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

Making pasta from scratch is not as hard as you might think. It starts with a simple combination of eggs, flour and water. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published Mar. 4

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 you've 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, let's 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 it's 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. It's 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 — cooking at Wolfgang Puck's Spago, Scarpetta in Miami, the Modern in New York City, even a stint in Venice, Italy — 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 doesn't 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 can't 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, it's 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 Ritorno's 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 he'd 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; don't use all-purpose flour for this step if that's not what's 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 won't stop sticking to the counter, add a bit more flour to your workspace and continue working it into the dough. If it's 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.

"It's not the end of the world. It'll still be good. But if you're 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, it's 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 wasn't 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.

If your dough ball won't stop sticking to the counter, add more flour to your workspace and continue working it into the dough. It shouldn't be sticky for very long. If it seems too dry and crumbly, or won't pass through your pasta machine without tearing, try mixing in a few droplets of water or olive oil at a time.

Let your pasta dough rest at room temperature before shaping it. Even an hour is enough time for the gluten in the flour to strengthen.

Always have a large pot of water boiling on the stove if you're making fresh pasta. It's important that the water is hot enough when you drop the pasta in to stay at a continuous boil.

Fresh pasta takes far less time to cook than dry pasta. Set the timer for 2 minutes (yes, really!) for stuffed pastas and thinner noodles, and 3 minutes for everything else. Start pulling noodles out and tasting them at these times; when the pasta is just cooked, take it out and place in a colander.

Always save your pasta water. The water you just used to cook your starchy pasta is the best addition to a pan sauce; it helps tie the whole dish together.

Tagliatelle: A type of pasta that resembles long, flat ribbons. It's wider than fettuccine, and therefore one of the easier types to cut by hand at home.

Agnolotti: A type of filled pasta similar to ravioli but folded another time or pinched together at the ends to create a different shape.

00 flour: A very finely ground, high-protein flour made from durum wheat that is typically called for in pasta and pizza doughs. It can be hard to find, but it is well worth it. I bought some a couple of months ago (I found a 2-pound bag on Amazon) to make spaghetti, and the result was the best pasta dough I've made at home.

Semolina flour: It looks almost like cornmeal, but it's actually made from wheat. Semolina helps give fresh pasta a nice chew; it's best for noodles as opposed to a filled pasta like ravioli.

Sheeter: A machine through which pasta dough is passed repeatedly to create long, thin strips. As you continue to pass the dough through the machine, reduce the thickness settings, creating thinner and thinner sheets. You don't need much equipment to make fresh pasta, but a sheeter of some kind is a solid investment, because hand-rolling your pasta to the desired thinness can be difficult. There are the classic crank pasta rollers, and many kinds of attachment for stand mixers that get the job done.

1 ½ cups 00 flour

½ cup semolina flour

6 eggs yolks from large eggs

4 tablespoons water

½ teaspoon salt

Mix flours together on a clean, flat work surface. Your counter works best.

Create a well in the middle of the flours, leaving the edges mounded up. Crack the eggs into the well along with the water and slowly whisk with a fork the wet ingredients. Keep whisking until you work the wet ingredients into the dry, then continue mixing with your hands.

Work dough into a ball, then knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes, folding the dough over onto itself then flattening it with your palm over and over, until the dough doesn't feel tacky and all ingredients are combined. The tackiness will go away and the pasta should become silky.

Ideally, let the dough rest for 4 hours before rolling.

Serves 4.

Source: David Benstock

Olive oil

¼ cup diced sopressata or other cured meat

1 cup corn kernels

½ cup brussels sprouts, thinly sliced 1/8-inch thick

½ cup sliced shishito peppers

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1½ tablespoons minced garlic

Fresh Pasta Dough, cut into fettucine or tagliatelle (use about half the recipe)

1 lemon, juiced

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons chives

Add a drizzle of olive oil and sopressata to a cold pan, and place over medium high eat. When the sopressata begins to sizzle then render down, add the corn, brussels and shishitos. Let ingredients sit in the pan and get a char on them before moving around.

Add ½ teaspoon salt. Add garlic, stir, and saute together for about 30 seconds.

At this point, start cooking your pasta. Fresh pasta should only take 1?½ to 2 minutes to cook. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then drop pasta in and cook. Taste it after 90 seconds and see if it's done. Remove immediately, strain but keep the pasta water, and set aside.

Add 1 cup of the pasta water to the pan with the veggies, along with the lemon juice. Add pasta, and stir gently until the liquid begins to thicken and coats the pasta.

Divide among two serving dishes. Top with Parmesan cheese and chives.

Serves 2.

Source: Adapted from David Benstock

½ cup pureed butternut squash or pumpkin

1 ½ cups ricotta cheese

½ cup goat cheese

1 egg

Salt

Pepper

½ cup walnuts

Cornmeal or semolina flour (for dusting)

Fresh Pasta Dough

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 shallot, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 sprigs thyme

Pinch of red pepper flakes

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

Mix butternut squash, ricotta, goat cheese and egg in a small bowl. Stir well, then season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Place walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium heat and toast until fragrant, about 7 minutes. Set aside.

Set pasta maker to thickest setting; dust lightly with cornmeal. Divide dough into 8 pieces. Working with one piece at a time, flatten dough into a narrow rectangle; pass through rollers. Fold dough as needed to fit and roll again. Repeat without folding, adjusting machine to thinner settings after every pass and dusting with cornmeal if sticky, until pasta is 1/16-inch thick (setting 8 on most machines).

Alternatively, you can roll out sheets lengthwise with a rolling pin until 1/16-inch thick.

Lightly dust work surface with cornmeal. Working with one length at a time, arrange so long side is facing you. Starting 1 inch from short edge and 2 inches from long edge closest to you, scoop teaspoon-sized mounds of squash mixture down the length, spacing ¾-inch apart. Lightly brush water around each mound. Fold the long side closest to you over filling, extending at least 1 inch past filling, and press down length to seal.

Using a pizza cutter, trim long side of dough farthest from you about ½ inch from mounds. Discard trimmings. Cut between each mound of filling, making the individual ravioli. Transfer to a cornmeal-dusted sheet tray. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, then add shallot, garlic and thyme and cook until shallot is soft, about 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and stir.

Add butter to pan and swirl around for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, cook ravioli in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until tender but slightly undercooked, 2 minutes. Drain, then add to skillet and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Add Parmesan cheese and ½ cup pasta water to skillet, and toss gently.

Cook over medium heat, tossing to coat, until most of the liquid has evaporated and sauce has thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt if needed. Serve topped with more grated Parmesan and reserved walnuts.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appetit

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