Sometimes it makes sense to take shortcuts in the kitchen. Life is, as they say, too short and I’m more than happy to buy pre-prepared ingredients like all-butter puff pastry if it means a little more time with my friends and family or freedom to pay attention to the rest of a recipe.
Sometimes it doesn’t. Hummus and pesto are two major bugbears of mine, both such staple ingredients (in certain middle class sections of society anyway), perennially popular yet tasting of little more than the cheap, bland ingredients from which they are made (sunflower oil and cashews instead of olive oil and pine nuts? Yes, Sacla, I’m looking at you).
Fresh pasta is another pet peeve, marketed as superior and sophisticated in its dedicated section of the supermarket, while the reality when you peel open the plastic packaging is anything but. Dry, claggy and lacking in any of the personality that a plate of pasta should deliver, shop-bought pasta is something I’ve been boycotting for a while. But now, as the proud owner of a brand new pasta machine, it’s an issue I can address head on.
The first time I made my own pasta was at my parents’ house in Italy. I must have been about seven years old and armed with little more than an oversized apron, a giant rolling pin (which at a metre long was almost as big as I was), a bag of flour and a basket of eggs. Oh, and an Italian nonna, forearms muscled from years of pasta-making practice and purveyor of the aforementioned yellow-yolked eggs.
My older brother had expressed an interest in learning how to make pasta (he was definitely the superior talent out of the two of us when it came to all things savoury, my love of baking ingrained from an early age). Ever happy to spread the joy of Italian cooking, our neighbour, all giant smiles and jet-black hair (which remains so to this day, twenty odd years later and nudging into her eighties) – headed over to teach us what she knew.
Making pasta by hand isn’t impossible, but it’s definitely a labour of love. Rolling the dough out to the requisite thickness requires time and patience, as well as an enormous flat surface, something our little London flat simply doesn’t have. So while a bad workman may blame their tools – or lack of them – a good (or even mediocre one) should definitely give thanks and I was extremely thankful to receive a pasta machine for Christmas. This weekend I put it into practice for the very first time.
The recipe below uses what seems like a slightly insane number of eggs. But like those ice cream recipes that require enormous amounts of egg yolk for the custard, they do produce the most incredible colour and texture. It’s silky and yellow without tasting overly of egg and perfect paired with a meaty, rich ragu (we had ours with a Bocca di Lupo recipe which calls for almost equal quantities of butter and pigeon and tastes more delicious than you can even begin to imagine).
Twenty years or so on from that very first lesson, my pasta making has become a little more industrialized, the sound of turning metal plates replacing the methodic rolling of a wooden pin, but the results are pretty much the same: delicious homemade pasta, light and toothsome, soft and silky and as much of a pleasure to make as to eat. Next time you pass the fresh pasta aisle, please keep on walking, put a few pennies towards a pasta machine and have a go at making it yourself. I promise it’s absolutely worth the effort.
Homemade Tagliatelle (a Bruce Poole recipe)
(makes 500g – Serves 4 – 6 people as a main)
This recipe requires a pasta machine. If you don’t have one and plan to roll by hand, I recommend a large rolling pin, even larger work surface and a lot of patience!
300 Tipo ’00’ Flour
4 large free range eggs
6 large free range egg yolks (freeze the whites or use them to make meringues)
I used a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook but you can also make this dough by hand.
Put both flours into the bowl of your stand mixer, make a well in the middle and add all the eggs and yolks. Knead on a low speed for about 30 seconds until a crumbly dough is formed, then remove from the mixer and knead on a clean work surface until the dough is smooth and silky (about 5 minutes). Wrap tightly in cling film and pop in the fridge for one hour to allow the gluten to relax.
Remove your dough from the fridge and divide into four roughly equal portions. Store three portions under a damp tea towel until needed (this will stop the dough drying out).
Place the heel of your hand over the single dough portion and squash as flat as you can. With the pasta machine at its widest setting, pass the dough through the machine. Fold it over on itself, squish down once more and pass through the machine again. Repeat at least six times on this setting to bring the gluten to life – the dough will gradually become smoother and glossier with each roll.
Gradually decrease the width between the two rollers, passing the dough through each setting a couple of times until you have reached your desired thickness. I rolled my tagliatelle to notch 5 on a Kitchen Aid pasta attachment – the thinner settings are really more suitable for filled pastas so don’t roll it too fine unless you’re looking for something really delicate.
You will now have one long, thin sheet of pasta, ready for cutting. Cut the sheet to your preferred length – 40 – 50cm is about right – then dust lightly with flour and pass through the pasta machine using the tagliatelle attachment. Have a large floured tray ready and place loosely gathered bundles of tagliatelle onto it. Repeat the process for the remaining pasta dough.
At this stage the pasta can be covered and stored in the fridge under cling film. You can also freeze individual portions, making sure they are well wrapped up.
To cook the pasta, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Drop your tagliatelle into the water (about 100g per person is good), shaking off any excess flour. Cook for a scant 2 – 3 minutes, depending on how thick you have rolled it. Drain, season and combine with the sauce of your choice before serving immediately.