Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Fresh Pasta Challenge

Well, I don't think there is a more appropriate day to start my food blog than today: the day I made fresh pasta from scratch for the first time. Two Christmas' ago my cousin Becca thoughtfully gave me a pasta making machine; "because you're the only person I know who would actually use it!" was her tag line. Of course I was excited about it...who doesn't love a challenge of making something from scratch that creates such a tasty outcome? I couldn't let myself fall into such a category of receiving a gift 'meant for me' and not using it. Sadly, though, it sat on the pantry shelf for years, anxiously awaiting the attention it deserved. A few nights ago, just before Becca left on her semester abroad in France, she browsed our food cabinet and spotted the neglected piece of equipment. "Have you made pasta with this yet?" I regretfully told her 'no', and I could feel the shame creep over me. Finally, I realized that this weekend, the last weekend of the Summer of '09, was a more fitting time than ever to finally take on the machine. As she flew off to France, I packed my bag for Maine, and made sure the white and orange box made it into the backseat of the car.

The day started wonderfully (not that any morning in Maine doesn't). This morning was particularly special because my Mom and I decided to make blueberry pancakes with those small, perfectly sweet Maine blueberries you dream about in winter time. As the morning sunshine blanketed the deck and seeped through the log cabin windows, we dove into the fluffy, purple-speckled stacks with the sides of our forks. With a drizzle of Vermont maple syrup, the cakes were dressed to impress. How could the day get better?

After a lovely afternoon of a run, a swim, and a paddle boat ride with some special iced coffees (mmm Kahlua), the time came to take on the pasta. As I poured the three cups of AP flour onto my handsome new bamboo cutting board (thanks Walmart!) I made a nice little well in the middle of the mound of flour for a starting point for the beaten eggs, just as the cookbook advised. In my heightened excitement, I began to over-confidently mix the eggs into the flour. Suddenly, my once nicely constructed well collapsed due to my ambitious mixing, and my haughtiness was immediately deflated. Egg started running all over the cutting board. I went into panic mode - scooping up every yolky river I could before it was too late. Maybe this wasn't as easy as I'd thought! Fortunately I was able to salvage almost all the egg mixture. With my hands looking like I had a pair of hefty winter gloves made out of pasty flour, I took a paw-full of drained chopped spinach and added it to the dough. I kneaded the mass until it was firm but still elastic, and all the flour and spinach were distributed evenly. There it was, my first ball of dough, staring back at me. It was time to wrap him up in plastic so he could rest and avoid any gluten tightness. No one likes a tough piece of pasta.
30 minutes later we met again. Now Mr. Dough Ball was looking more relaxed, which was good since he was about to go through some major transformation. I cut him up into four smaller pieces and slightly flattened them with my hand. Then, following the machines directions, I cranked the pieces through the flattening section, creating longer and thinner pieces of what was now essentially large lasagna noodles. The dough was light yet resilient. It became so thin you could see the sunshine come through the noodle and highlight the specks of green spinach. And even still it was durable enough to not tear or fall apart. It made me appreciate all of the science going on between the gluten of the flour and the protein of the eggs. They always seem to find a way to work together and make food take on the structure you desire, no matter if its a noodle or a cake.
Once it came time to make the actual fettucini (my desired cut of noodle) I fed the long dough pieces through the attachment cutter. As I slowly cranked the silver handle, a row of neatly cut fettucini fell onto my finger tips, and I gently guided them out of the machine. The moment could have been put in slow motion with Chariots of Fire playing in the background - I felt like a champion! Although the fibrous spinach made it a bit harder to separate the individual strands, I was too excited to care and separated them unmeticulously - some were still connected, some weren't. Who cares? Once they're on your plate they slurp up just as easy if it is one strand wide or two.

I got in a rhythm and was cranking out (literally) fettucini like an Italian grandmother. At this point I wish I had had an apron on and some type of head bandanna...but a bathing suit and towel wrap did fine for the moment. Once all of the noodles were made, I stood back and admired the mound of white and green strands that lay before me. I kept picking up handfuls of dough and letting them fall back down on the board through my fingertips - they had a healthy weight to them in my hands, but maintained their delicacy at the same time. How could these things even be related to the brittle noodles we find in the those long rectangular boxes at the grocery store? I didn't care. At that point I was that much closer to having fresh pasta on my plate and there was no brand name box staring back at me in sight.

As I set a big pot of salted water to boil, olive oil went into an unheated neighboring skillet with some minced garlic. I slowly raised the temperature of the burner and subsequently the house started filling with the succulent smell of toasted garlic. There is something so comforting and seductive about that smell...every time you experience it, it is almost impossible to not make some sort of groaning noise and reaffirm the obvious by saying "ohhh man it smells SO good in here". Hence my mom being lured in from the porch at this moment.

Once there was even a slight hint of color on the garlic, a few glugs of white wine entered the pan to avoid any overcooking. No one likes bitter overcooked garlic. Then the pasta finally made it to the transformation stage into the boiling water. As it moved around in the turbulent bubbles, it took on a slightly firmer and cooked texture in merely 3 1/2 minutes; ahh the beauty of freshness! No need for those silly 8-10 minutes. I took my tongs and transferred the noodles to the skillet and coated them with the garlic wine sauce. The pasta water that still held on to the noodles incorporated with the olive oil and wine beautifully, creating a creamy sauce on its own without any addition of cream itself. With a dash of cayenne pepper, a squeeze of a lemon, salt, pepper, and a few shakes of parmesan, the dish was complete. I almost parked myself at the skillet with a fork. I resisted though, and the table was set for two.

As my mom and I clinked our (plastic) wine glasses together, we said cheers to another perfect day in Maine. And just as kickoff of the Patriots vs. Giants exhibition game went underway, we took our first bites of the First Attempted Fresh Spinach Pasta with Lemon Garlic Wine Sauce. I instantly felt like I was back in Rome - the last place I had eaten fresh pasta. Its amazing sometimes how a fork can have the same transporting power as a plane ticket. My mom and I sat in silence as we told each other our satisfaction with eye rolls and the throwing up of our arms. Fresh Pasta Touchdown! Unbelievably tender, flavorful, and simple. How had I not done this beforehand? The self created mind-block of the 'difficulty' of making fresh pasta was broken to pieces. And as we mounded our second helpings onto our plates, it was safe to say the thoughtful gift of many Christmas' ago will no longer be ignored.


  1. Now that it has taken shape and has a home I can't believe that I did not think of it sooner. You pretty much have been doing a blog anyway the only difference now is that you use a computer to put it all together. Looks delish, and you need to keep posting, I think youre on to somethng here!

  2. Lizzy! I'm so impressed. I clicked the link Sandra sent for a quick browse but ended up making pasta, pancakes AND muffins with you. I love it!

    Its like watching Food Network during work hours. ;) Keep 'em coming!

  3. I miss you already!!! That pasta is just the comfort food that I crave, particularly as I crawl my way through the re-entry process of SCHOOL!! What with schedules only half completed as I write, I need a little wine with the pasta!!! Truly enjoy....Love you, Gigi

  4. You sent this out a while ago, but I just read it and WOW. I absolutely want to make pasta in my kitchen right now (pajamas and brushed teeth be damned!). Your writing is so wonderfully descriptive that it's inspiring! Keep it up. I'm subscribed, so I won't miss any of your amazing entries.