Never made fresh pasta before? You don’t know what you’re missing

Published October 10 2018

This is usually how it goes on pasta night: You grab a box of Barilla from the pantry. You debate how much spaghetti to pour out, ultimately overestimate and drop a large handful of stick-straight noodles into a pot of boiling water. Maybe you spent a couple hours simmering red sauce, or maybe you plop something from a jar into a saucepan. In 10 minutes, your spaghetti is done, the thin, beige, squiggly noodles swirling around in a cloudy pool.

Presto! Pasta!

That, my friends, is not the full story. If youíve only encountered pasta in its dried state, perilously thin angel hair and elementary-school-craft-worthy wagon wheels, you have not experienced pasta in its best, most glorious form.

And here is why you absolutely should.

First, letís get this out of the way: It is more work. I am not here to pretend like making fresh pasta is easier, or takes less time, than spilling dried noodles out of a box. I am here to tell you that itís worth any extra effort, because a fresh noodle is unlike anything else. Fresh pasta is light and almost bouncy, with a tremendously satisfying chew and a sturdy texture that holds its own under the weight of myriad fillings and sauces.

Only eating dried pasta your entire life would be like only looking at photographs of beautiful sunsets. Itís still nice! But why not try pasta the way it was always eaten, before it became a convenient pantry staple?

For our wedding, my husband and I got a set of pasta attachments for our stand mixer: a sheeter that turns fresh dough into long sheets, and two attachments that cut those sheets into thin spaghetti and thicker fettuccine.

With the help of those tools, which make churning out fresh pasta easier than ever, crafting pasta at home has become one of our favorite party tricks. But my journey with fresh pasta started even before that, when I made pumpkin ravioli in my first apartment. I mixed dough, rolled it out, filled it, cut it, boiled it. It was not great, but it taught me the basics, and turned me into a fresh pasta evangelist.

With plenty left to learn, I spent a recent afternoon with David Benstock, the chef and owner at Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg.

Benstock knows fresh pasta. For most of his career ó cooking at Wolfgang Puckís Spago, Scarpetta in Miami, the Modern in New York City, even a stint in Venice, Italy ó he has crafted pasta in restaurant kitchens.

"Every place I went to had a different technique," he said when we first met. Making great pasta doesnít start with a rigid recipe.

Benstock boiled it down to four steps: mixing, rolling, shaping, cooking.

"But the great thing with pasta is you can customize it according to whatever the dish is," he said. "Sometimes you want to keep it nice and light, so you use less egg yolk."

At Il Ritorno, they use a blend of semolina flour and 00 (double zero) flour, a high-protein flour that comes from durum wheat.

"When I train someone, I canít give them an exact recipe. I can only give them guidelines," Benstock said. "Maybe your eggs are different sizes. Sometimes the flour contains more moisture if it was on a refrigerated truck. There is no cookie-cutter recipe for pasta."

Instead, itís all about the texture. To fully grasp this point, we needed to get our hands dirty.

We bellied up to the stainless steel counter at the front of Il Ritornoís open kitchen, donned striped aprons that made me feel like an Italian grandma, and started to make the dough.

Benstock poured some flour out, the semolina and 00 flour already mixed to form a slightly coarse, slightly yellow blend. (Semolina has a yellow tint to it.) With his fingers, he created a little well in the middle of the flour, a hole into which heíd pour the eggs and some water.

With a fork, he slowly blended the wet ingredients with the outer flour walls, the dough taking shape quickly in the form of a shaggy ball. It was quite yellow, thanks to the semolina and some bright egg yolks.

Once the fork stopped being very useful for mixing the now-thick dough, Benstock dove in with his hands, turning the ball, incorporating any loose flour, pressing and forming and rolling.

He liberally coated the counter with that same flour mixture that was in the dough (this is crucial; donít use all-purpose flour for this step if thatís not whatís in your dough). Then, he passed the dough to me, after demonstrating proper kneading technique: Press down on the dough ball with the hard heel of your hand, pushing the dough away from you as you flatten. Fold the dough over onto itself. Repeat. He reminisced about how in Italy, he watched the pasta makers knead pasta dough with their large, hairy arms.

We kneaded for 10 minutes or so, until the dough became smoother. This is where that pasta intuition kicks in. The dough should be almost silky, the ball quite round and seamless.

"At the beginning it might be a little tacky," Benstock said, "but then it will dry out. We try to get it as dense as possible."

If it wonít stop sticking to the counter, add a bit more flour to your workspace and continue working it into the dough. If itís dry and crumbly, try adding a few droplets of water at a time.

In a perfect world, you would let your pasta dough rest before working with it. A day or two is optimal for noodles like tagliatelle (stuffed pastas like ravioli should be as fresh as possible), but even an hour will allow time for the gluten in the flour to strengthen.

Look for air bubbles when you first roll your dough out, Benstock said. That usually means the pasta needs to sit longer.

"Itís not the end of the world. Itíll still be good. But if youíre looking for perfection, you want to let it sit."

As we worked, I was surprised by how simple the whole process was. Yes, Benstock has a lot of practice, and we were in a professional kitchen. But if you take it step by step, itís easy (fun, even) to get into a groove with the pasta.

From there, Benstock rolled the dough into a thick rectangle and guided it through his sheeter, a contraption that flattens the dough to mere fractions of an inch. He passed the dough to me after the first round, and I guided it through a couple of more times, the dough becoming longer and thinner with each pass. (At home, I divide the dough into quarters before passing it through my machine to make the sheets a more manageable size.) When we were done, a couple of feet of fresh pasta sat on the counter waiting to be shaped.

Benstock made it look simple, slicing off a piece about 6 inches wide then rolling it up tightly like a newspaper. He used a large knife to cut the roll into slices about a half-inch wide. It took me a moment to realize he was creating thick tagliatelle noodles; he unwound the roll-up to reveal long strands.

It wasnít the first time I thought pasta-making was a magical experience. Ten minutes before running our hands through a pile of fresh noodles, we were staring at a stainless steel counter with a mound of flour on it. Presto, indeed.

Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] Follow @mstark17.