You may have noticed that I am a huge fan of pasta; fresh or dried. I have often been aware of an unfathomable snobbery about using dried pasta rather than fresh, that fresh pasta is superior in some way. I cannot understand this. It is not the case of one being better than the other because fundamentally they are very different creatures.
Unless it is specified, dried pasta is often made with just flour and water, no eggs. By Italian law dried pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour and water. It is more robust in texture than fresh pasta and suits oily, rich tomato-based sauces. Dried pasta, especially the more complex shapes (such as radiatore) are designed for grabbing and holding onto sauces. Dried tube pasta (ziti or penne) often has ridges or slight abrasions on the surface to hold onto the pasta sauce as well. These ridges and bumps are created during the extrusion process, when the pasta is forced from a copper mold and cut to desired length before drying. However most producers worldwide use steel molds for the sake of faster and cheaper production. The steel molds produce pasta that is a bit too smooth to hold onto sauce. Fortunately more pasta makers outside of Italy are starting to use the older style copper molds; this pasta tends to be more expensive, but you will taste a difference.
Fresh pasta is much more delicate; it suits lighter sauces and will usually contain eggs. It cooks in a matter of moments and is much easier to spoil than dried. Filled pasta such as ravioli or tortelloni will always be available as fresh. In its place, fresh pasta is truly wonderful and a very special thing to eat.
Often, it is actually more important how to cook the pasta as whether pasta is dried or fresh, if it is not cooked properly, it will not be great.
There is no way that I can make the case for making fresh pasta by saying it is quicker than buying a packet, but I can say that it is worth the effort. If you want to make your own filled pasta, there is not any other option. It is a slow process when you first start, but with practice, you will be able to knock up a batch in no time. If you mess it up, do not worry-it is only flour and eggs after all. Pasta machines are not expensive and make this process so much easier, but it you are not sure how often you will use it, simply use a rolling pin. You will not get incredibly thin and delicate pasta, but it’s a good place to start.
Once you get the hang of it, it can be quite addictive. There are infinite shapes and fillings you can make. The pasta itself can also be adapted to your mood; try adding some cracked black pepper for texture, some fresh beetroot juice for amazing colour or the blackest squid ink for incredible flavour. But the main bit of advice is to keep trying; even those Italian mammas have to start somewhere.
How to Make Fresh Pasta
100g good quality flour-00 Italian flour is best
1 medium organic egg
pinch of salt
semolina flour to dust
Put the flour and eggs in a bowl and mix together using your hand into a rough mixture. Just use one hand as it is easier to keep one dirty and one clean.
Tip the mixture onto a counter and bring together into a rough ball; it may seem too sticky or dry, but do not be tempted to add flour or water at this point.
Knead the dough as you would work bread, until it starts to come together and feel more malleable. Keep going; you will need to work at it for a good five minutes or so until it starts to feel soft, with a texture like firm Play Doh. This is part of the relationship with the dough; you will get to know when it starts to feel right. This just takes practice, but keep going and it will come together into a smooth ball eventually. There are tiny variations in the way the flour has been milled or how old it, or indeed how warm your kitchen is, that will make a difference to how easily and how quickly the pasta comes together. If it refuses to come together after 10 minutes of effort, add a teaspoon of water and try again. Pasta dough that is too wet will stick to the pasta machine and adding too much flour will make it heavy. When the ball of dough has come together, wrap the ball in cling film and put aside for an hour or so to rest. You can leave it for longer if convenient, but that is the minimum if possible, as it allows the gluten to develop and the dough to relax, which makes it much easier to roll out.
If you have a pasta machine, set it up on the widest setting. Dust the worktop with a tiny bit of semolina flour if you have it, if not, ordinary flour will do fine. Roll or press the dough out to flatten it out, then feed the dough through the pasta machine, slowly.
Try to keep the pace consistent if you can. Double the dough over and feed through at the same setting again.
Here is is important to consider how you are handling the dough. As it gets thinner, if you pick it up in the usual manner, it is likely your fingers will go through it. It is therefore important to try and get into the habit of using the back of your hand when you are guiding the pasta out from the bottom on the machine and when you are feeding it through again.
If you are making pasta for more than one person, you will need to cut the dough and feed it through the machine in stages, otherwise the pasta will get too long to handle. When you have processed all the pasta through the machine down to the thinnest setting, dust the counter and lay the pasta flat.
If you want to make thick ribbons such as tagliatelle or pappadelle, gently roll each flat piece of pasta up into a loose roll.
Take a very sharp knife and gently cut through the rolls to make the individual ribbons. Let the weight of the knife glide through the dough to keep each ribbon separate. Work though the rest of the dough and shake out the ribbons.
Dust the ribbons with semolina flour. To cook, drop into boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Serve with your favourite sauce.