Exploring the pastabilities

I love pasta. There's just no getting around that simple fact.

Others may avoid carbohydrates like the plague, but I find that a meal isn't quite complete without something a little starchy to hold everything together. An old-fashioned trencherwoman, that's me. And pasta ranks at the top of the list because it's so easy to prepare and so easily adapted to different vegetables and spices.

But when you're trying hard to follow a local approach to eating, you suddenly discover that spaghetti and its processed kin present a bit of a problem. If you can find a manufacturing location on the package, it's more than likely not in your neighborhood. And even if it is (and yes, I can find a couple varieties of locally-produced pasta), where did the manufacturers source the ingredients?

It's a perfect example of why easing into becoming a locavore is so important: once you become more aware of the complexities of sourcing your food, your mind boggles at the thought of changing all your eating patterns all at once, and you're tempted to give up. And it's why you often hear or read the exhortation to start small, with one meal a week or with changing how you source certain foods.

I had no problem switching over to eating local fruits and vegetables more regularly as it fit into my upbringing: enjoy summer's produce, but put some up for winter consumption. Looking at the convenience items in my pantry, on the other hand, took more consideration. And while I had long thought it would be fun to learn how to make pasta, I never really pushed myself to try it until last year's Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge.

And that's when I got hooked on homemade pasta.

Pasta tense

Making homemade pasta always seemed so unattainable. My mother never made it, and I didn't know anyone else whose mother made pasta from scratch. I'm sure I thought it only ever came from a box. Besides, I later reasoned, if it requires a special machine, it must be hard, right?

Well, actually, no. It's not difficult at all. After all, the dough is simply a mixture of flour, salt, oil, egg, and water, which means it's not so different from things like bread, pie crust, or even cookies. And if you want to know a little secret, I don't even think a pasta machine is necessary (unless you want really fine strands of pasta). If you've got a rolling pin, a pastry wheel or a knife, and a clean countertop, you can make pasta.

Over the past year, I've come back to the basic pasta recipe time and again to make a week's worth of pasta (one batch usually gives me two to three meals' worth), using a variety of shapes to spice up my dinners. While I usually just make fettucine-like ribbons that work well in almost any quickly thrown together dinner, I've also cut long wide strips for homemade lasagna, squares for ravioli with homemade cheese mixed with spinach, and shorter ribbons to turn into bowties (pinch the ribbon together in the middle) or twists.

I've also been able to use different locally-milled flours in the pasta, switching from whole wheat to spelt as my mood dictates, and I've found that the whole grains result in a slightly more chewy dough, adding depth to the usually bland flavor of pasta and holding their own even against spicy vegetable mixtures.

Since pasta dough contains raw egg, I refrigerate the pasta once I've dried it. My copy of "Stocking Up," where I found the recipe, indicates that once dried, the pasta can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to six months, but I'm hesitant to try that –- and I usually go through pasta much more quickly than that anyway!

If you think this still sounds like a lot of work, let me assure you, it isn't. The dough takes about five minutes to pull together, needs half an hour or so in the refrigerator to firm up, and requires another half an hour or so to shape and to lay out to dry. If I were really organized, I'd get this all done in the morning before I left for work so that I could have fresh pasta for dinner. Instead, I save it for the weekend and work it into other cooking or baking projects.

Noodle twists on an old favorite

Once I got the hang of making pasta, I started thinking about varying the recipe a little. First, I thought of adding herbs –- dried herbs mixed directly into the dough or fresh herbs pressed between two thin layers of dough and rolled out once more. The extra hint of flavor worked well when I knew in advance what I'd serve the pasta with: dill in pasta noodles paired nicely with asparagus for a spring dinner, and thyme pasta made a good backdrop for sautéed squash.

Then I decided to take the next step and make more fully-flavored pasta. Using some of the spinach I had frozen, I pureed about half a cup of the thawed leaves with the egg and water and mixed that into the pasta dough for vibrantly green and tasty noodles.

Seeing that gorgeous color inspired the combination of a plain pasta dough with spinach dough for a back-to-back pasta that makes attractive twists, bowties, or folded squares. As with the herb pasta, I layered two thin pieces of pasta (one plain, one spinach), rolled them together (adding a little smear of water where the layers wouldn't stick), and cut out the desired shapes.

Finally, I thought, why leave pasta as a main course? Why not a dessert pasta? I had heard of chocolate pasta but never tried it, so I decided to give it a whirl. With 1/4 cup of cocoa powder, a dash of cinnamon and sugar, and a whisper of vanilla, regular pasta dough turned into a dark chocolate temptation. I cut wide ribbons of pasta, smeared them with a thick cream cheese frosting, and rolled them up to bake, topping them with whipped chocolate ganache, a drizzle of chocolate sauce, and a sprinkling of cacao nibs. (I mean, if you're going to enjoy chocolate, you might as well go all the way!)

