19 April 2010

Benito vs. Fresh Pasta

The year is 1990. A young Benito is playing around with cooking by checking out various cookbooks from the library. Which basically meant three weeks of Italian, three weeks of German, etc. The English-Scottish phase was not a high point. I really enjoyed the French cookbook--not one of the classics, but rather a "French Made Easy" book that was informative and fun. I learned how to make great soups and sauces on my own, and the chapters featured things like first aid tips on how to fix a curdled Hollandaise sauce at the last minute.

It was in the French cookbook that I encountered a recipe and detailed instructions for making fresh pasta. Simple flat noodles, like fettuccine. I didn't have a pasta machine, so I had to roll everything out by hand... thin out the dough, fold it over, and cut off the noodles. Then hang them all over the kitchen to let them dry.

The end result was doughy, and several of the noodles simply disintegrated in the boiling water. I decided the whole thing wasn't worth the trouble, and didn't make fresh pasta for 20 years.

Recently, I found a good deal on a simple hand-cranked pasta machine, and decided to give it another shot. After all, I've learned a lot in the past two decades, and I've got an audience for this kind of stuff now. I made a batch of dough--2 cups flour, 2 eggs, a dash of oil, let it rest, and then ran a test ball through the machine, slowly cranking it down from the widest setting to the thinnest, folding it over, able to see my fingers through the finished product, the whole magilla.

The result is shown in this first photo: thin, delicate, flexible but not sticky, and just about perfect. My rolling technique improved over the course of the rest of the batch.

The easiest thing to do for a first test would be lasagna, probably followed by fettuccine (there's an attachment for that on the machine). But I thought it would be more fun to make ravioli. In my opinion, that's the best reason to make your own pasta. You can do triangles, half moons, squares, big ones, little ones, whatever you want. And the fillings! If I wanted to do braised duck and goat cheese with a dollop of pepper jelly, by God I could do it.

I restrained myself a bit and chose to do a simple ricotta/spinach/garlic filling.

While rolling the pasta is time consuming and laborious, making the ravioli is pretty easy. Just don't use too much filling, and give yourself some room. Squeeze out as much air as possible, and try to keep them roughly the same size. I made some half moons here with scraps that didn't match up to another sheet of pasta. No real preference either way, it's more of an aesthetic choice. I set them on a sheet of parchment paper and let them rest while making the sauce.

Since this post is getting long, I'll write about the wines separately on another day. For the sauce, I roasted some golden beets and combined them with chicken stock and cream. A little salt, a little seasoning, blended with the immersion blender... Very tasty sauce. I gently boiled the ravioli in a deep skillet so I could keep an eye on them. You don't want a raging boil--they might rip apart. But they still need to cook. I gently lifted them out, drained them, sauced them, and added a little grated hard cheese.

Amazing flavor. The texture of the pasta was light and delicate but mostly it was just a lot of fun. Aside from a rough estimate on the pasta dough, this whole thing was just improvised using ingredients and methods that seemed like good ideas. I don't know how often I'm going to do this, but I do know that I want to experiment, like using spinach juice to make green and white striped pasta, or beet juice for striking red pasta. And one of these days I will get around to that sinful duck ravioli.


Unknown said...

Sounds wonderful! Where did you find golden beets in MEM?

Benito said...


It used to be that you could only find them at Whole Foods, like when I made this awesome salad. But I picked these up at the Schnuck's in Germantown. It's really one of my favorite vegetables, and I grab them whenever I see them.


The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

Nicely done, my man.

I'm not a big pasta guy but this left me with a jones.

Just looking at the plate bumped my glucose to about 195.

Benito said...


I love pasta but it's so often prepared badly in this country, just another gloopy starch to serve as a vehicle for Velveeta or gallons of Industrial Prison Grade Tomato Sauce #3 from China. Give me delicate tortellini hand shaped by an old woman in the back of a trattoria, or a plate of squid-ink pasta that looks like a mess of dead leeches, and I'm a happy lad.

I've got some friends that are on Atkins-style diets, and work around them, of course. But at least when you make it yourself, you get an hour-long workout cranking the stuff through. :)


Benito said...

Just because I love math, I'll point out something fun. There are nine widths on the pasta machine, and each time I ran the pasta sheets through straight and then folded over. So the final product has 2^9 or 512 layers.

If there was a thin layer of oil or butter between the layers, and eggs weren't involved, then you'd have flaky dough like croissants or phyllo.


fredric koeppel said...

good for you! when my first wife and i got married lo these many years ago in the 1960s, of course someone gave us a pasta machine which we tried to use a few times, including making ravioli, and finally gave up in frustration. that device went the way of so many abandoned wedding presents and now i wish i still had it. i mean the things are indestructible.

b8wine said...

Man you have cooking skills. My wife likes to fill ravioli with pumpkin (it is a recipe from Ferrara, my home town), and we pair them with an off-dry red Lambrusco.

Benito said...


I picked this one up at Tuesday Morning for around $10. Great condition, solid steel on everything, it ought to last a century. I can't remember if you have a Kitchenaid standing mixer, but I've heard that the pasta roller attachment works like a dream.


Pumpkin ravioli is definitely on my list. I've made pumpkin sauces for pasta before, but a savory stuffing should be delicious.