A Peek at Pasta

Ravioli with Brown Butter and SageThe week that straddled February and March brought with it more pasta making than I’ve done in the last year.  And I am somewhat ashamed.  You see, my grandmother made pasta quite frequently – to her it was not an occasion, but rather a chore that happened along with many others on any given day.

And between the demonization of carbohydrates and gluten and the availability of good, imported pastas, I’ve either shied away from eating pasta for fear of being shunned or I’ve used dried pasta when I do make it.

But I’m getting back to my roots – and of course putting my twist on things.

My friend Lu and I made pink heart-shaped ravioli for a Valentine’s Dinner we co-hosted last year.  And since then she has been asking me to make homemade pasta with her again.  We had a pasta-making day scheduled over the summer with some other friends; but health issues and work schedules interfered.  Finally, we landed on February 23rd as the day.  We invited several other friends to join us.  Some were not able to make it; but we sure had fun with those who did.

Before everyone arrived, I prepped ingredients for four different pastas.  Lemon, carrot, pesto, and brown rice flour (for the gluten-free among us).  Lu arrived first, and she and I set about making the dough.  We worked without a food processor (I know it’s easier, but we were going old school).  I taught her the well method, and she learned very quickly the importance of keeping a wall of flour around the wet ingredients until you begin incorporating the flour.  Like many life lessons, it is one you only need to learn once!

For the lemon pasta, carrot pasta, and pesto pasta I used a mix of semolina and all-purpose flours.  We flavored the lemon pasta with the zest and juice of fresh lemons and we used a small amount of highly concentrated lemon oil.  We flavored the carrot pasta with pureed carrots that had been roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper. And we flavored the pesto pasta with pesto Lu made with her summer haul of basil last year.

After we had finished mixing the dough for the lemon, carrot and pesto pastas and I was mixing the dough for the brown rice flour pasta, our friend Monique arrived.  We brought her up to speed on what we were doing and she jumped right in!

Pasta QueenI should mention that we were highly equipped for this undertaking. We had two hand-crank pasta machines and a hand-crank pasta extruder.  With the hand-crank machines we had cutters for fettuccine, spaghetti, and lasagnette. Lu also brought her drying rack.  Of course we laughed about this because the last time Lu and I made pasta together I showed her my grandmother’s method of drying pasta – hanging it over the back of the dining room chairs!

After the pasta dough had a chance to rest for at least 30 minutes we began rolling and cutting.  If you’ve ever done this or seen it done, you know you need more than two hands.  It was a good thing we had several!  By the time we began cutting the pasta our friend Holly had arrived as well.

I am thankful that this group of ladies is as inquisitive and tolerant of changing gears as I am.  We started by rolling and cutting the lemon pasta into fettuccine noodles.  Then we moved on to the carrot pasta and found that the carrots should probably have been cooked to a softer stage because the cutters weren’t sharp enough to cut some of the carrot pieces.  But we did not lose heart – we simply made lasagna noodles!

As we were extruding the pesto pasta into rotini, we concluded that we should have lessened the amount of egg we used because the pesto was so oil-rich.  We switched to the elbow macaroni die and they turned out fine, but were a bit on the wet side.

The brown rice pasta was considerably drier and had a “grittier” texture than the others we had mixed; but we found that the dough was perfect for extruding.  I thought for sure it would be more difficult to extrude because it was dry; but of all the pasta doughs we made (stay tuned), it was by far the easiest to extrude.  I think the lack of gluten made a difference.  We were able to make beautiful rigatoni out of it!

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After we got the first four batches done, there was a resounding, “Let’s make some more!”  So we did.  Since we were in an experimental mood, we went for broke and raided the spice cabinet.  We made the next three doughs with all-purpose flour only (no semolina flour).  The flavors were (1) aleppo pepper (which is similar to, but more mild and “raisinier” than peperoncino flakes – the ones you often see in shakers at pizza shops), (2) smoked paprika, and (3) Herb de Provence (a mixture of French herbs typical of Provence – often including savory, fennel, basil, thyme and lavender).

