As a first generation Italian-American, I was raised on culinary delights my friends could only imagine: a never-ending supply of homemade tomato sauce and meatballs; fried bread dough glistening with olive oil; fresh pasta made from scratch. Perhaps because she couldn’t stand the thought of her son having to eat dried spaghetti and sauce from a jar, my Italian grandma made sure my mom — a non-Italian from West Virginia — learned how to cook my dad’s favorite dishes.
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Although she had no experience making Italian food, my mom was a quick and enthusiastic learner. It was she who first taught me how to make fresh pasta in our basement, albeit against my will.
Unlike people with fond childhood memories of cooking at their mothers’ elbows, I was not interested in learning to make pasta as sassy pre-teen. When my mom tried to reason with me, “If you don’t help, how will you know how to do this yourself someday?” I shot back, “I’ll have my maid do it for me.”
It’s a wonder she didn’t whack me with a rolling pin.
It wasn’t until I moved from home and had to fend for myself in the kitchen that her words sunk in. Where was the fresh fettuccine going to come from, if not my own hands?
Technique makes all the difference
If my mom felt the warm glow of I-told-you-so when I finally asked for her recipe, she didn’t show it.
I made fresh pasta many times over the years and came to understand all too well why my mom had been so eager for extra hands. The process seemed to take forever! I’d spend half a day cranking dough through the pasta roller, and by the time I was finished, all I’d want to do was order pizza and go to bed.
Until a few years ago, when my Aunt Lena invited me to her house for a linguine lesson, I never suspected that pasta-making could be anything other than an act of martyrdom. That day, my aunt taught me a few things that helped explain why my previous attempts had been so exhausting. Here’s what I’d been doing wrong:
I made my dough with a food processor, which can make it too stiff. Only by kneading the dough with your hands can you feel when the texture is right.
Because my dough was so unyielding, I had to run it through the roller more times than normally would be necessary. This made the process take longer than it should have.
I didn’t let the dough rest properly. Letting it sit for 10 minutes or so before each trip through the pasta roller relaxes the gluten and makes the dough easier to work with. (Aunt Lena also taught me that while the dough rests, I should rest too — with a glass of red wine in hand.)
In only two hours, the two of us cranked out enough pasta to feed a dozen family members, with plenty of leftovers. And the experience was fun and relaxing!
To make my pasta pursuits even more enjoyable, I’ve since adopted an innovation recommended by my mom: a pasta roller/cutter attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer. I was reluctant to give up my hand-crank machine at first, but changed my mind when I discovered that because the mixer’s motor turns the rollers automatically, I could use both hands to guide the dough as it came out of the roller. That makes solo pasta-production much easier.
Now that I know that making fresh pasta doesn’t have to involve five hours of hard labor, I don’t wait for a special occasion to make it.
Serves 4 to 6
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs (room temperature)
3 ounces tepid water
1 teaspoon salt
1. Mound flour on a cutting board or clean work surface and make a well in the center of the flour. Crack the eggs into the well and add water and salt. Use a fork to break the yolks and slowly begin scooping flour into the well, a little at a time, until all the flour is incorporated into the liquid.
2. Knead dough until smooth. If the dough feels sticky, it is too wet; add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it feels smooth and doesn’t stick to your hands. Form dough into a log shape.
3. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rest 10-15 minutes. While you’re waiting, you can relax and drink some wine (this also applies to steps 4 and 7).
4. Knead again for a few more minutes until dough is smooth, adding a bit more flour if needed. Cover and let rest for another 10-15 minutes.
5. Slice log into five pieces of equal size. Dip each slice in flour to coat and brush off any extra flour. Roll each slice with a rolling pin to flatten into small ovals and sprinkle with flour.
6. Run dough slices through a hand-crank pasta machine or KitchenAid mixer roller attachment at the 1, 4 and 6 (wide, medium and small) thickness settings. (Run all the sheets through on the wide setting, then roll all of the sheets on medium, etc. That allows the sheets to rest for a few minutes between rollings.) Skip the smallest setting if sheets have reached the desired thickness after two trips through the roller. You should be able to see the outline of your hand through the sheet. When dough is coming out of the roller, pull on it gently to stretch it out. Sheets should be smooth and elastic.
7. Cut sheets in half so they are each about 12 inches long. Lay sheets on a tablecloth, dust with a little flour and turn them over. When edges begin to dry (in 20-30 minutes), the pasta is ready to cut. Don’t let it dry too much, or sheets will buckle and get caught in roller.
8. Run pasta sheets through cutter and arrange noodles in loose nests on a tablecloth. Sprinkle with a little flour to keep strands from sticking together. Cook in boiling salted water until al dente (2-3 minutes). If you’re not planning to eat the pasta that day, leave it to dry completely, turning nests over after an hour or so. Dried pasta will keep in the pantry for a few months.
Top photo: Making beautiful fresh pasta takes some effort, but with the right technique, it can be relaxing and fun. Credit: Tina Caputo