About five years ago, I bought a pasta machine at a garage sale in Concord, NH for about $3.00. It had never been used and I had every intention of making fresh pasta. It just never happened. My old kitchen was small and my storage space was so limited that my pasta machine spent a couple years sitting on a shelf in the hall closet. I guess I kind of forgot about it. My new kitchen is roomy with an abundance of storage and every time I open the cabinet, I see that virgin pasta machine staring up at me longingly. A little voice in my head has been nagging me lately about making pasta. I decided that my next quiet weekend would be dedicated to the task.
I’ve only made pasta once before. About 15 years ago I met a wonderful guy who was into food and cooking as much as I am and we hung out together for about five or six months. He came over on a Saturday afternoon and brought his pasta machine. He did most of the work, but I helped with kneading and I watched intently. We made spaghetti with shrimp and garlic and it was not very difficult or challenging. I knew I could pull this off by myself.
I started the project on Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and a little research. I scanned a few recipes, checked my pantry and made a grocery list. I settled on a recipe from my King Arthur Flour cookbook. I cleaned the kitchen while mulling over my options and I decided on pappardelle, my absolute favorite, with tomatoes and some kind of seafood. Off to the food stores!
At the grocery store, I found small brown mushrooms on sale. Prince Edward Island mussels were available for just $3.99 a pound, so I bought a two pound bag. I figured if I was making my own fresh pasta, I should have the very best ingredients for my sauce. There is a wonderful Italian market called Labriola’s not far from the grocery store, so I made a quick detour to get a can of Italian San Marzano tomatoes, grown and canned in a small town near Naples. The flavor of the San Marzano is more intense and the fruit has less seeds than other varieties. They are prized for tomato paste because of their low moisture content and dense flesh. With all my ingredients procured, I was ready to head home and make amazing food.
Making pasta requires proficiency in a variety of cooking techniques. But the dough is really so simple to make. Flour and eggs are mixed together with a pinch of salt and a dribble of olive oil, the dough rests briefly, then gets rolled out and cut into the desired shape. I decided to make a double batch of dough and put half of it in the freezer. I found the right place to clamp this pasta machine down and started the dough.
3 cups all purpose flour
4 large eggs
2 tbsp good quality olive oil
1 tsp salt
I poured the flour onto my work surface and made a well in the center of the pile. I cracked the eggs into the well and added the olive oil and salt. Using a fork, I beat the eggs and started mixing in flour from the sides of the well a little bit at a time. Eventually, I put the fork aside and used my hands to bring the dough together. I kneaded the dough enough to bring it into a cohesive ball and let it rest for just a couple of minutes to allow the flour to fully absorb all the moisture. Then I started kneading. The more I work with dough of various kinds, the more I realize that every kind of dough has a unique feel. A good cook learns from the feel and behavior of the dough when it has been kneaded enough. The recipe called for the dough to be kneaded until it was smooth and silky. I relied on my instinct and kneaded until the dough felt right to me, about 10 minutes, and set it under a moist towel to rest.
My next step was to roll out the dough. The pasta machine was practically crying out to perform and I had the rollers open to the widest setting. I cut my piece of dough and pressed it down enough to get it into the rollers of the machine. It went in after just a couple of cranks and a long sheet of pasta came out of the other side. I continued rolling, lightly flouring the dough as I went, adjusting the setting of the rollers each time to get my pasta gradually thinner and thinner. When the sheet of pasta became too long for my work surface, I’d cut it in half. I ended up with four sheets of very thin pasta.I dusted them with flour, and rolled up the pasta sheets and cut them into wide pappardelle noodles. The pasta machine actually came with a cutting attachment, but since I was making wide noodles, I decided to do that step by hand. I unraveled each piece of pasta, dusted them again with a tiny bit of flour and dropped them loosely onto a lightly floured towel. While the pasta dried out a little bit, I made the sauce.
First, I steamed the mussels in a big pot with just a splash of clam juice and a splash of liquid from the tomatoes. In a separate pan, I cooked onions and garlic until they were soft and starting to brown, seasoning as I went. Into the browned onions I added the slices mushrooms and let them brown slightly. I deglazed the pan with the steaming liquid from the mussels. Using my hands, I crushed the tomatoes into a bowl and added them to the pan next, allowing some of their liquid to cook off, but just enough to concentrate the flavor. Since the goal is to have the noodles absorb the sauce, I wanted a somewhat loose consistency. My sauce was staring to come together. I removed the mussels from their shells, added them the sauce and moved it off the heat, then added just a small splash of half and half to give the sauce body. Finally, I sprinkled freshly chopped basil and thyme all over the top.
Fresh pasta cooks very quickly. In most cases, it takes less than a minute to achieve an al dente texture. I didn’t put the pasta into the water until the sauce was completely done. Into a huge pot of boiling salted water I dropped handfuls of my fresh pasta. About a minute later, my pasta was done and I pulled it out and put it immediately into the hot sauce. I tossed it all together and gave the whole thing about five minutes to get acquainted and allow the noodles to absorb some of the sauce.
My pasta was perfect, tender but slightly toothsome, having absorbed just enough sauce to impart flavor. Each bite had a little of everything. It was without a doubt the best pasta I ever ate. And now I have another piece of dough in the freezer, waiting for my next pasta dinner. I think I hear some ravioli calling my name…..