Saturday, October 28, 2006

Perfecting Pasta

I’d returned from Italy with grand ambitions. I had successfully created fresh pasta from scratch in Florence and now I’d make it at home. After four styles of pasta, I was now an experienced pasta chef. Immediately, I purchased a gleaming Atlas 150 pasta machine, manually operated with a shiny chrome crank. I insisted on a hand operated machine. All that physical energy would certainly assure a most authentic taste. Yet immediately, my pasta plans began to perforate. Adapting the recipe to the home kitchen and the quirks of U.S. ingredients proved challenging.

Perhaps initially I was too ambitious, too “faux Gourmet.” I decided I would start by making pumpkin flavored pasta, but the orange puree made the dough too wet to handle. I ended up with a sticky ball of dough floating in the water, more like a pumpkin dumpling than trim and tender egg tagliatelle.

Maybe it was the flour? At Apicius, The Culinary Institute of Florence, we’d used semolina flour, but I’d scoured my local stores and could find none. So I settled for unbleached all purpose flour and decided to start again by going back to basics.

I followed the formula to the letter – one egg for every one hundred grams of flour. No more, no less. I kneaded the dough and chilled it for thirty minutes. I even got the hang of the Atlas 150 after several failed attempts, and nearly breaking my toe when the crank fell to the floor. But when I’d finally cut those lovely tagliatelle noodles in the final pass through the machine, they clumped together like a bad hair day.

On paper, pasta is such a simple recipe. Why wasn’t it working? There had to be a solution. So I put on my Julia Child thinking cap and mulled things over. I remembered reading how Julia pursued culinary success by trial and error. She made batch after batch of rich French food and took copious notes on the successes and failures. Like Julia, I’d have to practice to perfect my pasta. First, I haunted the gourmet stores in New York City and finally found selmolina flour at Dean and Deluca. I mixed the two eggs carefully into the sandy grain and gently prodded the concoction into soft yellow, pliable dough. I passed the dough through the rollers of the machine until I had thin sheets. But, when I jumped to the final cutting, again the tagliatelle strands stuck together.

Surrounded by cookbooks with directions on fresh pasta, I tried to understand where I was stumbling. Then, a brief notation in “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” by Marcella Hazan jumped off the page. In my zeal and enthusiasm to get to the meal, I had missed an interim step. I’d neglected to let the long, wide sheets of pasta dry for 10 minutes or more before cutting them into noodles. What a difference 10 minutes makes! My pasta cut perfectly, without sticking, and each strand dried singularly straight and narrow!

From there, it was minutes to a steaming bowl of perfect tagliatelle with tomato basil sauce, shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and a ruby glass of Chianti Classico.

The moral of the story? Don’t let hunger blind you to proper technique.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Veron said...

don't we all fall victim to hunger and the perfect meal. I've had a struggle in the test kitchen myself with an ambitious cake that was such a flop. I'm glad you were able to troubleshoot your pasta recipe...Congrats!

Anonymous said...

Your blog is such a source of inspiration. Ever since I saw Jamie Oliver make pasta from scratch I've wanted to try!

Ari(Baking and Books)