March was National Flour Month, and I’m finally catching up on paying respect to the many ways flour feeds us, beyond the obvious (bread). My first attempts at making handmade pasta 10 years ago were outright disastrous, mostly because I had assumed the method of stirring eggs by fork into a mountain-like peak of all-purpose flour was going to be easy. In my defense, the shows I had watched on Food Network made it seem easy, but in real life, it was a humongous freaking mess that left me cussing up a storm and vowing that I’d “never make that again.” Truth is, it is those really frustrating failures that inspire me the most to give it another go, and I’m so glad I did!
In my later efforts, I enjoyed more success, letting my KitchenAid do the mixing, but there was always something about the handmade pasta that didn’t sit right with me, even after I had invested in a “Made in Italy” hand-crank pasta roller. The dough always seemed heavy or thick, even on the thin roller setting. It fell apart or crumbled, or stuck to the roller or cutting blades. But a few years ago, I found the perfect, James Beard Foundation-approved recipe that fixed all the problems I had encountered. My issue was not only how I was making the dough or rolling the pasta, but also the ratio of ingredients I was using. To that point, I had been using only all-purpose flour and whole eggs (yolks and whites). I had no idea what temperature was best for my ingredients, nor did I fully understand how long to knead the dough or whether it needed to be rested.
The better recipe, and the one I use to this day, takes advantage of a special variety of wheat called durum, which is used to make semolina flour, the gold standard in authentic Italian pasta recipes. Semolina lends a warm, slightly nutty flavor, a light yellowish color and a firmer, more toothsome texture. It has been a game changer in my journey to making handmade pasta.
The other big difference was a shift in liquid ingredients in my formula. Rather than using whole eggs, the recipe that has become my standard requires separation of the eggs, using only the yolks, plus an amount of water. Once I found this easy formula, the flavor possibilities became near-endless. And that’s where the real fun of making handmade pasta begins! Being creative with the colors, flavors and shapes of handmade pasta is one of the things that gives me—a home cook—a very satisfying sense of accomplishment.
I won’t claim that handmade pasta is “easy,” because I still feel the ego bruises from my early attempts, but I will say that if you are already making handmade pasta, go on and experiment with the flavors until you find something amazing. New flavors make their way into the mix either in the liquid, perhaps by using finely pureed vegetables as part of the water measurement, or by way of dry add-ins, as I am sharing in today’s post. And if you’re still on the fence about trying handmade pasta, I hope my adventure inspires you!
This recipe has helped me use some of the abundance of fresh herbs I’ve had since my husband, Les, gifted me the countertop hydroponic herb garden that keeps throwing parsley at me. The lemon, parsley and basil combination is terrific and perfect for spring, but you could just as easily flavor your pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, roasted red peppers or—well, you can imagine your own (and I do hope you’ll share those fabulous ideas).
8 oz. semolina flour (plus extra for rolling pasta dough)
4 oz. unbleached, all-purpose flour* (see notes)
2 oz. white whole wheat flour*
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup filtered water, room temperature*
2 egg yolks, room temperature*
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (mine is whole lemon-fused for bright lemon flavor)
Zest of one organic lemon* (only the bright yellow peel)
2 Tbsp. very finely minced fresh herbs (I used a combination of Italian parsley and Genovese basil)
All-purpose flour is easy to find, but “00” flour is better if you can get your hands on it. The double-zero flour is milled to a very fine texture, and its use results in tender, silky pasta. I have seen it in well-stocked larger supermarkets, gourmet shops and online. I also use some portion of whole grain flour in my pasta dough, but if you prefer, skip the white whole wheat and make up the difference with equal amount of additional all-purpose or 00 flour.
As with bread dough, I have found that hydration of flour for pasta dough is much improved with room temperature or slightly warm water. Cold water makes for very stiff dough that is tougher to knead.
Eggs are more easily separated when cold, but once this is done, cover the bowl of yolks and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before you begin mixing the pasta dough.
Most of the time, conventionally-grown citrus is fine. But when you intend to eat any part of the peel, it’s best to choose organic to avoid chemical pesticides.
Instructions – making the dough
- Zest the lemon and mince the herbs first, and spread them out on a cutting board so that the add-in ingredients dry out a bit.
- Combine flours, salt, lemon zest and lightly dried herbs in the bowl of a stand mixer.
- Combine egg yolks and water in a separate bowl and whisk them together until the mixture is light and frothy.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour the wet ingredients into the center and use the dough hook to do the blending. Though it might seem logical to mix with the beater blade, using the dough hook completes the blending from the center-out, in the same way as the chefs using only a fork to gradually mix the eggs into the flour. Allow the mixer to do this work for you, until the dough mixture is combined but crumbly, and no dry flour remains in the bowl. Add more water, one tablespoon at a time, if needed to achieve this stage.
- Empty the dough onto your work surface, and knead by hand for at least 10 minutes, probably more like 15 minutes. The dough should be smooth and elastic, with no creases or cracks or lumps. If the dough shows any sign of cracking or breaking, wet your hands and continue to knead, repeating as many times as necessary until the smooth texture is achieved.
- Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough ball at least one hour, or up to overnight. Do not refrigerate more than a day.
Time to make the pasta!
Remove the pasta dough from the fridge (still wrapped) about 30 minutes before you plan to roll it, to remove some of the chill. Set up your pasta rolling machine, and keep fresh semolina out to aid in rolling and to prevent the dough from sticking. Have a parchment-lined cookie sheet within reach, and set up your drying rack if you’re using one.
Instructions – rolling the pasta
- Unwrap the pasta dough and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to slice off sections of dough about one inch thick. Keep remaining dough tightly wrapped until ready to roll, so it doesn’t dry out.
- Flatten a piece of dough into an oval-shaped disk, then roll it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting. For the first few passes, fold the pressed dough in half and run it through again on the same setting. Fold it in thirds, as you would fold up a letter, and turn the dough 90° so that it runs through the machine at a different angle. This helps to reduce curling or bending when the pasta dries later. When the dough feels supple after running through the press several times, begin reducing to thinner setting with each pass.
- When the dough reaches the desired thickness (either the thinnest or next-to-thinnest setting, allow the sheet to dry slightly before cutting into strips or using as ravioli. In my experience with pasta, the cutting and shaping stage seems to work better when the pasta is not super-soft. If you rush directly to cutting it, at least with a machine, the dough tends to stick in the rollers, and it will definitely stick to a ravioli mold.
- After pasta sheets are complete, allow them to rest for a couple of minutes before cutting, either with the pasta machine or by hand with a fluted pasta trimmer, pizza slicer or sharp knife. If cutting by hand, the simplest way is to fold the pasta sheet crosswise multiple times, and slice through the layers with a pizza wheel or sharp knife. Dust the pasta really well with extra semolina flour before cutting to minimize sticking.
This time, I’ve opted to use the cutter attachment for my pasta roller to fashion my lemon-herb pasta into fettucine strips, but this lemony pasta would also be terrific for making sweet crab-stuffed ravioli, or ricotta-filled tortellini. I will save those for another day. 🙂
We used the lemon-herb pasta in a couple of ways—first, with littleneck clams in white wine broth, and again as a base for an amazing dish of chicken thighs in vodka sauce that Les made for us.