Sunday, September 26, 2010


This is the first in a series of posts on making fresh pasta. Using Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta [2009] as our guide, we will explore different pasta shapes, dough and techniques. Our survey begins with pappardelle made with an all-purpose flour and whole-egg dough. If you decide to learn how to make just one pasta dough, this dough is a good choice. Once it is mastered you are ready to make a wide range of shaped and flat pastas such as farfalle, garganelli, maltagliati and tagliatelle, and the exterior of stuffed pastas like cannelloni, marubini, ravioli and tortelli. But before we begin, a quick aside.

A reoccurring theme discussed during our examination will be the relationship among dough, shapes and sauces. For some these relationships are near sacred; they will only use a certain sauce with a specific shape of pasta made with particular dough. Often there is a good deal of sense in how these specific pairings evolved; traditional shapes frequently develop because they expertly carry and compliment a sauce made with local ingredients. Although I believe it is interesting to understand these pairings, I present them as guidelines and not rules. With food and wine, one should not have to defend personal preferences.

Pappardelle is one of the wider of the flat pastas. Its roots are in Northern and central Italy. The pasta’s width (usually around 1-inch) and its relative thickness lend itself to a more substantial sauce such as a ragù made of meat or game. Zanini De Vita reports that homemade pappardelle was originally made with wheat flour and water; now eggs commonly replace water.

Pappardelle is a good place to begin our pasta survey for a number of reasons. This pasta is traditionally made with all-purpose flour, the most readily available of the flours that we will explore. All-purpose flour is a blend of hard and soft flours containing different levels of protein and starch. “Harder” flour contains more protein and less starch than “softer” flour. Knowing whether your flour is hard or soft suggests what you can do with your dough. All-purpose flour is blended to be somewhere in the middle between a hard and soft flour. Its “all-purpose” designation reflects its versatility. The exact blend and protein level of all-purpose flour varies from mill to mill. In the United States all-purpose flour has a range of 9 to 12 percent protein.

Another reason to begin our survey with pappardelle is that its all-purpose flour and whole-egg dough is easy to make. The dough is simple to knead and forgiving. Eggs supply the necessary liquid to bind the flour (eggs are approximately 75% water) and create a silky yet firm texture. High-quality eggs add a beautiful yellow-orange color to pasta.

Finally, making pappardelle allows us to introduce a versatile pasta machine that rolls and cuts dough. If you want to invest in a single piece of equipment to help you make fresh pasta, this is it. My machine has metal rollers that adjust to create a fine ribbon of pasta up to 6-inches wide. There are a number of different brands of machines available. I use a Marcato Atlas 150 that is over 20 years old. It is a wonderful, trouble free machine. Although you certainly can learn how to roll out fresh pasta by hand with a rolling pin, a pasta machine makes easy work of a challenging skill. When discussing how to roll the dough, I will reference the roller settings on my Atlas. (No. 1 is the widest setting; No. 2 is slightly thinner; and No. 7 is the thinnest setting.)

One last point before we begin in earnest. A number of variables can affect pasta dough such as temperature, humidity and the variations in flour, eggs and other ingredients. This is why you will likely need to slightly adjust the amount of your ingredients each time you make pasta. When working the dough you may need to add a bit more flour as you knead; the next time you make pasta, you may find that you need more liquid to create your dough. The goal is a firm yet supple dough that is neither wet nor sticky. You will achieve greater consistency from batch to batch if you use the same mill’s flour and measure your ingredients by weight rather than by volume. But even then, expect variations in how the dough responds. Overtime you will develop a feel for making dough and instinctively know when and how to compensate. This is part of the craft of making fresh pasta.
  • 400 grams all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs

1) Weigh out the flour and sift it into a large mixing bowl.

2) Make a well in the flour and crack the eggs into the well. Beat the eggs with a fork and incorporate the beaten eggs into the flour with the fork until the eggs disappear and a crumbly mixture forms.

3) Clean the dough off your fork and add the dough to the mixture.

4) Holding the bowl with one hand, reach into the bowl with your other hand and continue to mix the dough by hand. The goal is to incorporate all of the flour in the bowl into a rough dough that holds together. If this mixture is too dry and will not come together, add a quick spritz or two of water from a spray bottle.

5) Turn your dough onto a clean work surface. Wash your hands to remove any dough before kneading.

6) Lightly dust your work surface. Begin to knead the dough ball by forcefully pushing it down and away from you with your palm’s heel. Fold the dough back over itself toward you. Slightly turn the dough counterclockwise, and knead again. The dough may become slightly tacky at the outset depending upon how the flour and eggs are behaving. If the dough sticks to your work surface or hands, lightly dust your work area with flour. When you resume kneading, this flour will work into the dough. Be careful not to add too much flour; you do not want the dough to become dry and stiff. As you continue kneading, a slightly tacky dough will become elastic and smooth. Knead for a full 10 minutes.

7) Lightly flour the dough and wrap it in plastic. Let the dough rest at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour. During this time the dough continues to absorb and distribute its moisture.

8) Unwrap the dough and lightly dust it with flour. Cut the dough into equal quarters. Remove one piece to roll and cover the remaining pieces to prevent the dough from drying out. Make sure the pieces are not touching one another or they may stick together.

