Monday, February 18, 2013

Old dogs, new tricks: pasta

I've been making pasta for over forty years (a frightening thought in and of itself), and I didn't think there was much I could do differently. My recipe for pasta is a typical Italian non-recipe, and while most of the time the finished product is good, there have been some catastrophic failures--pasta that wouldn't cut properly, pasta that congealed in the boiling water into a huge mass, pasta that turned into mush because I got called away at a critical moment. The resulting tears are never pretty.

Cooks should never rest on their laurels, and there is always something to learn. A fall issue of La Cucina Italiana featured pasta in many forms, and each shape had its own recipe for the dough. The big difference between their dough and mine is the flour. Each recipe used some measure of "tipo 00" flour, a very soft flour not available in most grocery stores. My family has always used all-purpose white flour, nothing fancier than that. When my great-grandmother was alive, that was the only flour available, and if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me. But I was intrigued by the "tipi 00" flour, so the last time I visited Croce's in Cherry Hill, I picked up a bag of this super soft flour. The owner gave me a nod that showed a new respect for me and my cooking prowess.

This afternoon, I didn't know what to make for dinner, and after doing an inventory of the refrigerator, I found that I had enough left-over roast beef to make gravy, and roast beef gravy deserves homemade pasta. I chopped onions, sweated them with good olive oil and a few flakes of hot pepper, then incorporated several minced cloves of garlic and some leftover roasted peppers. After a few minutes to cut the bitterness of raw garlic, I added a half cup of decent chianti, let it boil off, and then tossed in a can of San Marino tomatoes, crushed them with a potato masher before adding the leftover beef. I left that to simmer on the back of the stove.

Now was the test. I put a cup of all-purpose flour and a cup of the tipo 00 flour in the bowl of the food processor along with a generous pinch of salt. After a few pulses to combine the flours, I added three large eggs, one at a time, letting the food processor run after each addition. One it started to form a ball, I stopped the food processor and pulled the dough away from the blade, forgetting how sharp the blade is. After running for Neosporin and a bandaid and administering first aid, I kneaded the dough briefly and put it into a zip-lock bag. After a half hour, I started to roll out the dough.

While I don't have a guitarra, I do have a hand-crank pasta machine that gets its fair share of use. They last forever, unless you happen to have a husband of German descent who couldn't believe that one would not take APART the pasta machine to clean it, but that's another story. The usual procedure is to  roll the pasta into a thick coil, and cut it into the same number of pieces as the number of eggs used, plus one. In this case, I cut it into four pieces and covered them with a vintage cotton tablecloth that serves to help clean up the flour and to cover the dough while it rests.

The next step is to roll the pasta through the rollers at the widest setting several times, folding it in three like a business letter between each pass, and sending it through with the open end first  (that's a trick I learned a long time ago--it makes for silkier pasta). Once I'm satisfied that the dough is really ready, then I dial the rollers one step closer together and run each piece through the machine. My machine goes from 1 (widest) to 7 (closest). Usually, I take the pasta through the rollers all the way to step 6, and the dough is paper thin. However, when I do this, the pasta doesn't always cut when I go to the next step, but that's the way we always did it.

Again, according to La Cucina Italiana, neither angel hair (my favorite) nor linguine (the other size on my pasta machine), should use dough that thin. I gritted my teeth (after all, change is difficult), and stopped myself at step 5. In a leap of faith, I started to put the first pasta sheet through the narrower cutting side and started to crank.

It was amazing. The dough separated into perfect strands, and it was the fastest I've ever been able to cut pasta. I repeated this step with the other sheets of pasta, and as soon as the water (salted generously) came to a rolling boil, I carefully transferred the pasta to the pot. If you are used to making dried pasta, you will be astounded at how quickly fresh pasta cooks. Let it come to a full rolling boil and IMMEDIATELY (I can't stress this enough), dump the pasta into a large colander to drain. It shouldn't take more than a minute. Seriously. Trust me on this one!

Sauce the pasta and put it on the table quickly. Fresh pasta is ephemeral!

When I served the pasta with the melt-in-your-mouth beef, my husband of German heritage noticed that the pasta looked different, almost extruded, and I agreed, but when we twirled our first forkfuls and put them in our mouths, we were pleasantly surprised at the taste and texture.

Take home lessons: 1) Substitute 1/2 tipo 00 flour for the all purpose stuff. 2) Don't make the dough paper thin.

See, even an old dog like me can learn a new trick or two!

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