I eat a lot of pasta. As a cyclist, I kind of have to. Or maybe I ride simply to increase my pasta uptake capacity. I've heard or read something about the brain chemistry of pasta; all those pleasure hormones or whatever, dopamine and serotonin and such. I won’t get all technical other than to say pasta makes people happy. Except sometimes when it makes them fat instead. Whatever.
This post is about homemade pasta, by which I mean the kind you make with a hand-cranked pasta machine. It is a rare art; many an Italian restaurant doesn't even bother making their own pasta. I usually use store-bought, but when I can I make my own, and perhaps you should too.
As no other organizing structure suggests itself to me, I’ll give you this dispatch in the (perhaps mythic) who-what-where-when-why-how format of the newspaper reporter.
Who, Where, and When
It all started, for me, in the early ‘70s when, according to my mom, pasta machines became something of a fad for awhile. She bought a nice one called the Rollecta 64. The word Rollecta, among my brothers and friends, has the same mythic ring as “Stradivarius” or “Stratocaster.” This was the original, as far as we know. If my mom ever actually used it in the ‘70s, I never knew about it. I do recall shredding paper with it as a wee lad during the Watergate years. (Of course I knew nothing about Watergate; it’s just a neat coincidence.)
When I turned ten or eleven my mom asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner. I asked her to make homemade pasta with the machine. I’d long been intrigued with the Rollecta; many times I’d played with it and read the (fading, falling-apart) instructions: “Two turns of the handle and you will have fresh pasta … just like in
Three or four years later I tried the machine myself. The first few pasta batches were sketchy—the dough was too moist, and stuck to the machine—but the process was oddly engaging. Like alchemy, almost; you start out with something cheap and unexciting like flour and eggs and end up with something approaching gourmet. Vague notions like the activation of glutens fascinated me, and yet this process was much more foolproof than baking (an art which bewilders me to this day). My brothers and friends started getting in on the action. Long before we figured out how to make the pasta really good, we became really proficient at generating it. Eventually any two of us could work that pasta machine together as though choreographed. Even working solo, I could go from a pile of ingredients to having the pasta ready before the water even reached a boil.
During my college years, I initiated most of my friends into the pasta-making rite. (Most were cyclists, so it was a perfect fit.) Post-college, as my friends started getting married, my standard wedding gift was a pasta-maker. This was probably a mistake in most cases, and I’ve been wondering lately if it would be in poor taste to ask my friends if any of them would like to sell his pasta machine back to me. Probably most of them ended up getting sold at a garage sale. My brothers Geoff and Bryan have gotten vast use from theirs, however.
Every year or two I get a couple friends together and make pasta for fifty-plus guests. This can get pretty gnarly.
All that goes into homemade pasta is flour, olive oil, eggs, and water. I used to hold out the egg whites, but leaving them in doesn’t hurt anything and gives you some protein. I’ve substituted soy lecithin for eggs before (believe it or not, my dad’s kitchen once had lecithin but no eggs), or (just to try it) skipped the eggs entirely, which worked just fine. Store-bought pasta is, amazingly, nothing but flour (and nutrients—niacin, ferrous lactate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid—all of which are surely needless). The eggs I put in homemade pasta help bind everything together and are good for you. The oil tastes good and helps keep the dough from sticking. I use as little water as possible (more on this later).
As early as the mid-‘80s I was turned on to semolina flour for making pasta. I had to agree the resulting pasta was way better than what I’d been making with plain white bread flour, but I was really strapped for cash in those days and thought the semolina too pricey. (The guy who turned me onto it was a wealthy pro bike racer who could afford such luxuries.) I have just discovered, through surprisingly little research, that I made the permanent switch to semolina on September 29, 1991.
Semolina is a gorgeous golden yellow color, and in its pre-pasta form is very coarse, almost gritty. A miracle occurs as you work it: it gets less and less scratchy as you knead it, and once it’s been through the rollers of the machine a few times it gets as soft as chamois. Semolina pasta dough is delightfully springy and stretchy. Just look at the color:
Every pasta machine I’ve seen has two types of cutting blade. One is for fettuccine, and the other is for something a lot more slender (though in most cases it’s a square cross-section, not round, so I wouldn’t call it spaghetti). I’ve only ever made fettuccine, other than recently when the dough got too dry to cut and we made lasagne with it—which was dynamite, by the way. Actually, I've made ravioli a couple times with a special attachment. The first time I followed the directions exactly and it was great. The second time I improvised with the filling and it was a disaster.
