08 February 2012

Benito vs. Homemade Pasta

On a Sunday morning, Benito woke up tired and weary, and resigned himself to a meagre lunch of spaghetti and marinara. Granted, the marinara was homemade from good canned San Marzanos, and he planned to amp it up with the pork rillettes in the freezer, but a half hour of thawing and ten minutes of boiling were all that were required for said meal. And then he looked in the pantry, and saw that he had only orzo and stelline, tiny pastas better suited to soups. But he did have eggs and flour, as well as a manual pasta roller.

He'd made pasta with varying results in the pursuit of delicious ravioli, but felt it was time to crack the knuckles and attempt a proper noodle. First, the dough. Simple 1 egg per 100g of flour (about one cup). He used two of each and after some vigorous kneading, had a little dough ball that needed resting. He pulled off a bit and ran it through the rollers to produce the taglierini at right. Not a perfect batch, but a decent proof of concept. Those noodles were tossed aside while waiting for the dough to rest and develop properly.

He mused on the whole eggs vs. egg yolks debate, but elected to keep it simple with whole eggs. Besides, there was no lemon pie in desperate need of meringue.

His manual stainless-steel pasta machine had nine levels of thinness, a nice square number. Some skip levels but he always works through the process methodically, two passes per setting. In the past it's involved sweaty brows and sore arms, but on this Sabbath he fell into a rhythm and took pleasure in the work, much like the feeling of accomplishment after mowing a yard or painting a house. (Rather not like taking shingles off a roof one hot Memphis summer, which left Benito with a pair of jeans full of holes from all the exposed nails.)

The moment of truth is when you get to the seventh level of thinness and think, "Maybe it would be better to make lasagna." But he persevered, and continued with the rolling, only occasionally dropping the handle to the ground where it clattered like a 11mm wrench falling through the engine of a car only to lodge in some obscure nook. Fortunately the space under the kitchen table is less complex and does not require a telescoping wand with a strong rare-earth magnet on the tip.

Another decision point. The pasta machine has two sets of rollers, one for the wider tagliatelle and one for thinner taglierini. He decided to try a sheet of pasta to see how the tagliatelle looked. And they were perfect. Picture perfect and delicate and even fitting within the 6mm specifications set by the EU.

Taking the story of Solomon and the baby far too literally, he split the dough in half and processed half into wide noodles and half into thin spaghetti-like noodles.

Time to let everything dry, a step that doesn't show up a lot in cooking unless you're making jerky or dried green beans or other survival fare. One can of course cook fresh pasta right away, but he realized that he couldn't eat all of it in one setting (even with two dinner companions), and that it might be good enough to hang out for a few days in the freezer.

There are different ways to dry pasta: on spindly wooden pasta trees (not the other kind of pasta tree), on sheets or towels, in adorable twirled nests, or made in a dry climate more like Albuquerque than Memphis where the noodles will quickly dry themselves on the trip out of the machine.

The next decision point: which to use with his carefully made sauce and pork rillettes? The sauce was already simmering away, awaking from its winter hibernation with wakeup shots of red wine, balsamic vinegar, and a few other dashes of magic. He turned to the internet, where Facebook users had been following the progress, and ultimately went with the advice of the German reader. After all, Nudeln mit Schinken is delicious and the Germans know their pork. Plus, he was still a little concerned that the tiny noodles might fall apart.

The end result was divine, with the sauce warmed in a skillet, combined with the freshly boiled pasta and a little pasta water until everything came together perfectly. He grated a little Romano cheese on top, finding the unique tang of sheep's milk to be a good fit for this dish.

As for the wine, he had an extra bottle of that 2004 Il Borro in the cellar, and felt that what had began as such a simple dinner deserved a really fantastic wine. Everything came together so perfectly, like magic, and Julia and The Roommate were equally enthused about the meal.

The next day, it was time for Benito to try some of the leftover sauce with the thinner noodles, the taglierini. They performed admirably but between the two he felt that the wider noodles provided a better dining experience, allowing better sensation of the flavor and texture of the homemade product.

Later, he collected photos and began reminiscing over a regional favorite, BBQ spaghetti, served at locations like Leonard's Pit Barbecue and too many church potluck dinners to mention. And he reflected on how a long and laborious process had brought him right back to a dish of his childhood. And while he thought that his was more refined and the pasta better presented, he thought back on both, and smiled.


Paul M. Jones said...


fredric koeppel said...

great post ... well-done.

Benito said...

Paul & Fredric,

Glad y'all enjoyed it. I had fun making the pasta, making dinner, eating it, and writing about it. Really can't ask for much more from life.


Anonymous said...

Salut Benito,

Great subject, I enjoyed the write up a lot.
My wife has been making her own Pasta for years and has become a real expert at the task.(Thanks to Kitchen Aid, LOL)
Nothing like homemade & handmade Pasta and yes, It's much better when you let them dry out first before cooking .

Trés amicalement et à bientôt,

Benito said...

Bonjour, Guy!

Actually the first homemade pasta I ever rolled out (with a rolling pin and lots of effort) was from a cookbook full of rustic French recipes.

I particularly love making ravioli that I can fill with all sorts of interesting things.

A votre sante,