Saturday, January 18, 2014
An old woman with a wooden bowl wide as a kettle drum, equally large sieve and a number of smaller equipment arrived to our house every fall to prepare a variety of pasta for the year. She stayed a full day in the basement and by the end of the day a dozen different kinds of pasta were drying on many sheets spread out throughout our house. The next day they were all ready for storage. Today few would consider preparing pasta such as orzo, egg noodles or lasagna by hand. Not only it’s hard work but it takes serious experience.
Even if you own a pasta machine, homemade pasta turns out acceptable only if you use it regularly and learn the technique. Pasta dough has a way of refusing to obey you to be coaxed into pasta shapes. I watched an experienced chef preparing pasta for the menu scheduled for that day, and it took him hours. First he prepared the dough and hand kneaded it thoroughly. After a period of resting to let the gluten relax, he passed the dough through his pasta machine several times, using a large opening. Then he folded a third of the long ends of the rectangular dough over and one more time over the last third. Now he had three thirds folded into one.
He reduced the pasta machine opening and passed the dough through several more times. He repeated this process again and again, eventually having the thinnest opening in the machine producing a pasta thin as corn tortillas. But this is not the pasta yet. He let this sheet covered with a moist towel to dry for a few hours then using a chef knife, cut it into long thin strands of pasta, now ready to cook. How long the drying process is where years of experience come in.
Pasta dough is simple: flour and water, no salt. Fresh or dehydrated yolks or whole eggs for egg pasta.
This is not for every home cook. It’s long, tedious and the results are questionable (I know from experience).
You can also buy the perishable fresh pasta at the market. Is it better than inexpensive dry pasta? In my experience, it is not.
In my kitchen it’s the dry pasta that reigns, and I always have some dozen varieties in the pantry. For a good pasta, should you buy the more costly Italian imports? In Italy they cannot grow the hard winter durum wheat essential for good pasta. Instead they import the best durum wheat from the winter crop in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and adjacent Canadian provinces. After packaging in Italy and shipping, you find the expensive Italian pasta on the store shelves. Any good brand of domestic pasta, made from the same wheat, is your best choice.
Read the label to make sure the pasta was made from durum wheat—that’s all you need for good pasta. Two more names you are likely to come across reading the ingredient lists on pasta packages: semolina flour and farina flour. The best pasta are made from semolina flour which is the inside part of the durum wheat grain, milled slightly coarse, slightly gritty, resembling a fine cornmeal. Farina flour is a similar slightly gritty flour but milled from hard wheat (bread flour), not durum wheat. Good-quality shaped short pasta (like macaroni or alphabet soup pasta) is made from semolina. In long pasta products they may mix semolina and farina flours and you’ll still get a good product.
Unless you use your pasta machine often and gain experience, stick with good domestic pasta for a good pasta dish. Don’t overcook and don’t undercook: just to perfect el dente.