I was never very good at making fresh pasta. In my days as a restaurant chef, it was common practice to buy from a purveyor. If it was to be filled, I’d make the filling, he would pick it up and return the product to me the next day.
To me, it was like pizza or croissants: Something made infinitely better by other people. With hindsight, I can see how wrong it was to be more concerned about the filling. Good pasta is all about the pasta.
Fresh pasta doesn’t have the hard-at-the-center kind of al dente quality that dried pasta does; the entirety of a fresh noodle is evenly, and even softly, al dente. That is its state of being.
I decided to take on the challenge, with guidance from cookbook author Domenica Marchetti.
The tutorial was exactly what I had hoped it would be. Domenica's straightforward, casual approach set me at ease. We made three batches of the basic, food-processor egg dough from her book “The Glorious Pasta of Italy” (Chronicle), varying two of them slightly so she could demonstrate how to work with dough that was a little dry, and dough that was wet.
Among her tips: Knead as long as necessary. The dough should be smooth and silky, not sticky at all, so the noodles retain their texture when cooked. Use semolina flour liberally throughout the process to keep the pasta from sticking. Mold your fingers around pasta stuffings to get rid of air pockets. When rolling the pasta dough on the thickest setting of a pasta machine, fold the dough in thirds, envelope-style. That works out any air bubbles and makes the dough more supple, yielding a better texture when the pasta is cooked.
Domenica freezes her fresh pasta for up to a month, which, for some reason, I had never considered. The dough itself freezes beautifully, which makes performing the pasta-making steps over time much easier.
Does it take time and effort to make fresh pasta? Sure. But once you get the hang of it, you can make a pound of fettuccine, start to finish, in an hour, including 20 minutes’ resting time for the dough. (Filled pastas require more handiwork and time.)
When ultra-thin noodles come rolling off the cutting blade and onto the back of your hand, they feel like little feathers tickling your skin. Fresh noodles cook more quickly than dried pasta: about three minutes for fettuccine rather than 10. They float to the top to tell you they’re done.
After the lesson, it was time to devise my own pastas. On my shopping list: eggplant, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, artichokes and papaya.
When I made my first grocery store foray, a display of exquisite Black Mission figs brought to mind a restaurant dessert I served long ago: quartered black figs on bright yellow saffron creme Anglaise dotted with bits of Gorgonzola cheese.
To give the dish more of a fall feeling, I added toasted walnuts, and, for dimension, strips of sweet prosciutto as a garnish.
I experimented with saffron in the dough, once by infusing the fragrant threads in warm olive oil and once by kneading them directly into the dough. The oil method imparts more flavor. Heat releases the spice’s bouquet and color, so the oil method turns the pasta an even golden yellow. It’s a nice bonus, but not a vital step, given that I perfumed the sauce with saffron.
To test differences in texture, I cut the fettuccine on the second- and third-thinnest settings of the pasta roller. (Marchetti suggests the third, and I agree; it is more durable and stands up to the figs and prosciutto. For a simple pasta with butter and cheese, I’d prefer the more delicate noodles.)
I substituted Cambozola cheese for Gorgonzola. The brie-like creaminess of the former didn’t overpower the prosciutto as the latter did.
Onward to eggplant. That creation was a cinch. Earlier in the summer, I had made a gooey baked side dish of broiled eggplant slices stacked with chunky tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Inserting fresh lasagna noodles into the stack transformed the side dish into a substantial main course.
I made the Parmigiana with blanched noodles (always a hassle) and raw ones, then compared the results. I discerned so little difference that I saw no need to go through the bother of precooking the noodles. Baking the dish covered for the first half-hour, and making sure the noodles were in contact with plenty of sauce ensured that they would cook through.
And the simpler the sauce, the better. The intense flavor of San Marzano tomatoes requires little more than to be cooked down with a bit of onion, plenty of sliced garlic, thyme, a bay leaf and a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes. Buy whole canned tomatoes and crush them with your hands. The texture is better than that of already crushed tomatoes, in my opinion.
My agnolotti turned out best. I roasted Brussels sprouts with a little olive oil, letting some of the leaves get very dark so they would signal roastiness with the first bite. I pureed them with garlic and a whole egg; an egg yolk alone didn’t provide enough moisture. Whole-milk ricotta cheese lightened its texture and balanced the vegetable’s earthiness. I added pecorino-Romano cheese because of its sheep’s-milk tang.
I finished the dish with a nutty-tasting brown butter sauce, Brussels sprout leaves, sage and, of course, Parmesan cheese.
Having those agnolotti in the freezer is money in the bank. Once you’re ready to assemble the final dish, most of the work already has been done.
Basic Pasta Dough
Makes about 18 ounces of dough
12 ounces (about 2¼ cups) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon semolina flour, plus more
for the work surface and for rolling the pasta
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
7 ounces beaten egg (4 large eggs)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Place the flour, semolina and salt in a food processor and pulse several times to combine the ingredients. Add the eggs all at once and process for 30 seconds, drizzling the oil through the opening in the lid. The dough should look like coarse, wet sand.
