|Hand-cut, hand-rolled tagliatelle drying.|
My fiance Regina is wonderful in her enthusiasm for food. She has a voracious appetite for both eating food and the knowledge of making it. She spurs me on and inspires me to teach her. Working together to make food from scratch both challenges me to understand in a deeper way the “hows and the whys” of certain foods and is, quite frankly, totally entertaining.
We spent some time making fresh pasta yesterday. Pasta is theoretically very easy to make, and yet requires some finesse. Anyone can be told how to make pasta, but actually making great noodles requires practice and repetition. Your hands, when kneading the dough, learn over time how the dough should feel at each stage of manufacture, and I think they acquire a certain sense-memory of how to do it.
I’ve made plenty of fresh pasta in my time as a private chef — noodles both Asian and Italian, raviolis, dumplings, lasagna sheets, etc. etc. I’ve had successes and failures. Big hits, flops, and even more batches of pasta that qualified only as middling — edible but passing-grade only. Practice rounds really.
But those practice rounds have resulted in me being able to crank out some damn good pasta any day I’d like. And yesterday was one of those days. Regina and I decided to set the bar high and make tagliatelle (essentially fresh fettucine) from scratch. No pasta-rolling machine, no electricity, no time-savers. Just our hands. This is how we did it.
|Whip the eggs with a fork and slowly work outward.|
First we started with the “well-method”, which means making a pile of flour on the counter-top or cutting board and making a depression, a “well” in the middle. I put three cups of all-purpose flour in the middle of our largest cutting board and made a well by pushing the 1-cup metal measuring cup into the center to create a hole. Regina cracked 4 extra-large eggs into the well and with a fork beat them in a circular fashion.
|Start gathering the flour into the eggs in the center.|
As Regina stirred the eggs she gathered more and more of the flour into the eggs until at least half of the flour was incorporated. At this point I took over and got my hands messy. I pulled the flour from the edges toward the middle and started to create a cohesive mass of dough on the board. When I had one large (sort of flaky) ball of dough I scraped some of the excess flour off the board and threw it out.
And then I started kneading. And I kneaded. And kneaded.
|Beginning the kneading.|
There’s no rocket science involved in kneading. It just requires force. Push down, occasionally punch the dough. Turn it, fold in over on itself. Do this over and over again. This dough, unlike softer bread dough, is very tough initially. Push down with the heels of your hands, do your best to fold it over. Just beat the shit out of it as best you can. But at some point, usually around the six minute mark, you’ll notice the dough softening a bit, becoming stretchier as you work it. The surface will feel smoother, perhaps a little sticky. When you push your finger down into the ball of dough it will slowly bounce back.
I needed to knead for ten minutes to reach this stage of pliability. Regina fed me wine through a straw while I did this; I think I’ve mentioned she’s amazing.
|Beat the shit out of the dough!|
After ten minutes I formed the stiff dough into a vaguely disc-like shape and we wrapped the dough in plastic and left it out to relax. We returned to it 40 minutes later, unwrapped it, and cut it into four pieces.
|I lightly floured the board and cut the “rested” pasta dough into four pieces.|
We both had a hand in the rolling of the dough. With our hands we each took a piece of the dough and flattened it, forming it into a disc about and half-inch thick. With a rolling pin on a floured board we rolled and rolled and rolled until the dough was as thin as we could get it, probably less than an eighth of an inch thick. We turned it and flipped it and forced down the rolling pin. It took a little sweat, but we made it thin and perfect.
|Rolling out the dough by hand is a pain, but worth the effort.|
I just wrote the word “perfect” but by that I don’t mean uniform thickness. Making things from scratch means that you revel in the very “un-uniformity” of the end result. Some noodles will be a trifle thicker, a trifle wider, a trifle longer than others. I like this, this idea of taking things back to a time when all pasta was made in the home by hand, before the era of mass-extruded, vitamin-enriched spaghetti. It speaks to my soul. And it tastes great on the palate.
Anyhow, the final stage of production is simple. We folded the pasta sheet over on itself three times and carefully cut pasta ribbons about a quarter-inch wide. We straightened them out and laid them on a cooling rack to dry for a couple of hours.
And we had our fresh noodles. And they were good. We made a simple lemony Alfredo sauce and tossed the pasta into that. But that recipe will have to wait. For now.