Confessions of a pasta maker
I know, I know – I could just buy it. It’d probably actually be cheaper, and my middle-class-cliché alarm is pinging like crazy. And yet, here I am, attempting to make my own pasta.
I’m doing it because, on a whim, I’ve bought a pasta-maker. It’s a hand-cranked machine, beautiful in its shiny, interlocking parts. It almost seems a shame to use it. I line it up, like a weird ornament, next to the new stand-mixer I got for my birthday.
I’ve been acquiring a lot of kitchen gadgets in the past few months. At 38, I’m single and nowhere near being able to buy a flat in London, but by God, a well-stocked kitchen is in my reach. I can whisk and beat the fitful anxiety away, make more food then I’m ever going to eat and share it like currency.
But, anyway, the pasta. The recipe I’ve found online for tagliatelle requires what feels like a ridiculous number of eggs: two, plus an additional two beaten yolks. I gradually add each of these to two cups of super-fine pasta flour in the mixer. (Somehow, all the recipes I use are in American measurements. Americans blog a lot more.)
I wait for it to come together, which, of course, it doesn’t. So, I add more flour to the sticky, yellow mass in the bowl. That’s my approach to a lot of cooking: just keep adding ingredients until whatever it is I’m making has thickened, thinned, changed colour or – a bare minimum – become edible. Layering, testing, adapting; often more fun than re-writing a sentence.
For me, pasta was, as for many people, I suspect, the first ‘proper’ thing I cooked as a teenager. Before chefs like Antonio Carluccio brought open shirts, olive-oil and sunshine to our TV – before Italian food entered our semi-detached house in all of its glory, with a wink and a smile against a dreamy Tuscan backdrop – spaghetti Bolognese was a staple in the Wicker household.
This was the truly 80s kind. Spindly reeds of durum-wheat spaghetti were grabbed from their top-shelf, vacuum-sealed jar, cooked, and coiled through minced beef in a slow-simmered tomato sauce, rich and thick enough to leave plate smears that demanded slices of Hovis afterwards.
Many years later, lighting the hob myself – after a minor mishap where I set fire to my dressing-gown – felt like a small but significant step into adulthood. In those drifting days after my GCSE exams had finished, I remember proudly producing plates of pasta and tomato sauce for my cousins. The house didn’t burn down and I didn’t poison anyone.
Returning to the present day, I scoop the ball of dough out of the bowl and dump it on to my floured worktop. It’s saggy, not spherical, and its surface is cracked and imperfect – a far cry from the glossy image accompanying the online recipe. It clings like cliff-edge fingertips to the surface below it.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, but, still, it annoys me immensely. In most things I do, my aim for perfection is compulsive, bordering on neurotic. I’m always shoring up my foundations with something – even, it seems, with pasta. In 2003, while bouncing around the echoing drum of a severe bout of depression, I would eat bowl after bowl. I watched myself put on weight in my face, even as I felt like disappearing.
Now, though, as I try to bring the misshapen ball of dough roughly in line with how I feel it should be, it’s soothing. As Radio 4 hits the hour and the presenter calmly reads the latest dire news from Trump’s America, or about Brexit, I can blessedly, briefly, tune it out. Repeatedly kneading and folding the increasingly pliant stuff in my hands, I can focus.
Finally, the dough seems to be ready. I cut the ball into three oval pieces, which I carry into my front room, where I’ve clamped the pasta-maker to the table. I feed one chunk through the rollers, on their widest setting. As I repeat this, narrowing the rollers each time, the pasta flattens.
It also becomes longer and flimsily unmanageable. I feel clumsy and shorthanded, a flustered bunch of elbows, as the pasta strip coils in a sticky heap under the machine. ‘You may wish to get someone to help you at this point,’ offers the recipe. ‘Oh, fuck off’, I say out loud, to no one.
Two paracetamol and a bowl of pesto pasta was my end-of-a-drunken-night self-prescription in my 20s. At 2am on a Friday or a Saturday, the kitchen blurry around the edges, I would either be burying my feelings under a ton of carbohydrates or pre-empting a hangover. This wasn’t brilliant for a gay man who wasn’t always sensible enough to worry about more important things than a flat stomach.
Once, I put some pasta on and promptly fell asleep. I was awoken by the smoke alarm and the panicked yell of my flatmate’s boyfriend as he hurtled into the kitchen – wearing her pink kimono – to take the carbonised remains off the stove. The scorch mark left by the pan is, I believe, still there. Before I moved out, I tried, vainly, to get rid of it.
Now, as I advance on 40, like a determinedly optimistic general leading a bunch of creaky, grumbling troops, I can’t stay up late enough for such drunken escapades. I definitely still eat my feelings. That said, cooking alone rarely ever feels lonely. I’m owner of my time in the kitchen. I can restore order to my world, there at least, just by washing up.
And, somehow, the pasta dough has survived my cack-handedness. I feed the delicate sheets through the tagliatelle cutter. They come out in neat, yellow strips. In the absence of anywhere else to put these to dry for a couple of hours, I loop them over my clothes rack and the backs of chairs. My flat gradually becomes festooned in streamers of pasta.
It all looks faintly ridiculous. It’s so much effort, so unimportant in the wider scheme of things. And it makes me smile.
If you’ve got this far, or skipped the above, or, amazingly, haven’t been put off by it, this is roughly the recipe I followed. I used a Marcato Atlas 150 pasta machine.
- 2 cups super fine 00 grade pasta flour
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 egg yolks, beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon water
Gradually add the eggs to the flour, either stirring into a bowl or pouring into a stand mixer with a hook attachment. Beat everything with a wooden spoon – or set the speed on your mixer to slow – until the dough begins to come together, without becoming too dry. (Add a little more water if necessary.) If you’re doing this in a bowl, you can always use your hands, if the dough is looking clumpy.
Sprinkle some flour on a working surface and turn out the dough on to it. Knead and fold the dough for a couple of minutes, until it is springier and smoother. When it forms a stable ball, cut it into three pieces vertically.
Feed each piece through the rollers of your pasta-maker on their widest setting. After each ‘go’, fold the dough on itself lengthways and repeat.
Next, run each piece through the rollers on successively higher (and narrower) settings. You should do this once on each setting, up to 5 or 6. If the dough starts to stick, lightly re-flour its surface.
By now, each piece of dough should be a long, slightly translucent rectangle (or strip). Cut each of these strips across the width into three and feed each one carefully through the tagliatelle cutters on your machine.
Your pasta will now need to dry for a couple of hours, so put it somewhere it can hang. (Preferably not a clothes rack…)
When you cook your pasta, it will need far less time than the shop-bought kind: 3-4 minutes should suffice.
(I eventually bought a drying rack, because that’s just who I am…)