Recipe: The art of old school fettuccine

A couple of days ago I extolled the virtues of making your own pasta. Then it dawned on me that what if… just what if, someone read that and thought, “you know what?! I’m going to try it.”

I felt an immediate twinge of guilt because I know what lies ahead. Google “making pasta” and you’ll get a ton, A TON, of recipes that say, “it’s so easy!”

Well, it’s not.

But do not be discouraged. Remember the wise wisdom of Jimmy Dugan? Say it with me now, “if it was easy, EVERYONE, would do it! It’s the hard that makes it great.”

So I decided to add one more recipe to the incessant clutter that tries to walk you through the steps of making your own pasta, and to do it realistically.

For starters, let me be specific about this hard/easy thing. It is easy once you get the hang of it. Pasta has only four ingredients. You can’t really screw it up, so even your less-than-Effin-Artistry pastas will taste good. We love eating our failures in the Test Kitchen.

The hard is in the artistry. Learning the feel of the dough. Learning to roll it consistently. Learning how far is too far to let it dry. This is a long recipe that goes into all the pitfalls. You only have to read it once. Then boil down the key parts when you make it. I hope it helps you have an enjoyable successful time of it.

I am still evolving in all of this. But I’m getting better. I keep at it. So follow these steps and enjoy. I couldn’t be more thrilled if you try making dough on account of these posts. And please, click in the reply and let me me know the good, bad and the ugly of your work. If I screw you up here, I want to hear about it!

Let’s get started.

1) Make room. – pasta is not meant to be confined. Clear the counter tops, remove the knicknacks and give yourself a good, clean work space. As you can see here, I have a massive Italian made platter I use and even that doesn’t keep it all contained.

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Next: pour two cups of flour and a hefty teaspoon of salt in the middle of your work area. Right on the counter is fine, or in a large glass bowl, or like I did on my platter.

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Then crack two eggs into the well. Let’s take a minute to talk about this well thing. First time I did it, poosh, the hens broke out of the chicken coop and raced down my sloped counter to hide underneath the God forsaken microwave. That’s when I decided to use the platter to guard the eggs from escape. Since then I’ve gotten better at the well. The key is to use your other hand to swoop the edges as you mix the eggs up. It’s a bit tough to explain, but as you slowly whip the eggs you incorporate part of the dough with the right hand. With the left you push up the edges of the well to keep it all contained. If you run out of room, push down in the middle of the well to compact it a bit and have it all sink down deeper into the well. Make sense? If not, reply below and I’ll make a video or something. It’s not hard… just takes practice! Or maybe I’m just a slow learner.

Next, put four tablespoons of hot water into the well. (Remove your rings… they get all buggered from the dough and never clean up right). Now push from the outer edges into the middle. I use my fingers like a rake dragging the thing into a pile like I’m piling up leaves. It gets a bit messy here, which is really fun. Once it starts to come together start to shape a ball. I like to add two more tablespoons of water here just to make sure it all incorporates. I prefer sticky dough to dry because its easier in my opinion to add flour as I knead it then it is to add water.

Next, knead.

Next, knead.

Next, KNEAD. A word about kneading. A mindset is needed when it comes to kneading. This is the stuff. This is not a chore. Don’t try to avoid it. Embrace it. Get those hands working, smooshing and bashing and pulling and patting and let your mind fly to whatever heights it needs to climb, unfettered by the chaos of the day. So many recipes try to avoid kneading. They use food processors and dough hooks and “no-knead” tricks. But kneading is just playing with Play-Doh, which we did for hours as a kid.

I’d go about ten minutes. There’s no specific time here. This is the thing that will evolve over time. Eventually you’ll notice the dough turns more silky than grainy and that’s what you want.

NEXT: This is important if you ask me and I’ve never seen it explained in a recipe. Make a dough ball. Sounds easy I know, but when I was 15 and worked in a Mafia-owned pizza parlor, they wanted the dough a certain way and we made sure we did it the way THEY WANTED IT. Turns out this was important. They wanted it with no broken edges so when you toss out the pizza, the crust stays together. To do this you have to form a good, cohesive dough ball. I liken it to tying off a balloon. Wrap your right hand thumb and forefinger in a loop around the mid-section of your dough ball. Then softly twist the dough in your hand as you bring your thumb and finger together toward the top of the dough ball. You’ll end up with what looks like the end of a balloon at the top. Push this into the dough and smooth it out. Whaalla. You’ll have a seam-free dough ball. (If someone is so gracious as to try this, please contact me and let me know if this A) made sense, and B) worked?!)