This post is not about sauce. That’s a whole other story. I will tell you that in the early years, I would go to the bulk foods aisle at King Soopers and buy a gallon can of Ragu Old World Style—a barebones, dirt-cheap sauce. It was a lot like tomato soup. I called it “the paint can,” as in, “You guys get started on the dough, I have to run out and get the paint can.” I don’t miss penury. Make a good sauce for your homemade pasta.
Before I get to “why,” I’ll mention why you may not want to make homemade pasta, and why most pasta machines go the way of exercise bikes (i.e., are utterly forsaken). Making pasta is not easy, at least not at first. It’s a bit messy, and the easier time you have with the dough, the less well the pasta turns out. (As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, “food is pain.”) If you use white flour and plenty of oil and water, you’ll have your dough in fine shape in no time, and kneading it will be a cinch. But the resulting pasta will sag and stretch out under its own weight, and will seem to be fully cooked almost instantly. It will offer no resistance to the tooth—indeed, it cannot truly be cooked al dente. To make homemade pasta that surpasses the quality of a good brand like De Cecco requires patience, skill, and experience.
(A note on store-bought pasta brands: I’ve had great luck with every Italian import I’ve tried. I used to think anything in a box was good, but time after time I was disappointed. Turns out several brands I tried are all made by the same outfit—New World Pasta, formerly known as the Hershey Pasta Group—and they’re all the same crap. Yes, Hershey like the cloying, waxy chocolate. Barilla is pretty good though.)
All that aside, there are many good reasons to make homemade pasta. First of all, even your earliest efforts will be far from inedible, and you may well enjoy the thrill of making something from what seems like nothing. Plus, you can make the noodles whatever length you want. For my brother
And, finished product aside, making pasta is fun. It’s a great way to have a dinner party with people you don’t know very well; my wife and I spent a great evening making pasta with a bunch of her cousin’s French in-laws, most of whom didn’t speak English. If you have an extra machine, you can let little kids make “pasta” while the adults make the actual dinner. (Just remember to throw out the stuff the kids made; who knows what might find its way into that dough.)
Among people you know well, making pasta is even more fun, especially when you start to work together like a well-oiled machine. Homemade pasta was my only dinner party trick as a college student. What else could I afford to feed guests? Toast?
Finally, making pasta is a great way to slough off dead skin from your hands. A coarse ball of early semolina dough is just like a loofa. And there’s really no better way to get the black gunk out from under your fingernails. No, of course I’m not serious. These are just some of the stock jokes you crack to newcomers to the pasta-making process.
Once you know what you’re doing, homemade pasta is just the best you can get. I seldom order pasta at a restaurant, even a really good restaurant, because I can actually make it better at home. Imagine!
First, get yourself a pasta machine. If you have a KitchenAid mixer and a bunch of money, you can buy the pasta attachments for it. Otherwise, get yourself the heaviest Italian hand-crank machine you can find. Until very recently I’d have unequivocally recommended the Marcato Atlas, which is what most of my friends have. A spot-check for an amateur review of the Atlas gave me this gem: “I had this particular machine, and had to leave it behind when I left my husband, and the jerk would not send it to me later!!! If I had not left on the bus and was already laden down, I would have taken it. I could cry that I had to leave it, because it is a wonderful machine, built solid and probably the best made, in my opinion. The reason I am on this site, I am looking to buy me another one.”
I just bought an Atlas, to back up my original Rollecta, and at first blush they look about the same:
The difference is, the Atlas has aluminum rollers. I’m not a conspiracy theorist who thinks aluminum will make you soft in the head, but it’s a matter of construction. At my big pasta party this year, the spanking new Atlas broke almost instantly. (One of the rollers became disengaged from the gears.) This left me a machine down when I had seventy people to feed. (Amazingly, a guest took it upon himself to fix the Atlas, and after ninety minutes succeeded. This was too late, but at least I have a working machine now.)
There is one benefit to the new Atlas over older machines: it’s geared lower. This means you crank at a higher RPM than with the Rollecta; the benefit is that a child can roll out the pasta. (Alexa, at nine, doesn’t have the strength to work the Rollecta on suitable dry dough but is highly productive with the Atlas.) As far as I can tell there are two main brands, Atlas and Imperia, and they’re probably both great. Just don’t buy some damn plastic electric thing that looks like the little Play-Doh barbershop set where you turn a handle and Play-Doh hair grows out of a guy’s head. Craigslist is teeming with these plastic electric jobs but I couldn’t find a single hand-crank machine for sale. That should tell you something.