After that, I looked through my pantry to see what else I might have to make something sweet. I discovered in "Stocking Up" that dried vegetables and fruits could be ground into a powder and substituted for up to 1/4 cup of flour in most baking, and when I unearthed my jar of too-dry dried raspberries, I knew I'd struck gold. With a quick spin in my coffee grinder, the dried raspberries turned into a coarse, soft powder that added a dark, tart, intense raspberry flavor to a slightly sweetened pasta dough. I tried shaping the dough into cones (long strips wound around a wooden lemon reamer and then baked) and baskets (squares draped over greased and floured glass cups) before settling on simple baked circles of dough that served as the basis for a deconstructed dessert ravioli with cream cheese filling, whipped chocolate ganache, and dark chocolate sauce (seen at the left and rear of this photo).

Given how easily that technique added concentrated flavor to the pasta dough, I can see that I'll have to dry more fruits and vegetables during harvest season this year to use in pasta making. Spinach, tomatoes, red peppers, carrots, and various berries should all work well.

If all of this gives you the crazy idea that making pasta is more fun than work... you're right! And while I'll still occasionally grab a bag of locally-produced pasta if my week looks too hectic –- since local producers need to be supported, too –- more and more I'm reaching for my own stash of flour, eggs, and the like to roll out some fresh ribbons for dinner. Eating locally might mean more work in the kitchen, but with work like this, I may never want to leave!

Basic Pasta Recipe

Modified from that found in "Stocking Up." Whole wheat and spelt flours work as well as unbleached; try others, too! Makes roughly 2 c dough, equal to about 3 small serving portions of noodles or enough pasta for a 9" square pan of lasagna.

1 1/4 c flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg
1 1/2 T olive oil
1/4 c water

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Add egg, olive oil, and water, and mix until dough forms a sticky ball. With lightly floured hands, knead the dough in the mixing bowl until the dough smooths out a little. Wrap dough in wax paper and refrigerate for half an hour to a few hours (depending on how quickly you can get around to shaping it).

On a floured countertop, roll out pasta dough until thin (about the thickness of a dime or a little thinner). Cut into desired shapes: long ribbons, short ribbons, squares for ravioli, etc. Trimmed edges can be gathered together and rolled out once more for shaping.

Drape pasta on parchment-covered cooling racks and set aside to dry (at least eight hours, preferably overnight). When dry, store in plastic bags or airtight containers in the refrigerator.

Variations:

Herb Pasta: Add up to 1 tsp dried herb directly to the dough OR lay fresh herb leaves on rolled-out layer of pasta, cover with another thin layer of pasta, and roll out again before cutting.

Spinach Pasta: Blend 1/2 c cooked spinach with egg, water, and oil before adding to pasta dough. (This will presumably work with other vegetables, though I haven't yet tried.) Add more flour as needed.

Dos-a-Dos (Back-to-Back) Pasta: Make one batch plain pasta and one batch spinach (or other flavor) pasta. Divide each dough in half. Roll out each half and then layer half of the plain dough over half of the spinach dough. Roll out again to seal layers (brush with water if dough is too dry and won't stick together). Shape as desired.

Dried Fruit Pasta (for dessert): Grind very dry fruit into a coarse powder in a small food processor or coffee grinder. Substitute 1/4 c fruit powder for 1/4 c flour in the dough. Add 2 T sugar to dry ingredients. Substitute melted butter for olive oil. Add 1/2 tsp vanilla extract to wet ingredients.

Chocolate Pasta: Substitute 1/4 c Dutch process cocoa powder for 1/4 c flour. Add 2 T sugar to dry ingredients. Substitute melted butter for olive oil. Add 1/2 tsp vanilla extract to wet ingredients.

 

12 Responsesto “Exploring the pastabilities”

  1. meloukhia says:

    Yay! I'm so glad to see home-made pasta on the Ethicurean, because it's so easy to do, and yet no one does it. (And vegan readers can replace the egg with water if they want to play along at home.)

    The thing that I would question in terms of eating locally is the source of the wheat. I don't happen to live in a community where wheat is grown, so I obviously have to resort to wheat which is trucked in from somewhere, and I'll bet this is true of a lot of Ethicurean readers, since wheat production has become so centralized. Maybe I'll have to devote some room in the garden to wheat production, just to see how it turns out.

    I'd never thought of pasta as a dessert item. I'm going to have to try that the next time I make a batch.

  2. Anna says:

    I love pasta, too, and used to make my own all the time (even more so after my husband bought me a crank pasta roller). Despite the virtues of homemade pasta, I just don't "do" pasta anymore because I need to keep starchy foods to a bare minimum to maintain a normal blood glucose range (without meds). While restricting carbs is also good for my waistline, longterm blood glucose control is my motivation, because I apparently I was well on my way to developing diabetes, despite being at a normal weight.

    One thing I have discovered is that when I stopped filling up on pasta, I consumed a lot more nutrient-dense non-starchy veggies and other good foods that don't raise my blood glucose or insulin levels. So that made it much easier (and certainly healthier in the long run) to push pasta way to the bottom of my favorite foods. Also, I found that certain GI issues, like heartburn, reflux, and gas went away, for both me and my husband. They come back quickly if we indulge in starches like pasta so that is also a powerful motivator.