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Now take the dough and wrap it in plastic for an hour. This is perfect break time, which as you can see above, I used to make a powerhouse energy smoothie! Delish.

An hour later break out the pasta roller. I prefer the kind here, a simple old-timey gizmo with a hand crank. I know there are all kinds of motorized ones, but I like my dough to be machine-free. Here’s where you take advantage of all that space you cleared. Divide your dough balls into six different ones all about the same size and weight in your hand. You can feel that they are close enough. I again go back and make perfect little dough balls,”tied” off at the top, six more times because I like playing with dough and those scary pizza parlor guys banged it into me.

Once you have the dough balls cover them back up with the plastic wrap to keep them from drying out while you work the dough into sheets.

The basics of working into sheets is straight forward. Set the machine to the widest slot and run the dough ball through four times. This just wakes up the dough. I have learned to take a bit of care to send it through the machine straight. This helps keep the sheets straight at the end. Ruler straight isn’t necessary. Some waggle is fine and creative looking. We’re not machines. Our pasta should reflect it. Crank the machine down a notch at a time until you get to the second notch. Now you’ll have a nice long sheet of pasta running from one hand through the crank and caught by the other hand. Lay it out on the platter or counter or hang from the rack and dust it in flour. DONE! (Note: I’ve done some stopping at the third notch so they have a bit more chew and actually I like it. But officially, whatever that is, fettuccine is supposed to be on number 2. You decide!)

Do this five more times with the next five balls. If something goes awry don’t sweat it. Mash it all back into a ball and start over. It’s pretty forgiving.

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Notice I’m using a pasta rack to dry the noodles, but you don’t have to. I go back and forth. I prefer to just lay them on my platter, dust them with flour and put a tea towel (tea towel… HA… I’ve been reading too many recipes. What the hell is a tea towel? I use dish rags my daughter dyed to make pretty) over them. But I do use the rack too. Either way. (Shrug). In fact, I used both ways this time.

Here’s one of those key things they don’t tell you. You want the dough to sit a bit before you cut it. It stiffens which makes it easy to cut and less sticky when you’re done. BUT don’t let it get hard. Stiff, but not hard. Got it? Probably not, but once you do it a couple of times you will. Hard will crack and splinter going through the cutter. Stiff will cut delightfully.

One at a time slide the pasta sheets through the cutter part of your pasta roller. (If you want to be artsy here you can cut them with a big chef’s knife and make them different widths, which is pretty cool, but eh… I like the crank-y cutter thing). I like to drape the pasta off the machine so I can crank with one hand and catch the pasta with the other. This is not necessary. You can let it all drop as it cuts. But I like to catch it so I can lay it out on the big platter and dust a bit more flour on it so it all doesn’t stick. When I do this I feel like I’m being unnecessarily anal. So take it for what it’s worth.

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Once its all cut put some flour on your hands and riffle through the pasta lightly letting it all fall spread out on the platter or counter or a baking pan, sort of like your fluffing through hair. This helps the sticky ones fall apart and keeps them from globbing up in the water.

Now the water. Let’s get serious here. This is important. Don’t use a small pan. I don’t get this whole chuck pasta in water and that’s all there is to it thing. You need a big pan of water. You need a pretty healthy pile of sea salt. You need that water to get to a roiling boil. Don’t do anything until you have those three things. Then you slide your noodles into the water, give them a swirl and let them be for about three minutes.

Take a 1/2 cup of the starchy water out of the pan before you dump it. Then strain the noodles. Don’t rinse them because the starch helps the sauce stick.

Then put the noodles back in the big pan and let them just briefly feel the heat of the bottom of the pan. Then put some of the reserved water as they cook. Next add the sauce and let it heat together for a minute before serving.

Sauce? What sauce you say?

I’m glad you asked. Check back in a couple of days for a good Alfredo sauce recipe.

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