A good batch of pasta starts with a little fortitude. It’s not that making pasta will cause adversity, oh no. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s just that throughout time, the relationship of civilized humans and their food have gone through some rough times. Pasta has often been there to ease us through these hardships. All you need is a little flour, a little water, and a great amount of endurance. A few eggs are nice, too.
In the world of dough, pasta is not the high-born, frigid princess that, say, pie dough can be. Pasta dough likes warmth and handling and, well…hardship. It’s just fine to ask too much of your pasta dough, working it long and hard. It will eventually become supple and let you cozy up to it later when you’re setting the table.
Store shelves are piled high with boxes and bags of decent pasta. So, why bother, you ask? Simple. Because if you want to feel civilization forming in your hands, here’s your way. This is not merely about plucking something from a tree or going in for the kill. Pasta is about what to do with a field of bounty. Pasta feeds the masses, and not only that, it does it in expressive ways. Sure, it comes only after the steps of tilling, growing, threshing, milling, mixing, kneading, shaping, drying, storing, and finally cooking. Most of us are confined only to the last step in this process. But you can hop on this lineage in your own kitchen much earlier. Here’s how:
– Have all your ingredients at room temperature. In pasta making, you want gluten to develop and become springy. This happens at room temperature. Keeping this dough out of the way of cold places is a must.
– The basic formula is 100 grams (3/4 cup) of flour per egg. You’re not necessarily going to incorporate all that flour, but it’s a good place to start. I usually make pasta for my family of four with 400 grams of flour and four eggs.
– As far as what type of flour to use, you really don’t have to be too finicky. All purpose is just fine. If you can find doppio zero, or “00” flour that the Italians use, great! If not, don’t let it stop you. Remember that this is the food of the masses, and forge ahead. If you really want to have some fun with a premium product, try this stuff. [TK link].
– Dump your flour on a work surface and make a well with high walls. Crack your eggs into the center and break the yolks. Start beating a bit of the flour into the eggs a little at a time.
– When the dough is stiff enough to start kneading, start kneading. Get into the rhythm and get a little lost. You’ll knead until the gluten structure forms enough to transform this dough from a sticky mass into a smooth and supple form. Resist the urge to add too much flour at once. Let time and the mechanical action of your hands be the great leveler. A few things to remember when kneading are to be concurrently firm AND agile with the handling of the dough. Please don’t push down roughly, but find a rhythm that pushes the dough out, kind of rolling it at the same time. Think more lovers tussling, less bar brawl and you’ll probably get the idea. About 10 minutes of kneading should do it.
– Cover and let the dough rest at room temperature for at least an hour. I repeat, this dough does not like the cold, so keep it out of the fridge. This little nap will let those gluten strands relax and reorganize and make sure all hydration is evenly dispersed.
– To roll it out, I use a hand-cranked machine. The rule of thumb is initially cut the dough into as many pieces as you used eggs. So for our 4-egg dough, we’ll initially cut into 4 equal pieces. Pat each piece into a rough rectangle and run it through the widest setting on the machine. Fold it in thirds like a letter, and run each piece through again.
– For good measure, we’ll run it through the widest setting one last time before stretching it thinner. Fold each piece of dough in half and feed it through the widest setting, running the folded edges into the machine first. Rest each piece on kitchen towels, and give them lots of room. No overlap.
-Now you can start to take each piece down a notch each time it goes through the machine. This slow thinning of the dough is important to develop structure and make for a more toothsome finished noodle. If there are little tears or imperfections you want to fix, you can always open to a wider setting and do the letter fold thing again, then go back down one setting at a time until you get to the desired thinness.
-Let the rolled out pieces of dough rest, not overlapping, on kitchen towels for about 10 minutes. This is to further dry them out a bit before cutting. You’ll take them just to the point of feeling leathery, but not quite.
-For fettuccine, I usually take it down to the ‘6’ setting on my Atlas machine. For ravioli, I make them even thinner. I encourage you to play around and see what works for you.
-Once cut, dust with flour or semolina (or if you really want to insure they dry without sticking, use cornstarch) and pile the strands into little nests.
-Put on a pot of salted water on to boil. Go ahead, do that while I wait. You’re going to want to eat this pasta as quick as you can. Such comfort, such simple reward for your effort, such fortitude to face whatever else life is throwing at you.