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The first time I made pasta by hand, it was my last night visiting family on the Big Island. I had just purchased a little hand-crank pasta machine and I followed the included recipe, typed in 8-point print on a Post-It note-sized page.
Anyone can make noodles like the ones above that were hand-kneaded, rolled through a hand-cranked machine and cut with a sharp knife by hand. - The Observer/BRYAN PEARSON
Since then, I’ve revised my pre-travel routine to ensure more comfortable trips. Hand-cranking strangely stiff dough through the tiny gap between the metal rollers of a pasta machine was a recipe for sore shoulders.
Also on the menu that night was pizza caccia nanza with garlic and rosemary and a marinara sauce to go with the noodles made with roasted red bell pepper. Five hours later (I started at 4 p.m. and dinner was served at 9), I collapsed on the couch, covered here and there with flour and tomato sauce.
I didn’t know what I was doing. Foolishly, I assumed pasta dough was like bread dough, a thing I’d had my fingers in so many times over the previous few years.
Unlike most bread doughs, pasta dough should have a minimal amount of moisture and of course does not include a leavening agent. I think part of what makes kneading a lot of bread doughs feel good and familiar is the presence of these very things.
The consensus at the dinner table was that the meal was good, but I wasn’t thrilled with my noodles. Besides the dough feeling foreign in my hands, after I cut the noodles, I failed to coat them with flour to prevent them from sticking to each other and they did. I also didn’t make a big enough batch for everyone (six of us) and had to supplement the meal with packaged noodles. And, yet again, I struggled with following the recipe exactly. I felt like a slave to it, but it didn’t yield perfect results either.
When I made my first loaf of bread, I knew it was an activity that I would want to continue doing. I liked the feeling of offering something simple like bread to people I enjoyed. My first batch of noodles came into the world sticking together, but I felt the same way about them. Just like bread, noodles taste great homemade, no matter what.
Though I’m still a beginner, I’m now more at ease with making noodles and have found what works for me.
Pasta dough should have a low moisture content, but this presents a problem for the beginner since a moist, but not wet, dough is much easier to handle than a dry dough.
A dough that is too dry will crack and crumble as you pull it through the hand-crank machine. A too-wet dough will get stuck in the rollers or won’t go through at all and at the very least, will have a rough uneven texture that will have a soggy noodle mouth feel when it is cooked.
For the beginner (like me), it’s easier to have a slightly wetter dough. In general, this means that I estimate one standard-sized egg (which I consider kind of small) to each 3/4 to 1 cup of flour (depending on the humidity of the room). In the very early stages of making the pasta, if it seems dry, I add an extra tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Some people also add milk, claiming it makes a more tender dough, or water.
Some food sources insist that home cooks can make pasta with all-purpose flour. The suggestion makes sense — American homes most often have AP flour in the pantry and not semolina.
From durum wheat’s endosperm, gritty semolina has a much higher gluten content than AP flour. AP flour is made from a combination of hard and soft wheat berries resulting in a flour with a gluten content in between pastry flour which is suitable for baked goods that doesn’t need structure and “bread flour,” which makes heartier breads dependent on structure. My guess is that AP flour was developed in an effort to standardize pantries and to make a multi-tasking product, and it is not always the best choice.
Pasta is supposed to be resilient — elastic yet cohesive. Semolina, with its high gluten content helps pasta makers give this characteristic to their noodles.
My recipe uses a one-to-one ratio of semolina and AP flour. The only reason I can find for this choice is economy, though others give different reasons. I think part of the loyalty to this one to one ratio is that AP flour is a staple and, having a permanent spot in the pantry, has become comforting.
I don’t recommend making an all-AP noodle, though. I never had wonderful results with it, and I think semolina pasta dough is nicer to work with and tastes better. Also, I think it’s easy for an all-AP noodle to turn into a dumpling if the gluten isn’t fully developed. If the gluten isn’t there, it can’t handle being rolled thin enough. A thicker pasta must be cooked longer, resulting in a soggy noodle.
Here is the method of making pasta that works for me. I measure by eye and work by feel. It is certain that the beginner will have a few first batches that are unworkable, but like grandmas everywhere say, “that’s how we learn.” Recruit a volunteer to help with kneading and cranking the machine.