While we waited for the final three doughs to rest, we rested too.  We had a snack and chatted with one another. We talked and laughed and nibbled on crackers, sweet peppers, and a cheese log I made.  I flattened a block of cream cheese into a rectangle between two pieces of plastic wrap, filled it with homemade fig and caramelized onion jam, rolled it into a log and coated it with pistachios.  Mmm mmm mmm!  When our resting period was over, Holly had to leave.  We were sad to see her go, but we soldiered on in her absence.

We rolled and cut the aleppo pepper pasta using the die for lasagnette.  The looked stunning – my favorite of the day!  We tried extruding the smoked paprika pasta using the bucatini die (thick spaghetti with a hole running through the center); but our arms got seriously tired trying to get the pasta to go through such a tiny die.  So we switched back to the rigatoni die.  I’m sorry to report we still had a lot of trouble extruding this one; but I am happy to report WE DID NOT GIVE UP!!!!  We kept going until we had extruded several VERY long rigatoni and we laughed about how sore our arms would be the next day.  I seriously did feel it in my upper arms and shoulders on Sunday!  Finally, we cut the Herb de Provence dough into fettuccine noodles.

After we cleaned up, we divided the pasta among the three of us – Holly left too early to take any with her, but rest assured she will be invited to enjoy some!  Monique took the brown rice rigatoni since she is eating gluten-free.  Lu and I split the rest.

My husband and Lu’s husband have excellent timing.  JUST as we finished cleaning up, Jeff arrived home from work and Mark arrived with extra to-go containers for Lu.  Monique set out for home and Lu and Mark stayed for dinner.

I made some chicken cutlets and a salad and we decided to cook the aleppo pepper lasagnette and serve it with a simple aglio e olio and some fresh grated parmesan cheese.  While Lu and I were preparing dinner, Jeff and Mark sampled the cheese log and some beers that Jeff had been saving for a “special occasion.”  What could be more special than an impromptu dinner with friends?

Our pasta making day was a rousing success, but it was not the end of my pasta adventures that week!  The Tuesday following our pasta-palooza, I was scheduled to volunteer at a hands-on class at the Kitchen Shoppe.  Although it unnerves Jeff, I typically do not look at what will be made in class until I get to the Kitchen Shoppe.  I was delighted to find that the fare for the evening was ravioli!

Tracee, the instructor, did a wonderful job of walking the students through the process of making ravioli.  She began by teaching them to make the dough – using a modified version of the well-method.  Rather than doing it on the counter top, like my grandmother taught me, she made it in a bowl – which makes for a lot less messy classroom environment.

After teaching the students to make the dough by hand, Tracee demonstrated making dough in the food processor – a much quicker, less strenuous way of making dough.  As I was walking from table to table helping students follow Tracee’s instructions, one of the students asked me if I make pasta by hand or use the food processor.  I think she was surprised by my answer and the quick recap of my pasta-palooza, which revealed that the food processor is nowhere in sight when I make pasta.  I feel much more connected to my past when I make pasta by hand!

While the students’ dough rested, Tracee demonstrated how to roll the pasta into sheets and how to use ravioli frames and cutters. She also showed them how to make two different fillings – a traditional beef filling and a ricotta filling.  Then the class jumped in. They helped one another roll dough and got hands-on experience using the ravioli frames and cutters.  There was a lot of chatter and much laughter in the air.  And when their ravioli were filled they had the option of taking them home or cooking them in class and sampling.  Almost everyone cooked and sampled at least a few ravioli.  The students left with full bellies and a sense of accomplishment!  Great job, Tracee.

There are many perks to volunteering at the Kitchen Shoppe; but one of my favorite when there is an abundance of leftovers and we get to take things home.  It’s one of Jeff’s favorite perks too!  At the end of the ravioli class, there was enough left over filling and dough that all the volunteers got to take some home.

This meant another day of pasta making (well, assembling) for me.  The next day I had fun rolling dough and turning it into ravioli.  Although I wasn’t able to locate my ravioli frame, I was able to again go old school, using my rotary ravioli cutter.

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There is honestly nothing like fresh pasta.  It has a texture you just cannot get from the dried variety.  If you’ve never made it, I would encourage you to take a class and/or ask a friend with experience to teach you. To paraphrase Julia Child, “This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to make pasta — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

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