Pasta

Back in the day, we used to make fresh pasta. Making foods whose production was showy was a thing we did. Before I became a part of that adolescent social economy, they made crepes. Not only was making crepes a show, but it could be made into group activity. One might make the batter, another pour it, and the last, the one who got all the glory, babied and flipped them. This particular person liked to burn himself by using his fingers to flip the crepes. He (of course it would be he) was known back in those days as The Devil. God bless him. (No, really. His cooking sensibilities have definitely become a part of mine, and his enthusiasm and adventurousness were indispensable in such endeavors.)

The Devil and I made pasta a lot. We made it at both of our houses. We made it at gatherings. We even made pasta in Germany, where we convinced ourselves it was Spaetzel. We made it always in the same way (except in Germany, where we could not find semolina flour). I have no idea where we came upon this way of making it, and I don't remember ever reading a recipe. The Devil suggested it authoritatively, and off we went. At no point was there any textual reference, but now I will have to make one. This is what we did:

In a mixing bowl we put some semolina flour. We made a little crater in the flour into which we cracked as many eggs as were necessary to make the dough just cohere, a little olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt. We mixed this together, eventually using our hands to form the dough into a ball and knead it. We kneaded it quite a lot. It was as if we were making a material for construction rather than pasta.

We divided this into fist-sized (my fists, or smaller) balls, and we rolled (sometimes with a rolling pin, often, because we thought it was cool, with a wine bottle) each ball into a thin, skin-like strip. We would either run these through the pasta maker (a birthday gift, I think) or cut it into triangular shapes with a chef knife. We would always make fettuccine with the former, and the latter we liked to call Spaetzel. The fettuccine we would lay across a chair to dry. Apparently, the pasta is supposed to dry before you plop it into boiling water. I don't think we ever bothered to dry the Spaetzel.

This of course wouldn't take long to cook. It just needed to be boiled briefly, perhaps a minute or two. It was always delicious, but a bit stiff. I always wondered about that, sometimes chocking it up to that simply being the way that fresh pasta tastes. I may have made passive-aggressive comments to The Devil to the effect that perhaps we shouldn't have been making the dough so stiff. We continued making it in the same way, and on my own I too would make it in this way. There was something aesthetic about the process and the ingredients. It was a very yellow pasta. Every ingredient was in some way yellow: semolina, eggs, olive oil. We felt (or at least I felt) that there was a wholesome purity in this combination. This was substantial, dense stuff. Who needed anything but this pasta? I wanted to invest all my gustatory faith in the one, which invariably was something involving flour.

However, because technically I am no longer eighteen and because I feel obligated to have actually cooked something for this post (why I bother, I don't know) I have decided to try something new: I used a recipe, and I did not use semolina. Semolina, Marcella Hazan complains, "is often grainy, even when it is sold as pasta flour, and grainy semolina is frustrating to work with." She is my guide today, a wonderfully clear guide, and so I made fresh pasta with unbleached all-purpose flour, because the "talcum-soft white flour," doppio zero, is not readily available to me (although really, this is Ashland, surely either Market of Choice or the Ashland Food Co-op has this imported flour), and because this is what she uses "when outside of Italy."

The trouble is that while I am not eighteen, I am still just as lazy and prone to cut corners. So I did not follow Hazan's homemade pasta routine to the letter. For one thing, I did not knead the dough for eight minutes. Kneading for three minutes was an exercise in confusion: I kept accidentally sliding the cutting board I was kneading on forward in sudden violence, knocking over various glass-bottles over with the force. Happily, they all had lids.

For another thing, I didn't lay the strips of pasta dough on towels or cloths as she suggested, but instead on the vinyl tablecloth, which they stuck to. This is a bad idea. Don't do it. Lastly, I did not dry the strips sufficiently, nor did I lay out the finished pasta in such a way that it would not stick to itself. This meant that my pasta was a knotty, sticky mess before I put it all in the pot to boil, and afterward merely a knotty mess. Obviously you shouldn't do that either. Or do. The subtleties of good cooking are lost on most (certainly not Anthony Bourdain, who is reportedly angered by most food), including, for the most part, myself. Most will be startled enough by the taste of fresh, homemade pasta that the stiffness of pasta stuck together will not faze them.

What the whole process has emphasized to me is that making pasta properly is a pain in the ass. Maybe if I were a more patient person, I would take pleasure in the labor. Leave it to a professional. Unless you are in the mood to be happily distracted by the rigors of precise pastamaking.

I am a hobby practitioner of cooking, not a specialist or a professional, and one whose techniques ossify. Of course, a technique is ossified. But a good one has been molded by a million mistakes until it becomes something crystalline, unassailable as a means to achieve the desired results. If you want to change a good technique, you want to achieve something else.

I don't bring this up without reason (although I do; this is just a justification). Pasta has come out of an elaborate hierarchy of specialization. (Yes, there is a definite sloppiness in my use of "hierarchy" here.)

First there is the growing of wheat. Not that I've done a whit of research into the topic, but I'm guessing you can't really have your own personal wheat field out back and sustain yourself (or your small family) from it. To get the amount of wheat needed to be useful, it must be grown in very large fields, tended by those who do very little but grow wheat.

Then there is the milling of wheat into flour, then shaping the dough into the often intricate shapes of pasta. You get the point, however vague it is. Specialization, agriculture, industry, bla bla bla. Moving on. Hazan insists, like Julia Child does with every complex technique, that with a pasta maker and a bit of practice at getting the consistency of the dough right, it is "extraordinarily simple" to "produce fine, fresh pasta inexpensively, at home." Yeah, I guess.

Although I no longer want one calorically dense food to sustain me entirely (nor do I think that one will), I am still almost as much of a megalomaniac non-specialist as I was then. I want to be able to do many things well, and I want to do so with very little effort. I think this is called "arrogance." But then, cookbooks and guides are for the most part for hobbyists, not professionals. Cooking does not need to be locked up in guilds of professionals, but can be done surprisingly well by bored people with a distaste for cheap, packaged food. You too can make delicious homemade pasta. The problem is there isn't enough time in the world. It's better, really, to look at my photos and drool. Actually don't. Look at someone else's--they're bound to activate your salivary glands far more effectively.

 

 

20 September 2011