    I really don't miss pasta anymore. The hardest part was just adjusting to a new food prep/cooking routine, because making/cooking pasta is super cheap and easy. More nutrient dense food is usually more expensive and sometimes (not always) more complicated/time consuming to prepare.

    So for people with a robust glucose metabolism, homemade pasta in moderation may be a fine thing. But for those of use who have genetically or high BG-induced damage to our glucose control/beta cells, then we are probably better of taking a pass on pasta.

  3. Christina says:

    Great post. I've made pasta -- several times -- however, I don't have the "it’s so easy to do" response to it. Ok, making the dough is easy, but I never really figured out the cooking part. Perhaps someone can tell me how long fresh, homemade pasta is suppose hang out in boiling water? What am I suppose to look for.

  4. Meloukhia, sourcing grains locally can definitely be tricky. I can get locally-milled whole wheat flour, but I'm not sure that it's grown locally. The spelt and buckwheat flours I have, though, are locally grown, and I'm finding more and more that I really like the spelt pasta.

    Anna, thanks for sharing your experiences. Each person has his or her own tolerances for different food, and I don't expect that everyone will be able to appreciate pasta comfortably. I've noticed that with homemade pasta, I don't eat as much, and I don't eat it as frequently, so there's an upside to that as well.

    Christina, I've found that if I cook the pasta before drying it, it usually only takes a minute, if that. (If it hasn't been dried, the pasta tends to float up to the top of the water when it's done... a good signal!) Otherwise, dried homemade pasta might take another minute or two... I just always test it to see if it's al dente, which is how I like to eat it. Snag a noodle with a fork, and if you can cut it in half easily and neatly, not breaking it or mushing it, it's done. Key tips: don't throw the pasta in until the water is boiling, and don't walk away from it because it will cook very quickly at that point!

  5. Wow! I've been trying to eat more local and handmade, but after reading your post suddenly realized (lightbulb appearing over my head) pasta is something I'll have to look at more closely!
    EXcellent post! I just found your work and will be spending time reading.

  6. PBrazelton says:

    A few preferences of mine:

    Durum flour instead of regular flour white/unbleached. It imparts a more substantive bite to the finished product, and is more forgiving of differences in added moisture.

    1.5 eggs per cup of flour. Again, makes for a more substantial product, both nutritionally and physically. This will reduce (and in some rare circumstances, eliminate) the need for added water.

    Christina: cooking time should be two to three minutes, depending on how thick your pasta is being rolled. Remember that when you're cooking fresh pasta, you're literally cooking it, not rehydrating it like the stuff from a box. As Jennifer said, make sure your water is at a rolling boil, and salted if you do not use salt in the dough. A final tip, use the largest pot possible to cook the fresh pasta, as the dough will not be as 'clean' as the dried variety. The bits of flour clinging to the noodles will turn the cooking water into a starchy soup if there is not enough of it, rendering your noodles slimy, then very clingy.

    Oh yeah - and don't rinse fresh noodles after cooking. You may want to with certain filled pastas (larger ravioli come to mind), but if you feel like you really need to rinse the noodles, they weren't cooked in enough water.

  7. ExPat Chef says:

    00 Extra fine flour and semolina mix is a good combo for al dente. Rinsing gets rid of the starchy goodness that makes the sauce stick.

  8. Bri says:

    This is such an informative and thorough article, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing your pasta experiences. I just watched a cooking show with Jamie Oliver all about eggs, where he uses many ingredients from his own garden (like his brown and blue eggs). He made pasta with his home-grown eggs in about 30 seconds. It looked so easy and quick, I looked at my husband and said, we have to do that. I may have to experiment with water though instead. We'll see. Thanks again for the great article.

  9. Betsy, it's definitely worth a try! Good luck to you!

    PBrazelton, thanks for sharing your own tips. I have yet to try durum flour... can't find it locally thus far. And I admit I changed the recipe to use one whole egg instead of two egg yolks, simply because I don't often have a use for plain egg whites. I haven't had a problem with clingy noodles thus far, which has surprised me, but I appreciate your insight on why that can happen and how to resolve it.

    ExPat Chef, where do you find the extra fine flour? I'm not familiar with that.

    Bri, I've also seen vegan pasta recipes with silken tofu, but since that's not something I keep on hand, I haven't tried them. (See "The Voluptuous Vegan" for a couple of delicious-sounding pasta recipes that call for silken tofu, if you're interested.) Let me know if you end up trying your own pasta sometime!

  10. Christina says:

    Jennifer & PBrazelton: thanks for the cooking-home-made-pasta-info. I give all your advice a chance and hopefully I end up being a pasta-making champ.

  11. Good posting,
    I got good information of pasta after reading your article. Pasta is a type of food made from flour mixed with water a (and often eggs) which is then kneaded, formed into shapes and boiled. The best-known form of pasta is probably spaghetti which is a long-thin form of pasta whose name derives from the Italian spaghetto, the diminutive of spago which means "thin string."

  12. Preeti Parashar says:

    Hi, this is really great to learn home made pastas, I really love pasta but due to weight control and starch problem i prefer not to nurture upon it more. Here i want to know about the pasta  boiling temperature i.e. for how long it should be kept on flame. ( Specially Penne pasta)