Thursday, December 29, 2011

My life with pasta

Homemade ravioli for Christmas dinner
Lately I'm all about homemade pasta. You would think this activity would be in my DNA or something. Don't all Eye-talians know how to make pasta and sing opera?

Frankly, though, I had to teach myself like anybody else.

I didn't grow up eating a whole lot of fresh pasta. Occasionally my grandmother would take a day and make homemade noodles to go with chicken soup. This was before pasta machines were available to just anybody. She'd roll out the dough herself, fold it up and cut it into thin strips. Then she'd lay a tablecloth out on my parents' queen-size bed, dust it with flour and shake each batch out to dry until dinner time.

Oh -- and she kept the bedroom door closed so the dog wouldn't get the noodles. I, however, had opposable thumbs (still do!). So I would try to sneak in and eat the raw noodles...oh, how I loved the raw noodles...more than the cooked ones. Of course, if I got caught I incurred the wrath of my grandmother, who was convinced I was going to get worms from eating raw dough. I've lived to tell the tale -- wormless.

I do recall, that as she got older, the noodles got thicker and thicker until they more like dumplings; good dumplings -- but still not the tender, toothsome strands they were supposed to be. And for the most part, when she made chicken noodle soup, the pasta of choice was acini de pepe out of a box.

I would occasionally make homemade pasta when the kids were growing up -- usually on days they weren't home and it was just Dirtman and me. It takes a long time to make, roll out and shape enough pasta for four people, particularly when they're used to filling their bowls to over flowing. My success in those days was erratic -- sometimes it flowed smoothly and was delicious; sometimes it was an exhausting nightmare of tight, unyielding dough with an ultimate mediocre texture; sometimes the whole thing wound up in the trash.

I didn't begin to enjoy making pasta until the Christmas Dirtman bought me the pasta-making attachment for my blender (Dirtman will happily buy me all the kitchen equipment I want. Recently at K-Mart he tried to foist a fryer on me). I don't know why this is, because a pasta machine only does half the work of pasta-making -- the shaping. And the shaping is the easy part if you've put together a proper dough.

Having read up on the subject and following the directions of countless different methods, I'm convinced the only way to learn to make pasta is to just make pasta. I've worked with the step-by-step directions in front of my face -- directions written out carefully by someone whose handiwork I'd admired -- and had to, at some point, just let The Force take over. Whether it's because it really is in my DNA or whether it was because I just relaxed at this point and enjoyed the process, I've never had trouble since.

Today I'm making lasagna noodles (and the lasagna). Two batches should be more than enough -- I prefer making a lot of smaller batches than a single large batch. When I work with too much, the pasta is always tough; and, honestly, I just love the feel of that nice, smooth little lump of  pasta dough sliding like silk on the board. (I wish there was a job where I could do nothing all day but knead dough -- bread dough, pasta dough, whatever; love to knead dough).

It's something I'd like to see incorporated into the cafe on a limited basis -- say, fresh noodles for the chicken and beef noodle soups. It's a little fiddly and I certainly wouldn't commit to fresh pasta dishes if we were a full-service restaurant (God bless restaurants that do!). But a couple of days a week, a couple of batches of noodles shouldn't be too much fuss.

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