Next, get yourself some durum semolina flour in the bulk section of a good grocery store. Get some good eggs. (Pasta doesn’t require special eggs, but you should always get good eggs, because otherwise you’re subsidizing the needless torture of hens.) Get some good olive oil. The proportions are roughly as follows:
- Three pounds semolina flour
- Six large eggs
- Six or eight tablespoons olive oil
- A small glass of water
Put the flour in a big bowl, or pour it in a dome on a big clean table and make a crater in the middle. Add the eggs and the oil. Throw some extra oil in there if you like; can’t hurt. But don’t add too much water! Start with maybe a quarter of a glass. Squish everything together and try to make a big ball out of the mixture. It should be a crumbly mess. Keep working it until you’re fed up with how it’s just not forming a discrete ball. Okay, now add a bit more water.
You might want to consult the online how-to guides, but only to see what it looks like if you add too much water. How-to guides want to make it look easy, but it just isn’t. Except that it is; you’ll work maybe five or ten minutes until you have something like a ball. How long is that, really? Too long for streaming video, but nothing compared to waiting in line at a good restaurant or making a standing rib roast.
Here’s roughly how the dough balls (or loaves, whatever) should look when you start the kneading process:
Not long after making the above movie I broke the girls’ dough balls into smaller units so their little hands could get somewhere with them. Knead the dough for like ten or fifteen minutes. After awhile this process should make your hands tired and a bit sore—a good sign. When the balls seem nicely springy and elastic and the texture is no longer coarse, you’re ready to start using the machine. Here’s what the dough loaves should look like at this point:
Get a big chef’s knife and slice them up about like this:
Now you set the rollers on your machine to the widest-open setting, and feed a piece of dough through the rollers as you crank the handle. (You might well have somebody crank for you.) If the ball goes right through and forms a nice flat sheet on the first try, your dough is too moist. (It’ll work fine, but the resulting pasta will be flabby and weak.) The rollers should fight the dough a bit, and do not worry if it comes out a bit ragged, with big holes in it, like a really old washcloth that’s gone through the wash a few too many times. Look how hard Alexa is working here: she has to really push hard to get the pasta into the rollers. That’s the way!
After the first pass, things will get progressively easier. Soon the dough will form a nice flat uniform sheet. You can fold it in half lengthwise and roll it through again to make the sheet longer. You can fold it in half widthwise to make the sheet wider. Experiment. Have some fun. Roll the dough through again and again. As the dough takes form and softens, the process becomes addictive. It’s very relaxing and satisfying.
How many times through the rollers? At least five or six on the wide-open setting, then once each at each narrower setting until you have the desired thickness. How thin? Pretty thin. Maybe the second- or third-thinnest setting. See what you like. The only rule is you have to make every sheet the same thickness, or you’ll have some noodles more cooked than others.
As you finish rolling each sheet, hang it on something. I have a little pasta-drying rack that works fine for a small family dinner, but for a big party it’s a joke. (My pasta sous-chef likened this to “pissing into the wind.”) Another friend made his own drying rack, with enough capacity for a large dinner party (look at the third photo of this post). Beyond that, you’re hanging the sheets over cabinet doors. This might gross out some people; if you’re one of them, get over it. Or put a towel over the cabinet door. Or clean the doors really well. You’re boiling this pasta at 212 degrees anyway. In my
At my recent party, we exhausted the cabinet door capacity and went to the chairs outside. Look how thin the sheets are—they’re translucent! This was some really good pasta.
Does the pasta need to dry? Probably not. I’ve gone from rolling sheets to cutting them into noodles in a matter of minutes, in my starving-student pasta-making heyday. I will say that drying it too long can be a problem. I used to have some trouble with this in
As you cut the sheets, catch them with two hands (here’s where it’s helpful, though not necessary, to have two people working the machine) and hang them to dry. Where? How about the same place you got the sheet from? Perfect.
Boil them in a giant pot where they have some room to swim around. A lift-out strainer is great if you’re doing multiple batches. (I use a second pot of boiling water to refill the main pot as I go.) Start testing the pasta after just a few minutes. It’ll probably take three minutes if the dough was too moist; five or six minutes if it’s great dough; it’ll depend a bit on how thin you made it. Just test it a lot. Toss it with good olive oil when you’re done. Leftovers should store just fine; if you find that they stick a lot in the fridge, so they’re hard to separate the next day, your dough was too moist. Don’t lose heart! My pasta was like this for years but it was still good. Semolina flour helps a lot here.
There’s not much more to say. Perhaps at some point I’ll post some sauce recipes in the Comments area below. Give this a try, and if you get stuck, e-mail me. Let me know how it goes. Buon appetito!