We all agree that cooking is a creative process, right? This is partly why we all enjoy cooking, reading about cooking, dreaming about cooking and buying gadgets. Every once in a while a gadget comes into our kitchen that reminds us that not only is cooking about being creative and making things that taste good: it's about FUN. Playing with the pasta machine the Critic gave me a couple of years ago for Christmas is a great reminder of how much cooking can resemble the fun you had as a child. It's like a big shiny Play-Doh machine. And the cookbooks that recommend home-made pasta are right: it does taste better than store-bought (even so-called fresh) pasta and it is easy to make. So it was a natural when I was looking for something fun to make for dinner with my stepdaughter when she came to visit over the summer holidays!
If you read these pages regularly, you'll already be familiar with my stepdaughter Marianne, from the Kosher Easter Eggs Event. Some might say that at the age of 11 she is too old to be playing with Play-Doh, but you see the beauty of the pasta machine is that she isn't. She is engaged in the serious matter of pasta making!
The recipe I use for making pasta comes from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. My sister gave me this book a few years ago and it has been a treasure of good recipes for me so far. The pasta recipe is charming in the simplicity of its ingredients: for four servings, you need two eggs and four cups of flour (plus extra for kneading). Period.
Of course it is a little more complicated than that (though not much). Ms. Hazan recommends starting with a floured surface and piling your flour on the counter, making a well in the middle for the eggs. You then start beating the eggs without disturbing the well, and gradually start incorporating the flour by making wider circles with the fork. This is fine, but after one attempt you will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion I did: if you make your flour well in a large bowl you'll not find yourself with a foot wide egg-slick when you accidentally break the wall of the well with enthusiastic whisking. I start out my dough in a large bowl every time now, and the mess stays under control. (Here you can see Marianne mixing eggs and flour with a whisk; we decided that a fork was actually much more efficient in the long run. We also agreed that this was the boring bit of making pasta, and traded the work back and forth until it was done.)
Once you have worked all the flour into the egg, you will have a sticky dough. Turn it out onto a floured surface and knead it for a few minutes: you'll probably need to add some more flour to keep it from sticking to the counter, your hands and anything else it can find. Once the dough is elastic and no longer sticky, start dividing it into balls about the size of a small chicken egg.
Put your pasta machine on the thickest setting and run the first ball of pasta through it. You may find that the dough was stickier than you thought at this point; if it is sticking to the machine, dust it with a bit more flour. Fold over one of the long ends about a third of the way and then the other end the same amount, to make a little package that is probably more or less square. Run this through the machine again at the same setting, but in the opposite direction to the first time. (That is to say, if you hadn't folded the dough it would be going through horizontally.) Do this same trick of folding the thirds into the center and changing the direction twice more. Put the now somewhat elongated piece of pasta dough on a lightly floured clean dishrag. (This is where you discover how useful it is to have counter space in your kitchen...) When you have done this with all your pasta balls one by one, they will look something like this.
Now you can move your pasta machine to the next setting and run each of the pieces of pasta through it once. (No more tricks this time, put the pasta through lengthwise so that it gets longer and longer as you go! See this photo of Marianne in action if it's unclear.) Dust your pasta pieces with flour as necessary and keep moving the settings down when you finish going through the lot of pieces, until you get to a thickness you like. I tend to make my pasta a little thicker for ravioli because it always looks much more fragile than it actually is.
Once your pasta is the thickness you want, let the strips dry a little while so that the cut strands will not stick together. Half an hour should do the trick unless it's raining hard and the windows are open or you foolishly start your pasta water boiling right next to the drying pasta. (Yes, that's what I did the firs time and it took ages to dry the pasta...d'oh!) You want it dry enough that you feel you could fold it over without it sticking to itself, but not so dry that it would crack or break when you do.
(While the pasta is drying is a perfect time to start your pasta sauce, providing you haven't opted for one that takes hours. We made a simple sauce of sautéed onions and garlic in butter, crème fraiche and chopped ham, which did not take long to make at all. Marcella Hazan recommends dried pasta for tomato sauces, and I figured the cream and ham would still be kid-friendly. It passed the test, I think!)
Change your pasta machine to the setting you want for your pasta width. We tested the angel hair pasta setting but decided in the end it was going to be too much work feeding the strips and settled for fettucini. If you have a hard time getting the machine to grip the strip of pasta (this can happen because the ends dry more quickly than the middle of the strip) just tear off a little dough from the end and try again.
While you are cutting the pasta, start your water boiling. Once it boils and your sauce is hot and bubbly and ready, toss the pasta in the boiling water and cover until the water comes back to the boil. You'll only need to cook the pasta for a few minutes - fish out a piece after two or three minutes to see if it's done if you like it al dente (or if you just like using classy Italian phrases when you describe it to your guests). Drain the pasta, toss it with lots of butter or olive oil, add the sauce and some freshly grated Parmesan and serve. Marcella counsels against serving your pasta plain with the sauce drizzled over the top as you need to toss the sauce and pasta together to get the maximum amount of flavour on each and every strand. I agree. The restaurant way looks better, but the Hazan way tastes better.
One last piece of advice: you should make at least twice as much sauce as you think you'll need. Fresh pasta soaks up sauce like a dipsomaniac in a vat of wine. There is no such thing as too much sauce.
If you want to see another photo of the lovely Marianne, click here. She's wearing a very flattering dress that she got for her 11th birthday - where does the time go??
Five Things I Love About My Pasta Machine
1) It has a hand crank.
2) It is shiny.
3) To clean it, you only need to dust it down.
4) It reminds me of Play-Doh.
5) It makes great pasta out of flour and eggs!