During Plastic Free July I joined an online discussion (or rather a collective rant) about the packaging of staple foods. Not just about the nature of packaging but whether it is necessary at all. We were bemoaning the lack of bulk bin stores in the UK, which makes it very difficult to avoid (plastic) packaging when buying rice, pulses and other starches. In an attempt to be constructive I pointed out that at least, where pasta is concerned, we can go plastic-free by making our own. That statement prompted someone to ask whether it would be possible to make pasta in a van? My response was “I don’t see why not” (not to mention, “why in a van?”).
Whilst domestic bread baking has really taken off, many seem to be wary about making their own pasta… as if it is some mysterious product that requires strange tools and alchemy. So, I thought I would demystify the process.
Ingredients and basic method
I use a Tuscan recipe that is incredibly simple and scalable. The following amounts feed three to four adults:
- 300 g of plain flour, preferably tipo ’00’ durum wheat
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tbsp of olive oil
- pinch of sea salt
If you have a mixer or food processor, toss all ingredients in and mix it into a shiny ball – it will look more like very rich short pastry rather than dough. If you are mixing by hand, make a well in the flour, add the salt, crack the eggs into the well and mix the dough with your finger tips by bringing the flour into the centre and working it into the eggs (a bit like when we made mud pies as children). Add the oil while the mixture is still craggy and knead until the pastry looks slightly glossy.
Leave the pasta to rest for 20 to 30 mins, covered with a damp towel, so the gluten can start to develop. This will make it a lot easier to roll out.
A word about tools
I do have a pasta mangle*, but usually I just make pasta with a rolling pin. Simply cut the dough into three or four pieces and roll out on a very lightly floured surface. Lift the pasta regularly and turn it a quarter. The key is to keep rolling until you can see the grain of the wood/pattern of the countertop through the dough. It takes a few minutes but not as long as you would think, and generally less time than it takes to wipe the dust off the mangle and set it up! The dough should be quite elastic so it will always shrink back a little after you stop rolling it out.
Once thin enough you can cut the pasta into the desired shape with a knife (or pastry cutter, pizza wheel…). I tend to make pappardelle or tagliatelle but you can also cut sheets for lasagna or cannelloni, or make discs or squares for tortellini or ravioli.
If you are cutting ribbons, hang them up to dry a little so they cook as separate strips. The rotary drying racks that are sold with pasta machines are generally too small to be of any use so I improvise. I often drape the pasta over large bowls but have been known to use the clothes airer before now. You could also use a piece of dowelling rod suspended between two cabinets, chairs… and hang the ribbons over that.
Cooking, serving and savouring
As this pasta is super fresh, it cooks in minutes… and I really do mean minutes. Also, much like when boiling potatoes or rice, you will find a slightly starchy residue in the water. This is completely normal.
The taste of homemade pasta is a revelation. It is not anything like the hard dried pasta or pappy fresh pasta you can buy in the supermarket. Just like homegrown potatoes, homemade pasta tastes a little more fibrous, probably because the dough is not as homogenised as that of pasta prepared in industrial mixers. Not only does homemade pasta taste vastly better than shop bought variants, I find it makes a better carrier for sauces. In the autumn I love homemade papardelle with pheasant or rabbit ragu but in the summer, nothing beats homemade tagliatelle with pesto made from homegrown basil!
Another little known benefit of homemade pasta: it will keep for up to six weeks! If you want to make a big batch and store some, just make sure it is thoroughly dry before putting it in an air tight container. I leave it out overnight just to be sure.
The only downside about making your own pasta is that once you have tasted your own, you will probably not want to go back to the ‘convenience’ of plastic-clad shop bought pasta!
Homemade basil pesto
Much like your own pasta, homemade pesto is a feast for the taste buds, and it is incredibly simple to make. Grow basil from seed or buy a plant and grow it on in the kitchen. Take a couple of handfuls of fresh basil leaves, a garlic clove or two, a good tablespoon of grated parmesan and a heaped teaspoon of pine kernels and blitz them a little with a mini mixer or liquidiser. Add a good splash of olive oil and continue to blitz the mixture until you reach your preferred consistency. (Serves 2)
As pesto is so easy to make I usually only make enough for one sitting but if you have any left, it will keep for several days in a small jar if you add enough olive oil to cover the pesto. This fills in any holes so there is no air in which bacteria can breed.
* If space and/or budget are tight, I would definitely recommend investing in a good rolling pin and a mini mixer (and quality durum wheat, of course) rather than a pasta maker as you will get much more use out of both those tools. If you do decide to buy a pasta maker, check that the mechanism for fixing the machine to a surface works with your kitchen counters/table.