Saturday, January 30, 2010

Pasta 101

Techniques and recipes for pasta vary widely – as do most things Italian. We’ve seen (and tried) many different recipes. Some include water and/or oil; some are much more fussy in their making.  We suggest that the following recipe is as reliable and easy as it gets. If you want to substitute a different flour, such as semolina or buckwheat, feel free. You may need to adjust the moisture content, but otherwise no changes are required. Similarly, you can add cooked spinach, but then you may want to remove some of the egg or add a touch more flour to compensate for the liquid being added via the spinach.

Basic Pasta Recipe

serves 6
3 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour

Blend the ingredients in a food processor until the mix looks like slightly coarse couscous and starts to come together - about 30-40 seconds. If it looks a bit dry and like fine couscous, you might want to add a little of the egg whites leftover from your yolks or add another yolk. The dough should not be at all sticky or wet though, so add the whites carefully if you need them (the dough will accommodate yolks much more readily – some of the pasta we ate in Piemonte a few years ago had two dozen or more yolks per pound of pasta).
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Turn out to a very lightly floured board and knead for about 30 seconds to a minute. Form into a disk, wrap in plastic and let rest for an hour in the fridge.

A video of the kneading process – the intent is to show the texture and consistency of the dough at this stage.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, cut it into manageable pieces (4 evenly sized balls or more if you want). Roll through a pasta maker until you reach your desired thin-ness. We almost always go for the thinnest setting, sometimes the one just slightly thicker if the dough is fighting back for any reason. Cut into the desired shape.

Cook in rapidly boiling water until the pasta floats. This will take about 2 minutes or less if you’re pre-cooking lasagna sheets one at a time.
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pasta floating and ready to serve!

To bake a lasagna, bake uncovered at your desired temperature (350-425 degrees, depending on how patient you are) until the pan is bubbling and the top is browned.

About Drying and Storing

The monkey is convinced that drying linguine for maybe 20 min before cooking it helps prevent it from getting gummy. I personally think that the extra egg yolk we started adding does that, but since the drying time is pretty much equal to the bringing a pot of water to a boil time, I let this one go.

If you’re making farfalle (aka bowties), this shape absolutely does benefit from a few minutes drying to set the shape.

To save pasta for later in the week, we cut it into its target shape (lasagna or whatever width of linguine), flour it generously, and leave on the cutting board for about an hour. Then we pile the pasta into a Tupperware container and store in the refrigerator.
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pasta prepped for storage – I actually pulled this out of the freezer.

I know that pasta is famous for being dried, but we really never store ours fully dried in the pantry. Sort of defeats the purpose of making it fresh in my opinion.

We never store filled pasta, except for cooked leftovers, nor do we make filled pasta from stored dough. Not saying it can’t happen or it shouldn’t; we just don’t.


  • The pasta will expand 10-20% when you cook it. A good-sized portion will look somewhat skimpy going into the pot. And a lasagna sheet that fits your pan exactly will be a bit too big after you pre-cook it.
  • You can assemble a lasagna using uncooked pasta sheets. In this case use a slightly runnier sauce than you would with cooked sheets. However, pre-cooking the pasta sheets yields a noticeably lighter lasagna, so we do go to the extra work to boil the sheets and then assemble the lasagna. So that the sheets don’t stick, boil one, top it, boil the next, etc.
  • When making lasagna, make each layer of filling super-thin. Store-bought pasta is thick and stands up to a filling layer that is 1/4” or more, but home made wants just the barest coating of ricotta or sprinkling of other toppings for each layer. A standard monkeyshines lasagna has 10-14 layers depending on the filling.
  • Representative layers of lasagna: each individual is thinly coated, but when all layers are added up, the dish is nice and firm and there's filling in every bite.
  • Tortellini are much more stable than ravioli when boiling. We almost never make ravioli anymore because they’re more prone to coming apart while boiling. Plus tortellini just look cooler.
Here is a video on shaping  tortelloni (slightly larger than tortellini, but otherwise the same).
  • Filling for a ravioli or tortellini should be fully cooked or nearly so. Since the pasta requires only ~2 minutes to cook, the filling needs to be safely cooked going in.  For the same reason, don’t plan on a melted-cheese type filling.
  • A tortellini or ravioli filling should be fairly dry.  A wet filling will run out towards the edges of your shape, making it difficult (read: impossible) to create a good seal.
  • Lasagna fillings can be raw or cooked, depending on what they are. It generally takes 25-30 minutes to bake a lasagna until its richly browned and bubbling, so things that will cook in that time can go in raw and things that won’t need a head start. I usually do very lightly cook vegetables (asparagus, mushrooms) before adding to a lasagna, but leave prosciutto raw.
Some of our favorites:
  • Asparagus, mushroom and prosciutto lasagna
  • Tortelloni with roasted butternut squash and goat cheese. (see our butternut squash gnocchi recipe for the roasting technique)
  • Pappardelle with slow-cooked meat sauce (aka ragu aka sugo)
  • Tortelloni filled with asparagus and ricotta, served with brown butter and herbs
  • Veal, prosciutto and Savoy cabbage tortellini (aka agnolotti dal plin)
  • Fettuccine with parsnips, pancetta and sage

1 comment:

  1. "Fettuccine with parsnips, pancetta and sage" sounds wonderful. A great posting about a food staple!!! And your video links are excellent -- bravo. Cheers from Audax in Sydney.