All About Making Fresh Pasta

I have a little Imperia pasta machine at work and I amuse myself with pasta experiments whenever I have the time – which happens to be in short supply these days, as extra work duties seem to have multiplied to cover up for the inevitable loss of income we all seem to be going through, worldwide.

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Still, there is always a silver lining in the darkest of cloud and this economic downturn allows most of us to go back to the basics, prudently economize and utilize less, and it forces us to come up with a better and more efficient menu at home. Case in point: you can purchase the above machine for less than $50 on Ebay or Craigs (mostly unwanted gifts) and make fresh pasta at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in a supermarket.

You do not need to purchase a fancy pasta machine (an electric version can cost up to $200 or even $300), look up the Imperia or the Atlas US representative site and get a manual one, it’s also quite a bit of fun kneading the dough and making pasta shapes. Most people are under the impression that it takes time to make pasta. Well, it takes me 6 or 7 minutes from start to finish, leaving the dough to rest for 20 minutes and another 5 minutes to make it into a desired shape. Cooking fresh pasta is minimal unless you want to complicate your life, as I do, and make the smoked duck & lamb recipe below, another 20 minutes….but the result is a knockout, and you will not find this kind of dish in a restaurant or a delicatessen: impress your friends! Pasta, as you know, has been part of the Italian diet for hundreds of years, and more than 500 different kinds of pasta are made in Italy today. The names of many of the varieties are playful reminders of their unique shapes. For example, spaghetti means “little strings.” Here’s a fun chart that lets you name the shapes of some of the most popular farinaceous.

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A word on flour, translated from an informative article I read on the official Imperia site:

” Flours are distinguished by the types of wheat they are derived from. For Italian cooks, the main distinction is between hard and soft wheat. As its name implies, soft wheat flour makes a softer final product because it is high in starch, yet low in protein and gluten. So while soft flour produces soft and light cakes, it does not have the glutinous elasticity necessary to harness yeast’s expanding power, so essential to bread making. Soft wheat flour, does however, produce the tenderest pasta which is at the heart of Italian cuisine. Hard wheat flour, conversely, is lower in starch and higher in protein and gluten, producing firm and resilient pasta and superior bread. Durum wheat is high in gluten and is usually ground into semolina, a slightly coarser flour used in pasta production, particularly in the South of Italy. When purchasing flour, look at the nutrition panel for the protein content, which is listed in grams per pound. For fresh pasta, choose flour with 8 to 11 grams of protein and for breads; look for 13 to 15 grams. In Italy double zero (00) is the pasta maker’s choice: the 00 refers to it’s sift fineness. Be sure to avoid “self-rising” cake flour.

I have included 2 dough recipes below for our gluten & wheat free friends using alternative flours such as amaranth, potato and even rice.

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Pic above is of an electric version, great if you’re going into the pasta business.

This an uncomplicated recipe for basic pasta dough. Once you’ve mastered this one, then you can play with it, improvise with fresh or dried herbs, exotic oils and so on. This will make 1 pound, yielding enough fresh pasta to serve four as a first course dish or two as a main course.

3 1/2 to 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 4 extra large eggs (pref free range), 1 extra large egg yolk, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, a pinch of salt.

Mound 3 1/2 cups of the flour in the center of a large wooden board or marble top. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs. Using a fork, beat together the eggs and olive oil and begin to incorporate the flour starting with the inner rim of the well. As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up from the base of the mound to retain the well shape and don’t worry if you’re making a mess, it’s part of the fun. Start out by kneading the dough with both hands and it will come together quickly enough. Sure, you can use a food processor but where’s the fun in that?

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Once you have your dough ball, lightly re-flour the board and continue kneading for 2 or 3 more minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic, and allow it to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature. Your manual machine comes with an array of pasta cutters but I usually end up making either a large sheet for cannelloni or lasagna, two of my very favorite pasta dishes because you can really go to town with a simple sheet of cannelloni, fill it with imagination, same for lasagna.

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For my version of smoked duck & spicy lamb mince cannelloni, you will need (for 6 people) 1 pound of minced lamb, preferably from the neck, and about 6 ounces of smoked duck breast. Don’t panic if you can’t find smoked duck in your deli. You can substitute it with pancetta. And 1 fresh chili (medium heat), a handful of of basil leaves, 2 sprigs of rosemary, 6 shallots, 6 garlic cloves, 1 leek, half a pint of chicken or beef stock, quarter pint of double cream, 1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs, 6 ounces of grated Parmesan or Pecorino, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt & pepper to taste.

