Cookbooks may tell you how, but the best way to learn how to make fresh homemade pasta, is being taught by a friend. Someone you can observe, the person to question shamelessly as the eggs and flour become an art form from bare hands. One you silently accost to absorb the moves and the inherited skill, in order to make your own rustic "pasta fatta in casa."
Theoretically, the first step is reading the do's and dont's of how to make pasta from scratch in erudite manuals. This I fear may only confuse you. Some recipes call for no extra yolks, some add a nip of water, some omit the salt. In my humble opinion, the actual hands-on (no pun intended) technique needs human guidance. Your Pasta-Petrarch should demonstrate the steps to a personal approach, illustrate how to properly blend the elements, how to knead lovingly, and how to shape it all into a galaxy of dinner possibilities: fettuccine, ravioli, tagliatelle, lasagne, tortellini...
So here I am. I know, ideally I should be from Emilia Romagna and in my mid-seventies, but this is the best I can give you. I make my friends and family very happy with my dishes, and when these involve fresh homemade pasta, the bliss-factor is raised tenfold. I have learned this magical art by absorption. I grew up watching my grandmother nonna Titta make home-style pasta, so my credentials are good. I've spent numerous childhood hours watching her bent over the squared 4-ft wooden board, kneading a golden orb of dough the size of a soccer ball. Dusted with flour head to toe, she'd twirl and play her rolling pin like a teenage majorette. I was always in awe as the thin layer of pasta was rolled like a giant burrito and then cut into curly tagliatelle ribbons or thin, blond angel hair. I soon began to emulate her, and I have been practicing pasta for quite some time now.
It's a gesture of love to serve a meal entirely made by hand. It also makes the cook feel omnipotent, a bit of a show off. Tripping on a pasta-from-scratch-high you feel invincible, you push your limit, confident that now you can accomplish anything in the kitchen. Like I did today, for example. I ventured in a full-fledged 4-course meal for 6 hungry epicureans.
I crafted my tagliatelle while I prepared the sauce to dress them appropriately,
...breaded and fried 12 schnitzel-type veal cutlets for our second course,
...cooked 2 different vegetable side dishes (creamed pumpkin and stir-fried broccoli) and baked dessert. I refused to do the dishes and now I'm here moaning about how tired I am, but you should have seen the smiles on those faces.
But let's get back to business. Here is nonna's recipe for homemade pasta from scratch, transcribed and translated straight from her tattered and handwritten recipe journal, one of my most precious belongings.
300 g (1 1/2 cups) flour, possibly "00" + more for dusting
A very small pinch of salt
You'll need to work on a flat surface, possibly wood or marble, as long as slightly dusted with flour. Other essentials are, a rolling pin (again preferably wooden), and a little patience.
Wash your hands and beware, it’s going to get messy. And quite sexy.
Empty the flour on the work surface in a mound, and dig a hole in the middle, building a crater. This is the "a fontana" technique, literally "in a fountain manner." Now drop the eggs and the yolks in your crater and sprinkle the salt.
Start beating with a fork at first and as the mix begins to blend, dig in with your hands and knead that baby.
Image © robysushi
Image © winedharma
It will not be at all homogeneous at first. Knead regardless of messy, sticky onset. Fold the dough over and flatten with the bottom part of your palm several times.
Image © lafataartigiana.blogspot.com
Be persistent, the love you put into this part of the process ensures best results. Keep at it until the dough reaches a smooth and satiny texture. It should never flake or dry, if for some unknown reason this should happen, add another egg, NOT water. The result at the end of this sensual massage is a large, heavy ball of dough. Lay it to rest in a bowl dusted with flour, while you take a 30 minute break.
Well done, you have dough. Now, mentally prepare for the hardest part, flattening the dough with your rolling pin into a thin layer.
On a large enough unpolished wood surface - like a butcher’s block for instance - or your marble counter top, spread a large quantity of flour. This will avoid stickage. Dust it over your rolling pin and hands as well, gymnast-style. Place the ball of dough in the middle of your board and flatten it gently with your hands, avoiding finger holes. Any deep depression in the dough can cause air bubbles. And we don’t want those.
Start using your rolling pin, exercising very little pressure at first and slowly picking up force as the dough gradually flattens. As the surface begins to expand, images of the ‘old blanket’ saying will come to mind. You’ll find that rolling vertically will produce a long narrow up and down strip; compensating with horizontal strokes, your shape will instantly stretch into an opposite elongated oval. Keep going, don’t give up, and mostly don’t flatten the dough too thin. You’ll need a maximum thickness of a couple millimeters (about 1/8-inch).
To make fettuccine you simply roll up your flattened dough like a burrito and cut 1cm slices, about 1/3 of an inch.
Unravel the coils, dust with a bit more flour or polenta (cornmeal) and award yourself with a tall drink.
Tagliatelle are a bit wider (and thicker), Pappardelle are the widest, about 2cm (2/3-inch). Cutting lasagne requires a firm hand and geometric eye when shaping equal-sized rectangles. My guideline is a 10 x 15cm postcard (3” x 5”).
Maltagliati (which are great for hearty soups) means "badly cut", so you can go crazy and cut away any shape you like as long as in similar size range.
Tip: Cook fresh homemade pasta in plenty of lightly salted water at a jacuzzi-type rolling boil. Stir with a wooden spoon or a long fork quite often. This will ensure the pasta to remain springy and not clump together in clusters during cooking.
Drain your masterpiece and slather on the sauce, whatever that may be (after all that hard work you can start with a simple Burro & Parmigiano: 1/2 stick of butter and a fistful of grated Parmigiano, an awesome flavor duo), and graduate to ragù later.
Congratulations! Feel the awesome sense of achievement?
Thank you Laura. There's a chair here at my dinner table with your name engraved on it.