I was never very good at making fresh pasta. In my days as a restaurant chef, it was common practice to buy from a purveyor. If it was to be filled, I'd make the filling, he'd pick it up and return the product to me the next day.
To me, it was like pizza or croissants: Something made infinitely better by other people. Why go through all the bother when you have chefs Fabio Trabocchi, Roberto Donna and Nick Stefanelli in town? With hindsight, I can see how wrong it was to be more concerned about the filling. Good pasta is all about the pasta.
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Fresh pasta doesn't have the hard-at-the-center kind of al dente quality that dried pasta does; the entirety of a fresh noodle is evenly, and even softly, al dente. That is its state of being.
Notwithstanding the fact that some store-bought products are better than others, the difference between fresh pasta and dried is this: Fresh pasta always manages to shine through, no matter the accompaniments.
"Why don't you ever make fresh pasta?" my partner asked recently as we watched Lidia Bastianich gush on her PBS cooking show about how simple the endeavor is.
"Um, it's too hot," I replied feebly.
He was no doubt remembering the time last year when, empowered by Lidia, I ran to the hardware store and bought a standard stainless-steel, hand-cranked pasta machine with cutting heads for fettuccine and spaghetti. Attempts didn't turn out so well, and the machine went back in the box, relegated to a basement shelf.
This time I resolved to seek help from a pro.
Domenica and I set a date. I prepped fillings from her 2011 book, "The Glorious Pasta of Italy" (Chronicle), in advance, so we would have something to work with. My plan was to learn from her how to make the raw material and then create my own dishes.
But before our meeting, fate intervened.
As attendees of the Association of Food Journalists conference held here at the start of September, she and I were part of a group that got invited for a private tour of the vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We listened to White House executive pastry chef William Yosses and White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford answer questions about the garden's history and how they weave its output into their cooking.
Domenica and I headed to my house with thoughts of what we had seen: pumpkins, artichokes, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, broccoli, herbs and even papaya.
The tutorial was exactly what I had hope it would be. Domenica's straightforward, casual approach set me at ease. We made three batches of the basic, food-processor egg dough from her book -- she's all about keeping things simple -- varying two of them slightly so she could demonstrate how to work with dough that was a little dry, and dough that was wet.
Among her tips: Knead as long as necessary. The dough should be smooth and silky, not sticky at all, so the noodles retain their texture when cooked. Use semolina flour liberally throughout the process to keep the pasta from sticking. Mold your fingers around pasta stuffings to get rid of air pockets. When rolling the pasta dough on the thickest setting of a pasta machine, fold the dough in thirds, envelope-style. That works out any air bubbles and makes the dough more supple, yielding a better texture when the pasta's cooked.
It wasn't long before I had baking sheets filled with lasagna noodles, fettuccine, pappardelle, taglierini, meat-stuffed tortellini, half-moon cheese agnolotti and carrot-filled pillows shaped like wrapped candy.
Domenica freezes her fresh pasta for up to a month, which, for some reason, I had never considered. A freezer full of three-ounce portions is certainly a lovely thing to have.
The dough itself freezes beautifully, which makes performing the pastamaking steps over time much easier.
Does it take time and effort to make fresh pasta? Sure. But once you get the hang of it, you can make a pound of fettuccine, start to finish, in an hour, including 20 minutes' resting time for the dough. (Filled pastas require more handiwork and time.)
When ultrathin noodles come rolling off the cutting blade and onto the back of your hand, they feel like little feathers tickling your skin. Fresh noodles cook more quickly than dried pasta: about 3 minutes for fettuccine rather than 10. They float to the top to tell you they're done.
After the lesson, it was time to devise my own pastas. On my shopping list: eggplant, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, artichokes and papaya.
When I made my first grocery store foray, a display of exquisite Black Mission figs spoke to me. (Goodbye, papaya!) They immediately brought to mind a restaurant dessert I served long ago: quartered black figs on bright yellow saffron crème Anglaise dotted with bits of Gorgonzola cheese.
To give the dish more of a fall feeling, I added toasted walnuts, and, for dimension, strips of sweet prosciutto as a garnish. (Use a good deli brand, such as La Quercia, that comes on little slices of paper. It's easier to deal with that way.)
I experimented with saffron in the dough, once by infusing the fragrant threads in warm olive oil and once by kneading them directly into the dough. The oil method imparts more flavor. Heat releases the spice's bouquet and color, so the oil method turns the pasta an even golden yellow. It's a nice bonus, but not a vital step, given that I perfumed the sauce with saffron.
To test differences in texture, I cut the fettuccine on the second- and third-thinnest settings of the pasta roller. (Domenica suggests the third and I agree; it is more durable and stands up to the figs and prosciutto. For a simple pasta with butter and cheese, I'd prefer the more delicate noodles.)
I substituted Cambozola cheese for Gorgonzola. The brie-like creaminess of the former didn't overpower the prosciutto as the latter did.
Onward to eggplant. That creation was a cinch. Earlier in the summer, I had made a gooey baked side dish of broiled eggplant slices stacked with chunky tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. It was a version of eggplant Parmigiana, but without the breading; I brushed slices of eggplant with olive oil and broiled them on both sides until they were deep golden brown.
Inserting fresh lasagna noodles into the stack transformed the side dish into a substantial main course. My resident taste tester, who was never before a fan of eggplant, scarfed it up happily.
I made the Parmigiana with blanched noodles (always a hassle) and raw ones, then compared the results. I discerned so little difference that I saw no need to go through the bother of precooking the noodles. Baking the dish covered for the first half-hour and making sure the noodles were in contact with plenty of sauce ensured that they would cook through.
And the simpler the sauce, the better. The intense flavor of San Marzano tomatoes requires little more than to be cooked down with a bit of onion, plenty of sliced garlic, thyme, a bay leaf and a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes. Buy whole canned tomatoes and crush them with your hands. The texture is better than that of already crushed tomatoes, in my opinion.
My agnolotti turned out best, I think. Taking a cue from Domenica's carrot stuffing, I roasted Brussels sprouts with a little olive oil, letting some of the leaves get very dark so they would signal roastiness with the first bite. I pureed them with garlic and a whole egg; an egg yolk alone didn't provide enough moisture. Whole-milk ricotta cheese lightened its texture and balanced the vegetable's earthiness. I added pecorino-Romano cheese because of its sheep's-milk tang.
I finished the dish with a nutty-tasting brown butter sauce, brussels sprout leaves, sage and, of course, parmesan cheese. Slices of blanched artichoke bottoms sauteed with the agnolotti were a nice touch in my first pass. I decided to make their presence optional, especially considering the prep they require.
Having those agnolotti in the freezer is money in the bank. Once you're ready to assemble the final dish, most of the work already has been done.