Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Fresh Pasta

Before I finally succumbed to Book Club Failure and set aside Bleak House, I came across the following exchange, when the character Richard gets back a sum of money that he hadn't expected to:

'My prudent Mother Hubbard, why not?' he said to me, when he wanted, without the least consideration, to bestow five pounds on the brickmaker. 'I made ten pounds, clear, out of the Coavinses' business.'
'How was that?' said I.
Why, I got rid of ten pounds which I was quite content to get rid of, and never expected to see any more. You don't deny that?'

'No,' said I.

'Very well! then I came into possession of ten pounds-'

'The same ten pounds,' I hinted.

'That has nothing to do with it!' returned Richard. 'I have got ten pounds more than I expected to have, and consequently I can afford to spend it without being particular.'

After Richard is talked out of giving the brickmaker those five pounds, he then adds that sum to his perceived credit as well. The narrator is frustrated, but I totally understand -- much of my life involves such ridiculous calculations, quantifying the world according to an entirely subjective mental math. You don't treat yourself to the massage you considered getting, and suddenly you have 'saved' money! Thus if you spend half the cost of a massage on, say, a nice dinner out, you haven't spent money at all! You've been a thrifty saver! These sorts of indefensible calculations and categorizations define much of how I financially interact with the outside world.

Perhaps the best illustration is what I like to call the Standard Burrito Unit (a concept developed in partnership with my burrito-making neighbor). To whit: burritos from the taco truck near my house are cheap. Ridiculously cheap. For $4.50, you get a hefty tortilla-wrapped handful of rice, beans, cheese, tomato, cilantro, onions, lettuce, and avocado. Avocado! For $4.50! And thus, $4.50 has become the new standard.

Sometimes, when I'm sweating over a home-cooked meal, I stop to ask myself: is this cheaper than a burrito? Other times, I'll pick up a dress at the thrift shop, amazed that it doesn't cost more than a couple of burritos. It's a hard habit to drop.

And thus, when I was at the farmer's market and saw someone selling Oregon black truffles, I was shocked to find that a single, stinky-ripe truffle, that emblem of luxury, cost the same price as a burrito. A single Standard Burrito Unit. I bought it.

But then there was the question of what to do with it. Usually truffles are enjoyed in basic creamy preparations, which serves as an unobtrusively rich backdrop for the truffle funk. Softly set eggs or cheesy risotto both work perfectly. But to serve to the dairy-free diner, I had to find something else. Pasta seemed a good fit, but how could I waste a luxurious truffle (though still the same price as a burrito!) on plain supermarket pasta! So I made my own.

For the most part, my feelings about making pasta by hand mirror my feelings about sewing a quilt. I've made both of these things, and I've been inordinately proud of the end results (which are miles beyond the commercially-produced option). But once the task is done, I'm content to not do it again for another year or so. Except that the fusty aroma of the truffle convinced me to break out the past machine. And it wasn't as bad as I remembered -- in fact, the whole meal came together in just over an hour.

Pasta-making is definitely a bit tedious, and requires a pasta maker (unless you're much more skilled/patient/Italian than I am), but it's also an amazing transformation of humble ingredients. I went with a particularly yolk-rich version, and white flour instead of semolina (because that's what I had). After a quick mix, a rest, and a whole lot of cranking, eggs and flour turn into noodles that manage to be both rich and delicate in the same bite. Add a glug of olive oil and a grating of Oregon black truffles, and you've got a showstoppingly good meal. For less than the cost of a burrito.

Fresh Pasta (with or without truffle)
serves ~4

2 cups flour
hefty pinch salt
2 eggs
4 egg yolks

In a large bowl, sift together the flour and salt. Make a well in the center, and add the eggs and yolks. Mix, from the center outward, and knead until the dough comes together and is smooth and elastic (truth told, I often resort to the dough hook for this stage). You can add more flour or egg yolk as needed to create a firm yet pliable dough. When the dough has been well-kneaded, cover with a towel or overturned bowl, and allow to rest for half an hour.

After half an hour, set a bowl of salted water to boil. Roll and cut the dough on a pasta machine, according to the directions (my lazy cook's trick: pinch of lumps of dough that are double the walnut size recommended -- you can get several turns through the machine with one portion, then just divide it in half when it gets too large and unwieldy, making sure to cover the unused portion so that it doesn't dry out). Toss cut noodles with additional flour so that they don't stick together. When your pasta has been rolled and cut, simmer in the salted water until done (it'll take less time than you'd think), then drain and toss with olive oil. Serve with your favorite sauce (or truffles).


  1. Standard Burrito Unit! You've got me giggling. The pasta looks amazing--I keep thinking maybe I'll bum my parents' pasta maker for a weekend a try my hand at homemade pasta.

    Don't give up on Bleak House! It can be slow, but it's totally worth it!

  2. I love your logic. Love it. I save all kinds of money this way, and the std. burrito unit will be instated firmly in the Midwest, now that I know what to call it!