Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pasta Maker Basics

By Gerri Lauder

Pasta is comfort food, whether or not you grew up in an Italian kitchen. Some of my first memories are of eating spaghetti, slurping up the long noodles and licking up the sauce. The ingredients in pasta are so simple, flour, eggs, olive oil and water. How can something so simple taste so good? If you have never made your own pasta at home it is time to treat yourself. Homemade pasta is one of the great marvels of the kitchen. So, roll up your sleeves, gather the kids or grandkids, friends and family and get ready to transform wet and dry ingredients into dough. And from the dough into noodles and from noodles into comfort food.

The key to making great pasta is to get the dough to the right consistency and then rolling it to an even thickness before cutting it into various shapes. Some cooks prefer to roll the dough out by hand using a rolling pin and a smooth surface, like a wooden cutting board or a marble slab. I recommend the use of a pasta machine to achieve expert results consistently. With so many different types of machines on the market to choose from, the only decision you'll have to make is manual versus an electric model. Good manual hand cranked machines should be heavy and have a base that clamps to the table or surface you are working on. Atlas, Imperia and CucinaPro are quality names for manual machines. Weston, Lello and Imperia all make electric pasta machines, and Kitchenaid does double duty by offering an attachment to its standard mixer. Although I have the Kitchenaid pasta attachment, I prefer to use my hand crank Atlas pasta machine, because it always seems like more fun to have one person turn the crank while someone else catches the dough.

You can choose to mix your dough by hand or by using an electric mixer of some type. Either method produces a soft, silky dough. If you are making dough by hand, place your flour in a bowl large enough to give you room to mix all ingredients together and make a well in the center of the flour. In another bowl, crack your eggs and beat them slightly, adding the oil and water, and mix well. Pour the liquid mixture into the well in the flour and mix with a fork until the flour is moistened and begins to clump together. Now the fun begins as you start playing with the dough.

Dust your hands with flour and begin to gather the clumps and begin kneading the dough right in the bowl. Grab the mass over onto itself, pushing and turning and folding the dough until it no longer sticks to the side of the bowl. Once you have one cohesive clump of dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, a large wooden cutting board works great, and continue to knead for 2 to 3 minutes.

You are done kneading when the dough is soft throughout, you can't feel any lumps, the surface has a sheen to it and it feels and looks smooth. If the dough seems too sticky add a little flour, a little at a time, while you are kneading. If the dough seems too dry or hard, sprinkle a little water on the dough and continue to knead it until it becomes soft and pliable. When you have finished kneading the dough, give it a rest by letting it sit on the board covered with a clean, soft kitchen towel for about 30 minutes. This will relax and soften the dough so it will be easier to roll out.

The basic steps in rolling out pasta dough are to run the dough between the rollers of the pasta machine beginning on the thickest setting and gradually rolling the dough on narrower settings. You do not want to roll all the dough at once; there's just too much of it, so it is easier to cut the dough into quarters and roll one piece at a time. You will end up with 4 or more elongated rectangular sheets of dough, ready to be cut into any shape you want. Some shapes like papardelle, which are strips about 1 1/2 inches wide, can be cut by hand. All pasta makers come with one or more attachments for cutting the dough, the most popular being tagliatelle and tagliolini. Some of the electric models will have an attachment that extrudes the dough to create circular shapes like spaghetti and capellini.

Once you have cut your pasta into the desired shapes, gently take the pasta and dust it lightly with flour. Let the pasta sit undisturbed on a baking sheet or bread board for the surface to dry a little before cooking. You can cook your pasta straight away, and enjoy it with a favorite sauce. If you are making more than enough pasta for one meal you can dry little "nests" of pasta and use them within a few days, or you can freeze them. Some people prefer to use pasta drying racks, which will dry the pasta in long strands rather than little nests.

Once your family has had a hand in making fresh pasta at home and eating the results, you won't want to go back to commercially processed pasta again. Homemade pasta has a delicate, rich flavor and a smoother texture than store bought pastas. Making pasta at home is a fun family project that everyone can do together and it will become one of the warm and comforting memories you share in the future. So start a family tradition of fun and laughter and good food. Make pasta-making a regular event in your kitchen.

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