Chop up the leek finely, and the garlic cloves. In a cooking pan, pour a little olive oil and add the leek & garlic. Stir for a minute and add the lamb mince gradually, followed by the chopped (and de-seeded) chili. Cook over a slow flame for 10 minutes, and add a little chicken stock to it so the mince doesn’t stick to the pan. Add your cubed smoked duck breast (or pancetta) and cook for a further 15 minutes. The liquid should have evaporated by now and you are left with a nicely cooked cannelloni filling. Add the fresh breadcrumbs to the mix, salt & pepper to taste, and the handful of roughly chopped basil leaves. Fill your cannelloni with this mixture using either a small forcing bag or with a fork. Line all the cannelloni in a large glass baking dish (or a roasting tray, whichever) and mix the chicken stock with the double cream and pour over them. Sprinkle the cheese on top of each and bake for 20 minutes in a medium oven or until pale golden on the top. I’ve made this with tomato sauce as well but for my money, I really like the combination of double cream and chicken stock. Garnish with rosemary sprigs. A good bottle of Californian Cabernet should do this justice.

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The vegetarian version: I love this as much as the above one. The trick is to find some baby root vegetables and a bunch of asparagus. And about 12 ounces of smoked tofu. The pasta dough recipe is the same. You’ll need a leek, 6 small carrots, 2 parsnips, a large sweet potato, a small bunch of asparagus, 6 garlic cloves, 2 egg yolks, a chili, a pint of vegetable stock and half a pint of double cream, 1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs and a little olive oil. The cheese is as above, either Parmesan or Pecorino….although I have tried this vegetarian recipe with Fontina as well, and the result is just as good. Dice all the root vegetables and the asparagus finely, mirepoix size if you can.

In a large saucepan, add the oil, then the finely chopped leek and garlic, cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add all the diced vegetables and cook for 10 minutes over a low flame. Then add the crumbled smoked tofu. Add a small amount of liquid and the chopped chili. Cook for a further 5 minutes. Set aside in a bowl to cool for a few minutes. Then add the fresh breadcrumbs and the 2 egg yolks (this will help to bind all the ingredients together) and proceed as above to make the sauce and top the cannelloni with your preferred cheese. Baking time remains the same, roughly 20 minutes or until golden and the sauce is nicely creamy.

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The pic above is of what I call a clever cannelloni. Instead of pasta, you can use an eggplant and fill it with whatever rocks your boat. There are so many permutations to the cannelloni, I could fill an entire book. Bottom line is, as usual, use your imagination and use local produce as much as possible.

For those who are gluten or wheat intolerant here is a gluten & wheat free pasta dough: this simple variation takes into account the new “wonder” flours, amaranth & tapioca (though tapioca has been used in various cultures for thousands of years) This will Make 350g/12oz, double or triple the amount as needed.

225g/8oz Amaranth flour, 125g/5oz Tapioca flour, 1 whole egg, 2 tablespoons of walnut oil (goes well with the nutty amaranth), 1 or 2 tablespoon of water and a little salt. Sift together the flours into a large mixing bowl and proceed as the recipe of pasta dough above. Don’t forget to rest the dough for 20 minutes. Roll out thinly and form into whatever pasta shape you desire. Cook in slated, boiling water for 3-4 minutes. A lovely pic of amaranth below.

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Would you like a spelt variation? This one is easy peasy: 2 cups of spelt flour, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 3 whole eggs, and a pinch of salt. Proceed as above. But caution: spelt has gluten.

Another handy recipe, this time involving rice & potato flour with a little help from cornstarch (note that this recipe is not designed for a pasta machine as it would break into bits, but great as lasagna or cannelloni sheets (which happens to be the main thrust of this diary):

1/2 cup rice flour, 1/2 cup potato flour, 1/3 cup cornstarch, a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and 3 eggs, lightly beaten.

Sift dry ingredients into a bowl and make a well in the center. Add the oil and the eggs. Gradually draw dry ingredients from the edges of the bowl into the liquid to form a stiff dough. Use both hands to knead the dough into a smooth ball. Generously dust board and rolling pin with rice flour. Roll out the dough as thin as possible and make shapes!

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