Making homemade pastas has an ancient history. The reason? Homemade noodles taste terrific.
My Italian-born mother made fresh pasta often when I was growing up. I would stand across the kitchen counter and watch as she fed strips of supple dough through her hand-crank pasta roller and then cut them into noodles — wide lasagna, long fettuccine, or square-cut maccheroni alla chitarra, a specialty of her native Abruzzo.
It was once thought that Marco Polo “discovered” noodles during his travels through China. But evidence suggests that pre-Roman Etruscans were making a form of pasta using ground cereals and grains mixed with water. The Romans enjoyed a wide ribbon-like pasta called “lagane” — the precursor to lasagna — as early as the first century.
The history of pasta in the United States is almost as old as the nation itself. Thomas Jefferson, who traveled to Italy in 1787, shipped a pasta machine from Naples and served macaroni (the English rendition of maccheroni) when he was president.
What’s the enduring appeal? For one thing, pasta is economical, comprising, in its most basic form, nothing more than flour and eggs, or even just flour and water. It’s versatile — you can form it into countless shapes, and, depending on how you sauce it, it will easily accommodate everyone’s tastes, from the most adherent vegetarian to the most unapologetic carnivore — and, especially, picky children.
Beyond all of those practical reasons, making homemade pasta is simply a rewarding experience. I get a ridiculous sense of accomplishment when I look at a batch of gorgeous noodles, coiled into nests, that I have just finished cutting. My pasta is never perfect; my half-moon ravioli are always a little off-kilter, my noodles not all the same length. But that is the beauty of making your own pasta. It looks, feels and tastes homemade.
If there is a secret to making good pasta at home, it’s this: Just relax. The more you touch and handle the dough, the more familiar you will become with how it should feel — how firm and how smooth it should be.
Most Italian home cooks make basic egg pasta dough using soft wheat flour classified as “00” flour. It is finer than unbleached all-purpose flour and, in my opinion, turns out silkier dough that maintains an appealing chewiness when cooked. One flour can easily substitute for the other, however, and you can make perfectly good pasta using unbleached all-purpose flour, which is cheaper and easier to find. Semolina flour, made from coarsely ground high-protein durum wheat, is used to produce pasta that has a good “tooth,” but it can be expensive. Just a little added to a recipe will accomplish that toothsomeness.
Although I occasionally mix pasta dough the traditional way by mounding flour on the countertop and breaking eggs into a flour “well,” I usually take a shortcut and use my food processor. Remember that, when mixing dough for fresh pastas in a food processor, you should start with the smallest amount of flour listed in the recipe. If the dough is sticky, work in more flour as you knead.
For basic noodles, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough up to one-quarter-inch thick, then cut the dough into strips or squares with a sharp knife. View a helpful video on rolling dough and shaping noodles by hand, How To Make Fresh Pasta Without A Pasta Machine. Or, use a pasta machine to stretch and cut the dough. Read more about using pasta machines at How to Use a Pasta Machine to Make Fresh Pastas.
To cook fresh pasta, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil. Add your noodles, which cook quickly. Begin checking for doneness by tasting a piece after just a couple of minutes. The pasta should be tender, but not soft or mushy. Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink.
Toss cooked noodles with butter and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or with a hearty meat ragu — and don’t forget vegetables. One of my favorite ways to dress fresh noodles is with shredded zucchini sautéed briefly with garlic in olive oil, all topped with a shower of chopped fresh basil and Parmigiano cheese.
Here are instructions and three recipes — one for basic egg pasta dough, one for whole-wheat dough, and one for gluten-free dough — to get you started in turning out personalized pasta.
Domenica Marchetti cranks out pasta and other Italian recipes for her family in Alexandria, Va. She is the author of The Glorious Vegetables of Italy and The Glorious Pasta of Italy.
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