Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fresh Pasta Throwdown: 7 options, 3 contestants, 1 winner

I can't think of a single person I know who has never tasted pasta. If you are out there, please come forward! In the United States, pasta is as much a staple as bread or eggs; it is the 6th most consumed food per capita in this country. In fact, the average American eats 20 lbs of pasta every year! But who can blame us? It is quick, easy, filling, and cheap. It goes with almost anything, and it can be altered to a widening variety of cuisines and flavor profiles. It comes in fresh, dry, whole wheat, and flavored varieties in a million shapes with fun-to-pronounce names. Making pasta at home has become a favorite pastime of mine, but I have never made it without referencing a recipe. This week I memorized three recipes for fresh pasta after taking a good, hard look at ten options. While the dinner guests liked all of the options, I had a clear winner, that took me from easy shopping to user-friendly preparation to delicious pairing with fresh spring vegetables for a wonderful entree.



About Pasta
Rumor has long has it that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from his travels in China, but the PBS History Kitchen has found evidence of pasta being made in parts of Italy long before Marco Polo made his way over with the Chinese noodles. Nomadic arabs are credited with the pasta migration westward from Asia to Europe. Regardless of the location, pasta (or noodles of some variety) have maintained a consistent presence throughout history because of the availability of the ingredients: flour and eggs, for the most part. Thomas Jefferson was an advocate for the increased use of pasta in America after he tried it in France, carting multiple cases of it back with him in 1789. Of course, we cannot forget the essential characters in this culinary story: Italian immigrants. During the 1800s, the influx of Italian immigrants to the United States gave pasta more exposure and availability, securing it a place in the diverse history of American cuisine.

Choosing the Recipe
For a recipe as simple as flour and eggs, people sure get fancy with it. I compiled a table of fresh pasta dough recipes from 7 reputable sources (most of whom are known for either Italian cuisine or precision cooking), charting the quantity of key ingredients, any additional ingredients called for, kneading time and style, rest time, and cook time for each recipe. Then I took a broad look at the choices and picked three that I would make, prepare, and compare at dinner this week. It did not take me long to find my top three contestants:
  • Lidia Bastianich: Lidia's pasta was chosen because she is an Italian cooking icon, but I also chose it because the amount of extra oil and water shocked me. Not being used to these extra ingredients, I wanted to see what they would add.
  • Scott Conant: Scott's pasta was picked because of its similarity to the ATK recipe (see below) but the shocking quadrupled kneading time.
  • America's Test Kitchen: The ATK recipe was so bare bones that I could not help but choose it to see how the simplest 2-ingredient pasta would turn out.

Memorizing the Recipe
The ease of memorization depended solely on each recipe's ingredients, since most of the variation came from the ingredient list. Obviously, the ATK recipe was the easiest to memorize, with a 2:3 ratio of flour (in cups) to eggs (in units). Scott's had the same amount of flour but much more egg, and Lidia had some olive oil and water involved. I set out all my ingredients at once and got started with the process for each.

The Verdict
My opinions of each pasta fluctuated depending on the part of the process I was completing, but ultimately I was able to narrow down my favorite based on ease, flavor, and texture.

1st Place: America's Test Kitchen

  • In the processor: The dough did not come together as a ball. Instead it made a moist bed of pasta dough flakes (kind of like barely-wet sand on the beach). When I took it out of the machine, it came out with no problem and stuck nicely together when I began to knead it.
  • Hand kneading: Once the dough flakes had become a ball, the dough was firm and fairly dry (compared to the other two recipes, especially). I was worried that the pasta would crack or taste dry and bland because it wasn't very easy to knead, but I was wrong.
  • Rolling and cutting: The dough went through the pasta maker beautifully-- no cracks or tears, no sticking or pulling. I began at level 7, then went to 5, then settled at 4. It also went through the fettuccine cutter easily.
  • Boiling and tasting notes: The drier nature of this dough helped the long strands of pasta stay separate from one another while they were waiting to be boiled. They remained separate through the entire cooking process, and they were easy to serve with a pasta spoon, pulling apart easily. The pasta was tender and light, making it great for the lighter toppings we put on it.
ATK dough: ingredients, before rolling, after rolling, cut and ready to boil  
2nd Place: Lidia's