9) Attach your pasta machine to a steady work surface and set the rollers to their widest setting; on my Atlas this is No. 1. Lightly flour the cut surfaces of the dough and then flatten it with your palm so as to be thin enough (approximately ½-inch) to feed through the two rollers. Place the flattened dough between and against the two rollers and turn the roller handle. The rollers will grab and flatten the dough into a strip.

10) Lightly dust the dough strip. Visually divide the length of the dough into thirds. Fold the left third over the center third followed by the right third over the center. The width is the same but the dough is now thicker. Using the tips of your fingers, push down to compress the dough to approximately ½-inch. Feed the dimpled dough through the rollers, lightly dust the dough and fold it into thirds again. Compress with fingers and feed the dimpled dough through the rollers a third time.

11) Set the rollers to the next, slightly thinner setting (No. 2). Feed the dough through, lightly dust with flour, fold into thirds, and compress. Repeat this process twice more at this setting. Set the rollers to the next, slightly thinner setting (No. 3) and repeat the process (feed, dust, fold, compress) three more times.

12) Set the rollers to the next thinnest setting (No. 4). For this setting and the next two, the process slightly changes—there is no need to fold the dough into thirds and compress it with your fingers. Just feed the dough through, lightly dust, adjust the rollers to the next thinnest setting (No. 5), and feed the dough through again. Each time the dough will become thinner and longer (but, on my Atlas, no wider than 6-inches). Pappardelle is a thick noodle; stop rolling after the dough has passed through the pasta machine’s penultimate roller setting (No. 6).

13) Lightly dust both sides of the dough. Using a sharp knife cut the dough into approximately 6-inch lengths. Using a fluted pastry wheel, cut the dough into noodles that are 1-inch wide. Light toss the pappardelle with flour and place on a tea towel. Cover with another towel.

14) Repeat the above procedure with the three remaining pieces of dough. When complete, you should have slightly over 1 pound of pappardelle.

Cook the pappardelle in a large pot full of salty, boiling water. When you add the pasta, the boil may slow or disappear. Mix the pasta in the water to help prevent the pasta from sticking together. After the water has returned to a full boil for approximately 3 minutes, start testing the pappardelle. The pasta is ready when it loses its raw taste yet is still firm to the bite. Drain the pasta into a colander and shake the colander to remove excess water. Add the pasta into your ready sauce and cook the two together for a minute or so.

Pappardelle will support a range of sauces but excels when carrying a substantial sauce, such as a ragù made of meat or game. For a classic pairing consider serving pappardelle with a chicken liver sauce.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cauliflower Soup

Algernon is particularly fond of muffins; I am more than equally fond of soup. Rarely does a weekend go by where I have not made enough soup for lunch and my following breakfast. In fact, I often wake up and make soup for breakfast. Why bother with oatmeal in the morning when you can eat soup?

Of the many excellent soup recipes I have collected, a number stand out. These share all the same qualities—a few simple ingredients that in a short amount of time transform into something delicious. These soups taste far better than such few humble ingredients have any right to taste. One example is the Potato and Leek Soup in Richard Olney’s Simple French Food [1974]. Another is the Cauliflower Soup in Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand [2003].

Cooking by Hand is a personal, thoughtful and truly outstanding cookbook. It shares a number of qualities with Olney’s Simple French Food and Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail series. Bertolli is passionate about cooking. He seeks to honor yet advance food traditions. The first section of his book, entitled Cleaning the Fresco, speaks to this theme. The cooking that makes sense to Bertolli is “food grounded in a tradition, yet enlivened by the act of greeting the process and the ingredients anew.” The recipes in this chapter include Vitello Tonnato, a poached veal loin served in a rich tuna sauce; Artichokes Braised in Olive Oil; Potato Gnocchi with Butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano; and his recipe for Cauliflower Soup.

What struck me when I first read his Cauliflower Soup recipe were its simple ingredients. The soup’s base is water. The only vegetables are onions and cauliflower (which, I learned, is rich in pectin that creates a “refined smoothness” when puréed). The only other ingredients are salt, pepper and olive oil. Bertolli says: “this soup is a good example of the austere requirements of certain foods: that the clearest expression of their flavor suggests adding next to nothing. This soup is plain but plainly good.”

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, 6 ounces, sliced thin
  • 1 pound 6 ounces very fresh cauliflower
  • Salt
  • 5½ cups hot water
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Sweat the onion in the olive oil over low heat without letting it brown for 15 minutes. Add the cauliflower, salt to taste, and ½ cup water, raise the heat slightly, and cover the pot tightly. Stew the cauliflower for 15 to 18 minutes, or until tender. Then add another 4½ cups of hot water, bring to a low simmer, and cook an additional 20 minutes. Working in batches, purée the soup in a blender to a very smooth, creamy consistency. Let the soup stand for 20 minutes. In this time it will thicken slightly. Thin the soup with ½ cup water. Reheat the soup. Serve hot, drizzled with a thin stream of extra-virgin olive oil and freshly group pepper.

Some final thoughts. Do not succumb to a desire to enrich the soup by adding butter or cream. The soup is perfect as is. Its flavor is clean, deep and rich; the cauliflower almost tastes roasted. I have made this soup using an immersion mixer and the results are still fine. Use extreme caution when blending hot ingredients, especially if using an upright blender. Always work in small batches only filling one-quarter or less of the jar.