Monday 29 January 2007

Making Fresh Pasta.....

The first time I made fresh Pasta must have been about twenty five years ago, in Greece, and it involved breaking eggs into mounds of combined plain and semolina flour on a marble work surface, laboriously flicking flour into the eggs and gradually kneading the mass into one homogeneous lump. Nothing more sophisticated than a wooden rolling pin came into play, and the process ended with the room festooned with coat hangers, suspended from each of which were yellow tresses of hand-cut tagliatelle. Talk about melt-in-the-mouth! It was wonderful stuff....

From there, I graduated to the other extreme, and for several years I used a fully electric pasta machine - a little like a sort of play-dough contraption - where the eggs and dried ingredients went in at one end, and extrusions of penne, or spaghetti, or thin strips of lasagne wormed their way out of the other. It was satisfying to a degree, but on the whole I prefer to be more directly involved with the process than that - as Julia Child said in Volume One of Mastering the Art, "Il faut metre la main a la pate!"

Living in Italy, I wouldn't dream of making my own fresh pasta. Not only would it seem rather impertinent, but, being surrounded by people who make and sell the most amazing pasta for next to nothing, it would just be a phenomenal waste of time. In London, however, the quality of fresh pasta available commercially is no better than the stuff I can make at home, and the prices they charge are ridiculous! Definitely worth getting the technique right, and investing in a hand rolling machine.

For one batch of pasta, I use the following proportions of ingredients: 2 cups Plain Flour; 4 Eggs; 1 teaspoon Olive Oil; pinch of Salt. (You should experiment, as sizes of egg can vary, and you may need to adjust the quantities to suit what you normally have in the cupboard - if the dough is coming out too sloppy or too dry either add more flour or more egg accordingly, and note the proportions for future reference).

Gone are the days when I fuss around laboriously with a fork and a rolling pin. These days, it all goes into the food processor for thirty seconds, until it forms a nice solid ball, and then into the fridge, wrapped in cling-film for half an hour, at which point it's ready to be rolled, using a traditional mechanical roller.

The Rolling Method:

1. Set up your pasta machine, clamped firmly to the work surface, and place a dry tea towel beside it, on the side onto which the pasta dough will be being rolled. Dust the tea towel generously with flour. Set the roller setting at it's widest (normally number 1).

2. Cut the pasta dough into four parts, and keep the pieces you aren't using under a slightly damp cloth so that they don't dry out. Work with one quarter of the dough at a time.

3. With one hand, push the dough between the rollers, while you turn the handle of the roller with the other hand. As it emerges from between the rollers catch it and lay it onto the waiting tea towel. When it has all emerged, fold it left-to-right in on itself, as though folding a towel, to make a neat package, the open ends of which are the same size as the width of the rollers. Feed this back into the machine, open side first, and repeat the process. Do this at least half a dozen times, so that the dough is properly kneaded within the machine. If it starts to become sticky, dust the piece lightly with flour.

4. After having repeated this initial rolling process half a dozen or so times, carry on repeating it, but each time you feed the pasta back into the machine adjust the setting of the rollers down by one setting, so that the pasta is coming out slightly thinner from the rollers each time it emerges.
As it becomes thinner, the strip will become longer, and you may find towards the end that you need to cut it into two and to process each strip in turn rather then trying to deal with one impractically large strip. The desired thinness of the finished pasta is a matter of personal preference, but I generally find that I start at setting number 1, and end up at either setting number six or number seven.

5. When one strip of pasta is ready, hang it to dry, somewhere where there is generous air circulation round it - over a broom handle laid across the back of a couple of chairs is ideal. Then continue with rolling out the remaining pieces of dough. Before cutting the strips of pasta, they should develop a slightly leathery feel, which they do after twenty minutes or so of resting.

6. I confess, I've never got to grips with the various complicated pieces of kit available for attaching to the pasta machine which will then cut it into different sized strips as desired - I merely flour each strip and roll it up, before slicing it by hand to a thickness that approximates to whichever kind of pasta I want, linguine, tagliatelle, papardelle, etc......Whichever cutting method you use, after it's been cut, hang the pasta once again to dry in strips until you are ready to cook it.

And that's it. Once rolled and 'aired' the pasta can be used to make flat or stuffed shapes exactly as you wish. Some variations are possible within this method, such as adding a colouring/flavouring agent at the processor stage - a sachet of squid ink for black pasta, for example, or a tablespoon of chopped spinach for green pasta, or a teaspoon of powdered saffron for a deeply golden pasta (delicious with a shellfish sauce). The World, after all, is your oyster!

Today's Menu:

Funghi Trifolati. (Thinly sliced mushrooms, sauteed in oil, with garlic and parsley)

Fegato alla Veneziana. (Calves Liver and Onions italian-style, in plainspeak. The quality of the liver here is incomparable......)

Chocolate Terrine with Mint-flavoured Creme Anglaise. (I'll give the recipe for this in tomorrow's post.)

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