I had to make some fresh pasta last week while I was working on recipes for an upcoming class. It has been a while since I made pasta (there are so many interesting things to cook...) and I had forgotten what a treat good, fresh pasta can be. If you have never made fresh pasta, I encourage you to give it a try. It is surprisingly easy to make. I have been achieving reliable results for years by using the method described by Lynne Rossetto Kasper in her book The Splendid Table.
If you do not have a copy of this book, I highly recommend getting one. It is a treasure trove of classic northern Italian cooking methods and recipes. After making polenta in a restaurant for years, I came across her very easy method and have never looked back. I had much the same experience with fresh pasta. I never realized until I read her description of the process of making fresh pasta how critical it is to thoroughly knead the dough. Well-kneaded pasta dough is firm and silky and easy to work with. Dough that has been insufficiently kneaded is floppy and soft. After being rolled out, it takes longer to dry before it can be cut, and even then the noodles tend to stick to one another. Poorly kneaded dough produces unremarkable cooked noodles, while well-kneaded dough produces a final product that is firm, yet tender—light, but with substance in the mouth.
Pasta can of course be kneaded by machine—in a stand mixer (like a Kitchen Aid) or in a food processor—with great success. But I would like to convince all of you reading this post to knead the dough by hand the first few times you make it so that you will know how the dough feels as it goes from a shaggy mess,
to a smooth, firm, satiny and elastic ball.
Machines are only helpful if your hands know what the dough should feel like when it is done. Kasper says that the final dough will "feel alive under your hands". Every time I try to shortcut the kneading process in some way, I regret it. It is well worth the extra 5 minutes it takes to achieve a beautiful elastic dough.
The temptation to use a machine to do the kneading is great—the kneading process for pasta dough is not a gentle or delicate operation. For me, it takes the strength of my upper body—rhythmically leaning into the dough as I knead—to muscle the dough into shape. Gentle, forearm-driven kneading doesn't seem to produce the desired results. As you are kneading, you might think that the dough is too dry. But I have found it almost impossible to knead too much flour into the dough. As long as you are ending up with a cohesive ball of dough, you probably don't have too much flour. After resting for 30 minutes, the dough always becomes softer—even slightly sticky.
Amazingly the dough will absorb even more flour during the stretching and thinning process.
Because I am working on a recipe for Lasagne Verdi al Forno—a classic lasagne from Emilia-Romagna that uses spinach pasta—I have been making spinach pasta. But the same method would be used to make plain egg pasta, and I have included a note at the bottom of the pasta recipe describing how to amend the recipe to make plain pasta. But you don't have to make lasagne to enjoy spinach pasta. I cut one of the batches of dough that I made into fettuccine and dressed it in a white wine cream sauce with a few sautéed mushrooms and some julienne strips of prosciutto. There are many interesting ways to dress this pasta as long as you remember to use a light hand with the sauce. Handmade, fresh pasta shouldn't be buried under an overpowering sauce. A simple veil of butter and cheese....or basil pesto (as served at La Merenda in Old Nice)....or even an Al Fredo sauce would all be excellent.
To prepare a cream sauce with mushrooms and prosciutto: Sauté four or five ounces of thinly sliced mushrooms in a tablespoon or so of butter. When the mushrooms are golden and tender, and any liquid they have given off has evaporated, season with salt and pepper and deglaze the pan with 2 or 3 tablespoons of dry white wine. Reduce the wine to a glaze.
Add a half cup of heavy cream, along with 2 or 3 thin slices of prosciutto (1 to 1 1/2 oz.) cut cross-wise into a quarter inch julienne. Bring to a simmer. Taste, correct the seasoning and set aside.
Drop a half pound (just under half of a recipe) of fresh spinach fettuccine or tagliatelle into a large pot of well-salted boiling water. Cook until the pasta is tender, but still has some bite—al dente. Watch the pasta carefully and start tasting after 30 seconds. Drain the pasta, saving some of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the pan of sauce along with a tablespoon of butter, cut into small pieces. Toss until the noodles are well-coated in the sauce. Toss in a handful of finely grated parmesan. Taste and correct the seasoning. If the sauce is too tight, add pasta water until the noodles are coated in a light, fluid sauce. Serve immediately, topped with more freshly grated Parmesan. Serves 2.
10 oz. fresh spinach, stemmed, cooked, squeezed dry and chopped
2 Jumbo eggs, or 2 large eggs plus 1 yolk (130 grams total weight)
3 ½ c. (14 oz.) all-purpose flour
Mound the flour on a counter top and make a well in the center. Place the spinach and the eggs in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until the spinach is very finely chopped. Transfer the spinach-egg mixture to the well
and gradually begin incorporating flour from the walls of the well into the liquid. When the walls start to collapse, begin using a bench scraper to cut the flour and liquid ingredients together. At first the dough will seem an unmanageable, shaggy mass (see picture above, in text). Begin to work the dough until you have a cohesive mass that you can knead without it sticking to your fingers. This initial formation of the dough will take about three minutes. If at the end of this time there is unincorporated flour remaining, sift it to remove any bits of dough. Set this sifted flour aside to be used for the remainder of the kneading process and wash your hands to remove any caked on bits.
Continue to knead the dough (adding flour if the dough is sticky) for 10 minutes until the dough is satiny, smooth and elastic—with no trace of stickiness. Wrap the dough in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Alternatively, place the eggs, spinach and flour in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. On the lowest speed, combine the liquids and the flour. When the dough begins to come together, increase the speed to medium and knead for 10 minutes.
To roll out the dough using a pasta machine, work with a quarter of the dough at a time. Flatten the dough into a thick disk and flour it lightly.
Starting with the widest setting, pass the dough through the rollers six to eight times, folding it in thirds each time and turning the dough so an open end feeds into the roller.
Continue to lightly flour the dough as you work. Set the rollers at the next, narrower setting and pass the dough through twice, folding in half each time and passing through the rollers folded edge first.
Set the rollers for the next, narrower setting and pass the dough through, but do not fold it. Run the dough through at each successively narrower setting, until the desired thickness is achieved. For lasagne and filled pastas, the sheets of pasta should be sheer enough so that you can see light and shapes through it. Fettuccine and other flat ribbon pastas can be slightly thicker. Cut the finished sheet of dough into 10-inch lengths for flat ribbons and 5-inch lengths for lasagne (giving you roughly 5- by 7-inch sheets of lasagne). Let the lengths of dough dry while you roll out the remaining three pieces of dough—after about 20 minutes, the dough should feel slightly leathery (occasionally turn the dough sheets over to encourage even drying).
If you are making flat ribbon pasta, run all of the lengths of dough through the cutter attachment—or cut by hand. Fettuccine/ tagliatelle should be cut 1/4- to 3/8-inch wide.
Store the pasta spread out on lightly floured baking sheets (covered loosely with a towel if not using within an hour or two). Makes 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds.
Variation: For plain egg pasta, omit the spinach and use 4 jumbo or 5 large eggs. Simply break the eggs into the well of flour and beat with a fork before beginning the mixing process.
(Pasta recipe adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Four Seasons Pasta by Janet Fletcher)