Ditching Your Pasta Machine

There's almost nothing that makes me feel like I'm back in Italy more than making pasta. Before we lived in Umbria, making pasta was a production. I'd have to get someone taller than me (which used to just be Keith, though now Nicolas and Siena both are included in that dubious honor) to stretch his freakishly long arms into the cabinet above the fridge to nudge out the pasta machine. Then I'd dust it off, and look up a recipe for pasta, and start mixing, resting, folding, and cranking. Inevitably, the arm of the crank would fall onto the floor and I'd swear in a parent-appropriate manner out loud and in a parent-inappropriate manner under my breath, and I'd reinsert the arm and it would just pop out again about 10 turns later. And then I'd remember why I never made pasta.

But in Umbria, I learned how to ROLL pasta. Really roll it. On a board. Which seemed like a giant pain. After all, they make machines for this. Expensive and shiny machines should make it easier, right?

Wrong.

My pasta lesson with Conci, an Umbrian mamma, was my first inkling that modern conveniences are always modern but not always convenient. Sometimes old is better. Sometimes there's a reason why people did things a certain way for generations. And sometimes, removing us from the process of making food really just divides us from understanding our food. Rolling pasta by pushing and stretching it against wood isn't harder or more complicated. In fact, it can be done much more quickly and efficiently than with a pasta machine, and as an added bonus, we are connected to generations of pasta makers in the sun-soaked hills of Italy, and connected to our food, and connected to our intention to create a meal.

Here is the second thing I learned: Pasta takes the texture on which it's rolled. So pasta rolled on wood adopts the nuanced texture of the wood. That texture holds sauce like minuscule pockets. Tiny sauce pockets—genius. Pasta rolled on metal (like with a pasta maker) creates pasta with the texture of glass. Sauce just slides right off.

And the third thing I learned—no recipe is required. What is required is top-notch ingredients. Pasta is just eggs and flour. If one of those is sub-par, how can the pasta hope to be transcendent? It just plain can't. So get those farm eggs with the vivid orange yolks from happy chickens clucking into the wind. And get that high-quality flour (it doesn't, contrary to popular opinion, have to be 00. In fact, Conci uses 0, with a little shake of wheat flour to provide a bit of bite).

Specific instructions for making pasta can be found in Il Bel Centro, here I just want to make the case for using wood.

You'll need two things, a wooden rolling pin (not your fancy marble one, no texture there!) and a wooden board (again, not your fancy marble countertop, I can't even use my finished bamboo butcher block island—you want something with a fine-grain texture). Both can be easily purchased in Italy (we got my rolling pin at GranCasa, a housewares department store), and make great souvenirs. 

The rolling pins come in different sizes based on how many eggs are in the dough. My rolling pin is a 3 egg rolling pin, so this means that I add flour to three beaten eggs until it forms the dough, then I roll it until the dough is a rough circle with a diameter about the size of the rolling pin. Basically, the pin assures me that the dough is rolled thin enough. My 3 egg rolling pin is about 30" long. If you don't have a trip to Italy planned in your future, you can get a pin from Artisanal Pasta Tools.  You can also just use your basic wooden rolling pin, though you'll have to make sure it's thin enough with your hands and your eyes, and won't be able to rely on the pin to tell you. Pro-tip: Err on the side of too thin.

As for the board, you can find these on Amazon, or you can make your own. It's a great DIY project, or a great suggestion for a handy mate to make for you. Not being authorized to deal with power tools, I went the latter route. Here are Keith's instructions: Get a piece of good quality 3/4 inch plywood (maple if you are fancy, otherwise pine). Cut it to size (bigger than your rolling pin). Sand it smooth, but don't finish it. Use Iron-on edging, which is edging with a strip of glue that you use an iron to heat to melting, then attach it to the one long and both short sides of your board (this step is optional—you'll notice in the photos that Conci doesn't have her board edged—it'll just keep fabric, etc, from catching on the rough surface of the cut wood). Make a lip by attaching 1 by pine strip to the other long edge. This will hang down below the edge of the board and serve to anchor the board in place while you are kneading and rolling your dough. I've seen boards with a second lip, this one sticking up on the other long side. That makes no sense to me, as you'd lose the ability to roll freely away from your body, the pin would slam against the wall of the lip. But people must like it for a reason. Glue and screw the lip in place (flush with the top of your board, hanging down below the bottom edge of your board), covering the screw holes with screw plugs. As an optional feature, glue a rubber mat to the bottom of the board to prevent slipping. That's it! Keith made mine in an afternoon. He kept his hero status for much longer ("my man made me a pasta board.")

People often ask me if they need a board if they have a wooden table or counter. I'd say the board is still preferable, particularly since tables and counters are finished with a coating that gets in the way of pressing the precious pockets into the pasta.

Once the pasta is rolled, it is left to dry on the board or on a cloth. When it is more powdery to the touch than sticky, it is ready for cutting. Take your circle of pasta dough and roll the bottom up and the top down, until it looks like a folded tea towel. Drape the end of the roll over a cutting board (not your pasta board!) and slice it to desired thickness (which in Umbria, is nearly always tagliatelle). This part is the best. It is deeply satisfying to feel the bite of the pasta giving way under the knife, and seeing all those immaculate rows of pasta taking shape as you slice. After you've sliced a few inches, take the tip of your knife and slide it under the middle of the cut pasta. Move the pasta to a separate board, shaking the knife as you go so as to unfold the strands and let them fall loosely (see photos below). Once they are on your board, sprinkle with some semolina flour to keep the strands from sticking to each other. Continue slicing. If you accidentally let the sheet of pasta dry for too long and it is too brittle for slicing, then I'd suggest swapping your pasta recipe for a lasagna, so you can just cut the pasta in pan-shaped sheets. The beauty of fresh pasta for lasagna is that it doesn't need pre-boiling, which means you can put together a beautiful dish of pasta with fewer steps.

Pasta in my house no longer requires a Herculean effort. While I have a meat sauce burbling, I may think, "Oh! Some homemade noodles will be perfect!" Out comes my tools, flour, eggs, and 30 minutes later, the pasta is ready to boil. Simple.

Just as it should be.