions short of the thinnest setting, and made slightly thicker strands. So far I’ve only dressed it with butter and fresh herbs from my garden, and it is truly phenomenal. My husband keeps teasing me because I almost never made the dried pasta we have by the carload in the pantry, but I made fresh pasta for three meals in a row over the weekend. Well, it tastes different, that’s all.

Tonight I’m making an actual recipe (Fettuccini with Crispy Capers) so we’ll see how that comes out, but I can’t believe it will be bad. And if you’ve been timid about making pasta up to now, I can assure you that if I can do it, you can do it.

Homemade Egg Pasta
Adapted from nowhere in particular, technique mostly from “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” by Deborah Madison

1 cup all purpose flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

Pour out flour on a counter top or cutting board, making a well in the center. Break the egg into the well, and pour in the bit of olive oil and sprinkle in the salt. Work the flour into the egg until it forms a dough. You may find you need to scatter it with a little water here and there. I kept a measuring cup of water on the counter and dipped my fingers in and moistened the ball a couple of times. The dough should be smooth and not sticky. If it’s sticky, you’ll have a hard time working it through the machine, so don’t add too much water. It should just be malleable. Knead for about 10 minutes total.

Let rest for half an hour in a ziplock bag.

To roll out the dough, set up the machine and open it to the widest point. Press the dough out into a thick rectangle and pass through the machine once. Fold the resulting rectangle in thirds, press to thin out any excessively thick places, and put back through the machine again with the “rough” edge first. Do this a total of four or five times.

Begin moving the knob on the machine to make the pasta thinner. Pass it through on the next thinnest setting, and continue making the dough thinner until you reach the desired thickness. The thinnest setting makes a very delicate finished product. Depending on your sauce, you may want to stop at the second to last setting and make your shapes from there.

Pass dough through “shaping” attachment (alternatively you can cut it to ribbons by hand at this point, although most machines come with some sort of attachment to create even strands of one shape or another). Hang over a wooden spoon suspended between two large pots or cans or canisters to let dry a little (I used my flour and rice canister, which are about 12-14” tall, with a couple of wooden spoons balanced between them; if you have a dish rack, you could also use that).

The pasta will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, or can be frozen for a month or so. Fresh pasta, as you’ve no doubt heard, cooks in just a couple of minutes in boiling water.


KerryRocksThe Coupons said...

I am totally going to make pasta now. I think it would be a fun thing to do with the kids. Do you recommend the pasta maker you used? I don't have a friend to borrow one from.

TD said...

K - I totally recommend the Atlas. It's what I'll be buying when I buy one. The basic model is only about $75. It's no-frills, but that's all you need! It is fun to do with the kids--Patrick helped me with the last batch and had a great time (and was actually a big help!)

Ivy said...

I just looked at your blog for the first time. I love it! I think you and I have similar interests/obsessions. And I love making pasta. It is one of the most meditative kitchen activities (unless you have help from small people, then nothing is very meditative.) I have an Atlas pasta machine and I like it, but the cutting attachment has never worked very well and I just cut it by hand. It doesn't take much time at all but you get a more "rustic" looking pasta.

TD said...

Thanks, Ivy! Yes, I suspect we do have pretty similar interests :) The cutting attachment worked OK for me, altho I can certainly see where it wouldn't be critical. And using a pastry cutter or something like that would give the noodles a cute edge that I'm sure the kids would appreciate.