Sunday, June 13, 2010

On homemade pasta

I am not totally certain when or why I became obsessed with the idea of making homemade pasta. I've always made good homemade sauces for lasagna and various pastas. But I never made pasta from scratch. Dried pastas tasted fine. Of course I could taste the difference when I went to Boston's North End and ate fresh pasta. But I never thought about making it myself.

This past week, I volunteered to cook for my son's end-of-year Thunderbird (as the pre-schooler crowd is called) party. I didn't realize that I needed to work 20 hours at the center where he goes in the afternoon. It was actually just 10 hours since he goes only half-time. Howie, the director, told me about the cooking that had to be done. "What's on the menu?" I asked. "Spaghetti with either Alfredo sauce or red sauce." Howie went on to explain that he had already bought the spaghetti (dried, of course) and the bottled sauces. He asked me if I would be willing to "doctor" them. We've all done this with bottled sauces. You saute some onion, garlic and maybe some vegetables, season them well, and then pour on the bottled sauce. The idea is to give the bottled sauce a much-needed boost. I was happy to help.

Friday morning, I starting the doctoring process. The red sauce was first. Children often don't like to see "stuff" in their pasta sauce, so I took great care to chop the onion very finely. Then it was time to do the same for the bottled Alfredo sauce. The first thing that struck me was the odd texture of the sauce. It offended me. It was globby. I was even more horrified when my son sampled some and pronounced it to be "delicious." Then I tasted it. It was very salty, while being tasteless (at least to me) at the same time. It was then that I formed a desperate resolution: to make homemade lasagna with a decent Alfredo sauce.

No, I have never made homemade pasta before. I did buy a pasta machine, but did not feel like taking the time to figure out how to use it. Pasta could be made with elbow grease and a sturdy rolling pin. I found a recipe for fresh pasta from The Essential Pasta Cookbook. The hardest part of making the pasta was rolling it sufficiently thin.

The Alfredo sauce was not difficult. I took a basic recipe and decided to make it sturdier by adding portabella mushrooms, curly-leaf parsley, spinach, sweet Italian sausage (vegetarians, leave this out and double up on the spinach and mushrooms) onion, garlic and fresh herbs. I mixed this into the cream and cheese mixture.

The result?? Let's just say that I don't know if I can bring myself to eat dried pasta again. The homemade lasagna was soft and flavorful, despite the fact that I used only flour, eggs, olive oil and a pinch of salt. The sauce was not globby and salty, but smooth, creamy and flavorful! I can hardly wait to experiment with other kinds of pasta and fresh sauces!

Alfredo Sauce (with spinach, mushroom and sweet Italian sausage)

1/2 cup sweet butter, melted
1 1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella and Asiago cheeses, mixed

Mix all the ingredients, EXCEPT FOR THE MOZZARELLA/ASIAGO CHEESE together and heat until warm.

For the spinach/mushroom/sweet Italian sausage part
1 tbs olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large onion, chopped
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
8 oz sweet Italian sausage
3 cups fresh spinach, chopped
1/4 cup curly leaf parsley, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 tbs fresh oregano, chopped
1 tbs fresh basil, chopped

Saute the sausage over a medium flame until cooked. Drain and set aside. Put olive oil in pan with garlic and heat slowly. When the garlic starts to sizzle, add the onion. Saute until the onion is soft. Add the spinach, mushrooms, parsley and fresh herbs. Saute until soft. Mix with the sausage. Then combine with the sauce.

Fresh Pasta for Lasagna
10 oz of plain flour
3 large eggs
1 fl. oz of olive oil
a pinch of salt

1. To mix the dough by hand, mound the plain flour on a work surface or in a large ceramic bowl and then make a well in the center.
2. Break the eggs into the well and add the oil, if using, and a large pinch of salt. Using a fork, begin to whisk the eggs and oil together, incorporating a little of the flour as you do so.
3. Gradually blend d the flour with the eggs, working from the center out. Use your free hand to hold the mound in place and stop leakage if any of the egg escapes. 4. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface with smooth, light strokes, turning it as you fold and press. It should be soft and pliable, but dry to the touch. If it is sticky, knead in a little flour.
5. It will take at least 6 minutes kneading to achieve a smooth and elastic texture with a slightly glossy appearance. If durum wheat semolina is used, the kneading will take a little longer, at least 8 minutes. Put the dough in a plastic bag without sealing, or cover with a tea towel or an upturned bowl. Allow to rest for 30 minutes. The dough can be made in a food processor.

Rolling and cutting by hand
1. Divide the dough into three or four manageable portions and cover them.
2. Lightly flour a large work surface. Flatten one portion of dough onto the surface and using a long, floured rolling pin, roll out the dough from the center to the outer edge.
3. Continue rolling, always from the front of you outward, and rotating the dough often. Keep the work surface dusted with just enough flour to prevent sticking. When you have rolled a well-shaped circle, fold the dough in half and roll it out again. Continue in this way seven or eight times to give a smooth circle of pasta about 1/4 inch) thick.
4. Roll the sheet quickly and smoothly to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Patch any tears with a piece of dough from the edge and a little water to help it stick.
5. As each sheet is one, transfer it to dry tea towel. If the pasta is to be used to make filled pasta keep it covered, but if they are to be cut into lengths or shapes, leave them uncovered while the others are being rolled, so that the surface moisture will dry slightly.
6. For lasagna sheets, simply cut the pasta into the sizes required. The best way to cut lengths.

Boil in lightly salted water (with a little olive oil thrown into the pot to prevent sticking) until underdone (about 5-8 minutes, depending upon how thick the sheets are). Put in colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process.

Assembling the lasagna
Oil the pan. Put a layer of lasagna noodles on the bottom. Add the sauce. Top with some of the grated mozzarella/Asiago cheese mixture. Repeat. End with sauce and additional cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 400 degrees until it bubbles.


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