Homemade pasta was a rare event. Of course, we never called it pasta. The normal Sunday fare was simply called “macaroni.” Macaroni was most often in the shape known as radiatori (we called them “twistetti” for obvious reasons) and sometimes we had rigatoni.The word “pasta” as I recall, occurred only in the name of two dishes,“pasta e fagioli” which in Italian American was slurred to “pasta fazool” and “pasta e cecci” which in the home dialect became “pastacheech.” In both cases the word “pasta” had no specific meaning of its own but was simply another two syllables in the name of these two recipes.
But here is a curious thing. While we rarely made pasta at home, my ancestors in Italy were pasta makers. My paternal great-mother was a Monsurrò from Torre Annunziata just south of Naples. The Monsurrò factory still exists. And Torre Annunziata is still the capitol of pasta making. My favorite pasta is Setaro which you can find in Manhattan at Chelsea Market’s Buon Italia and online.
These days, spaghetti is the most common pasta. But in my house spaghetti was really not all that common. Perhaps it was because we children preferred macaroni. After all, the shape of macaroni was easier to eat and its texture was heartier. When we had spaghetti it was with seafood. Spaghetti went with clams or mussels and always with summer crabs. But, the spaghetti was never homemade. It was from a box.
On holidays the pasta course was always lasagna.But lasagna too was from a box. Homemade pasta was limited to just a few forms.Of course, it wasn’t called pasta.The homemade varieties had specific names of their own.On special occasions we had homemade cavatelli, pronounced in Italian American as “gha-vah-deals.” Cavatelli are potato based pasta like gnocchi.On holidays, the pasta was ravioli or lasagna.Only in the case of the ravioli do I recall the pasta being made from scratch and even that on rare occasion.
In our house the standard pasts was from a box: a dried pasta. In Italy it is “pasta sciutta,” dried pasta. Dried pasta is distinctly different from fresh pasta, “pasta fresca.” While fresh pasta is made from flour and eggs, “pasta sciutta,” dried pasta, is made from hard durum wheat or semolina and water. There are no fats, no eggs. Look at the ingredients panel on your grocery store pasta: no eggs. Pasta sciutta is also the traditional pasta of Naples and Southern Italy, the ancestral home of most Italian Americans.
I don’t know why homemade pasta was not common in the older generations of my family but I can guess at two possibilities.Perhaps it was because of history and tradition. Judging from antique engravings, prepared pasta was rather common in Southern Italy, particularly in cities. It was purchased from street vendors and eaten with the hands. Then too, in America, dried pasta may simply have been a convenience,if not even an indication of prosperity. As a side note, when it come to how to eat spaghetti there are two ways. In my family, the spaghetti was always twisted around the fork against the side of the plate. In the home of one of my relatives, they twisted the spaghetti in the bowl of a large soup spoon. In my house, the soup spoon method was considered crude and peasant-like. I must also say that I have never seen a spoon used in any restaurant in Italy.So, I would say that spaghetti should be twirled on the fork against the edge of the dish.
For today’s kitchen, homemade pasta is really very easy and rather quick. I make it quite often, not just for dinner, but even for a nice lunch. The greatest time taker is the wait to allow the flour and the eggs to rest and intermingle. Making the pasta takes only a few minutes especially if you use a food processor.Rolling in an electric or hand cranked pasta machine goes quickly. Cutting is a fast and easy final step. Of course, the payoff is the end result. There is simply no equivalent. Yet, I would say this. Homemade pasta is best with delicate preparations. Use homemade pasta for shellfish or light cheese garnishes. It is also incomparable for lasagna and wide noodles like fettuccini or tagliatelli. On the other hand homemade pasta may be too delicate for heavy sauces. If you are going to do the old time Sunday dinner with heavy gravy then use dried pasta.
The trick of making fresh pasta is the balance between eggs and flour. I will say with absolute certainty that there is no precise recipe. The number of eggs to the amount of flour has far too many variables. You have to be flexible. The most generalized proportions would be about one more egg than cups of flour: three cups of flour, four eggs. But that proportion is just a guess. What kind of flour are you using? How large are the eggs? What is the moisture content of the flour and of the egg? Here you have to be sensitive to the pasta. You have to acquire a sense of what you are working with. If the pasta is too dry, you have to sprinkle in a bit or water (not another egg). If the pasta is too wet, they you have to gingerly cast a few fingers full of flour. Making homemade pasta may take a few tries before you achieve the texture and quality that you fully enjoy. Making your own pasta is like forming a relationship, it takes patience and time and careful kneading.
Homemade Pasta - Illustrated Recipe
Boil the fresh pasta in well salted water for just about five minutes, not much longer.Serve with the condiment of your choice.