  • In the processor: The dough came together nicely but stuck quite a bit to the sides of the machine, making it hard to remove from the processor.
  • Hand kneading: This dough was moist and fluffy without being sticky. It was the most luxurious of all doughs to knead.
  • Rolling and cutting: Rolling Lidia's dough through the pasta maker was a challenge. A third hand would have been very helpful, because feeding the dough through, removing it before it bunched, and cranking the machine all needed to happen at the same time. I had to make Lidia's rolled dough thicker (setting 5) in order for it to be cut by the machine.
  • Boiling and tasting notes: The pasta stuck together as we were preparing it to be boiled, and I felt like no amount of flour would help the situation. As soft and supple as the dough was while kneading it, it was equally uncooperative while cutting it and laying it out to be boiled. It clumped together a bit in the water but was hearty, had nice firmness, and it had a lovely olive oil flavor.
Lidia's dough: ingredients, before rolling, after rolling, cut and ready to boil

3rd Place: Scott's

  • In the processor: The dough became a big messy clump that banged around in the processor after the first 40 seconds, but I had to leave this one in for two whole minutes. It also stuck to the sides of the machine... and my fingers.
  • Hand kneading: I had to coat my hands with flour before even taking a crack at this dough. It was soft, but it was very liquidy and difficult to manage.
  • Rolling and cutting: After trying to feed the dough through the machine six times with nothing to show for it but a sticky mess, I ended up dumping flour all over the machine in a frustrated attempt to release some of the stuck-on dough. That didn't help either, so I got out the rolling pin and hand rolled and cut each piece of dough. That's not what I signed up for!
  • Boiling and tasting notes: While the handcut noodles were aggravating, they had a decent texture. They were much heartier than the other noodles due to all the protein from the egg yolks. The greater width of the pasta would probably be good for a bold dish that would dominate normal thin noodles, but it was not worth the work and aggravation.
Scott's dough: ingredients, before rolling, after rolling, cut and ready to boil
The Recipes

Weighing the Options
Below is a chart of the different pasta recipes I considered, in no particular order:


The Winner: Fresh Pasta Dough
Yield: 1 lb. (4 servings)
Adapted from America's Test Kitchen Online Cooking School
*These steps are much simpler than the detailed steps given in the link above. If you already have a vague idea of how to make pasta, follow my steps. Otherwise follow the link.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (10 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 3 large eggs

Preparation:

  • Pulse flour in a food processor a few times to break up the clumps. 
  • Add the eggs and process for 30 seconds.
  • Remove from the food processor and place on a dry work surface.
  • Knead dough for 1-2 minutes until smooth and elastic.
  • Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes to 2 hours.
  • Cut 1/6 of the dough and replace the plastic wrap on the remaining dough. Flatten the dough piece into a flat disk. Roll through the widest setting on a pasta roller.
  • Fold the sides of the dough into the center (burrito or business letter style) and flatten. Run through the pasta roller again.
  • Reduce the width on the pasta roller and place the same sheet of pasta through the machine.
  • Continue gradually reducing the width until you reach your desired width and the pasta dough is thin, satiny, and you can see the outline of your hand through it.
  • Lay the pasta sheet in a damp towel while you prepare the rest of the dough into sheets.
  • Once the dough is all in sheets, run each sheet through the pasta cutter to make the type of pasta you want. You can also hand cut them into creative shapes.
  • When you are ready to boil the pasta, make sure the water is salty (some say as salty as chicken noodle soup) and only leave the pasta in for 2-3 minutes. Drain, don't rinse, and add to a pan of hot sauce.

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