Dust a work surface generously with semolina. Transfer the dough to the work surface and bring it together in a ball. Knead for a good 3 or 4 minutes, occasionally rotating the dough 180 degrees. The dough should appear smooth and silky when you are done; it should not be sticky.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 minutes. Set up the pasta maker next to a work surface. Sprinkle a rimmed baking sheet liberally with semolina.
Sprinkle the work surface with semolina and keep it dusted so the pasta doesn’t stick as you roll and cut it.
When ready to roll out the pasta, cut it into quarters. Work with one quarter at a time and keep the remaining portions wrapped. Use your fingers to work the dough into a rough 3-by-4-inch rectangle. (The dough should have the texture of Play-Doh.) Use the heel of your hand to flatten the dough to a thickness of ½ inch.
Pass the dough through the highest (thickest) setting of your pasta machine. Fold it into thirds, as you would a business letter, then flatten it to ½ inch and pass it through the machine again. Fold, press and roll one more time.
Set the rollers on the next-highest setting and pass the dough through twice. (You don’t have to fold it.) Continue to lower the setting one increment at a time, passing the dough through twice each time, until your dough reaches the desired thickness. Setting 3 is good for fettuccine and lasagna sheets. Setting 2 is good for filled pastas, such as tortellini, ravioli and agnolotti, or for thinner lasagna sheets. Use plenty of semolina to keep the dough from sticking to itself as it falls into accordion folds while coming out of the rollers.
If you’re making filled pastas, make them as you go, one sheet at a time. (If you roll all the sheets beforehand, they will dry out and might tear as you try to work with them.) If you’re not making filled pasta, use a knife to slice the sheets into lasagna noodles or use your machine’s cutters to make fettuccine or spaghetti. Use plenty of semolina as you stack lasagna noodles (alternate the layers lengthwise and crosswise) or form piles of cut pasta, fluffing them with semolina so they remain separate. Transfer the finished pasta to the prepared baking sheet.
When you have finished rolling and cutting all the pasta, transfer the baking sheet to the freezer for an hour or two, until the pasta is frozen. Wrap it in plastic or store in resealable food storage bags and freeze for up to a month.
Adapted from a recipe in “The Glorious Pasta of Italy,” by Domenica Marchetti (Chronicle Books, 2011).
This half-moon-shaped pasta stuffed with pureed, roasted Brussels sprouts and served with nutty brown butter is just right for fall. It is also delicious served in a simple tomato sauce. Inspired by a recipe for carrot ravioli by cookbook author Domenica Marchetti.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts Agnolotti
For the agnolotti:
1 pound Brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1 large egg
½ cup whole-milk ricotta
¼ cup grated pecorino-Romano cheese
Semolina flour, for the work surface
1 recipe (18 ounces) Basic Pasta Dough (see recipe on page C2)
¾ cup brown butter
2 large artichoke bottoms, cut into ¼-inch- thick slices (optional)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 medium sage leaves
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. For the agnolotti: Trim ¼ inch from the stem end of the Brussels sprouts. Pull off and reserve enough outer leaves from each sprout to total 2 cups, packed. Cut the sprouts in half lengthwise and place them in an ovenproof dish with the oil, salt and pepper, stirring to coat. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for 10 minutes, until the sprouts are soft and nicely browned. Allow them to cool.
Transfer sprouts to a food processor along with the garlic and egg. Puree until smooth, transfer to a medium bowl and stir in the cheeses. Cover and refrigerate.
Have ready a small bowl of water and a rimmed baking sheet liberally sprinkled with semolina. Working with a quarter of the pasta dough at a time, use the pasta machine to roll the dough into a sheet, preferably to setting 2. You should end up with a dough sheet about 22 inches long and 5 inches wide.
Imagine the pasta sheet divided in half all the way down its length (into two sections 22 inches long and 2½ inches wide). Place generous teaspoons of the filling (about the size of a grape) along the length of the pasta on one side of the dividing line, spacing them about 1½ inches apart. Use your fingertips or a pastry brush to moisten the pasta with water along the edge of the sheet next to the filling and in the spaces between the balls of filling. Fold the top half of the sheet over the filling so the edges meet. Gently press with your fingertips in between and all around each ball of filling to remove air pockets.
Cut around each ball of filling with a pasta wheel to make a half-moon shape, leaving folded edge. Pinch together the rounded edge of each piece, then press with a fork around that edge to seal it. Place agnolotti on the prepared sheet pan. Repeat to use all of the dough and filling.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add plenty of salt. Add the agnolotti and cook for 7 to 9 minutes, until they are tender but their edges are still slightly al dente.
To make brown butter (can be done ahead of time), place 12 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a large microwave-safe glass bowl, cover it with film wrap and cook on high for 5 to 7 minutes, until the butter is dark brown and you can see specks of toasted milk solids throughout.
For assembly: A few minutes before the pasta is ready, combine the brown butter, artichoke slices (if using), reserved Brussels sprout leaves, pepper, sage and toasted pine nuts in a large skillet. Season with salt to taste. Heat over medium heat for 2 minutes, until the sprout leaves begin to wilt.
Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet. Turn off the heat and stir the agnolotti to coat them evenly. Serve immediately, garnished with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.