Weekend Project

Weekend Project: How to Master Homemade Pasta

I have gluten potential, and so can you thanks to expert Katie Parla.

orecchiette pasta homemade in a bowl
Photo: Storytravelers/Flickr; Illustration: Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

The only time anyone would ask me to write about food is during a time of rampant amateurism and no restaurants. I'm someone who lives in New York partly because it is a place where being an unskilled and unambitious cook is a kind of virtue. I can make pasta with Rao’s in the privacy of my home or spend an inappropriate percentage of my income on a meal out without compromising my integrity in the eyes of my friends. Being even a mildly good cook in New York has always seemed to me an overachievement, the definition of “above and beyond.” When someone feeds me a good home-cooked meal here, I think, “What did I do to deserve this?” Then I think, “Should we go out after this?”  

In quarantine, I must join the ranks of those who use their kitchens. I'm lucky enough to not have to leave my apartment right now, and I’ve been staring at the stove as if it were my new boss, inviting me to impress it, threatening to make cutbacks if I make a frozen pizza again. It looks at me and asks, “Can you do anything?” I try to reason with it: “I know I might not be what you were imagining, but I’m open, I’m available, and I’m ready to learn.”

I figure, if I'm going to be embracing the blessings of domesticity and home-cooked goodness, a good place to start is with the Italians, and I’m determined to make good pasta from scratch. In an era of gluten intolerance, I remain a gluten zealot. I’ve made pasta from scratch a handful of times for a family ravioli recipe, but I’ve never had the time to really up my game. In the before-quar days, when I was but a naive and thoughtless youth, I was making my way through the Stanley Tucci cookbook, but I admittedly used most of that time as an excuse to drink red wine and look at the pictures of Tucci in chambray using his backyard pizza oven, while my partner did most of the actual cooking. My food prep has historically been a little abstract, more “Could play a cook on TV” than “Could cook a meal in real life.” 

On the first day of quarantine, I panic-bought a giant bag of Idaho potatoes, because nothing really prepares you to buy food for a lockdown and all I could think about was the Irish Potato Famine. This kind of fanciful, associative decision-making might round out your understanding of why I’m not the most intuitive chef. Staring at the potatoes on my counter, I dreamt of the gnocchi I would make with my own personal American Potato Surplus. I dreamt of moving upstate and starting the first Hudson Valley Gnocchi Barn, where I would serve only gnocchi, paired with my take on the quarantine martini: vodka and pickle juice from a jar of kosher dill spears because I ran out of vermouth.

In learning more about the gnocchi game, I found that I was out of my depth. When I spoke to Katie Parla, an Italian cuisine and beverage expert who has been living in Rome since 2003 and has authored, edited, or contributed to over 30 books on the subject, she told me, “Gnocchi is almost always bad, even in the home of potato gnocchi, which is Rome.” My throat dried as I eyed my potatoes. “Good on you for trying gnocchi,” she said, generously, and that’s when I became sure that I would not be trying gnocchi.

I decided instead to start with some basic at-home pasta dough. Parla told me that using a flour and water dough to experiment with making different “stubby pastas” is a good way to build confidence as a novice. I immediately identified with the phrase “stubby pasta” and felt heartened. She also told me that people think pasta dough must be intuitive, since we associate it with the warmth and emotionality of Italian home-cooking, but that it's actually a real science. I haven’t thought about science since high school physics, and to be honest, I barely thought about it then, but I was ready to try again, especially if there was a bowl of orecchiette on the other side.

I assumed that when Parla said “flour” she didn’t mean Pillsbury, so I had to brave the outdoors and wait in a long social distance line, 6 feet away from several 23-year-old couples in matching bucket hats waiting to buy a single cold brew from the specialty market, so that I could buy some semolina flour and burrata for the sauce. It was almost enough to get me to turn back and make a frozen pizza, but I persisted.

When I returned home, I was excited to make the dough. Flour and water dough, Parla told me, has particularly good “gluten potential” and strength, which makes it perfect for tight, short pasta shapes. I could not help but feel that I myself had some gluten potential and I tried to harness that when I set to work kneading. With the kneading, I finally understood the part I was playing: someone with skillful, confident arms. All of the words that seemed so mysterious on the page became meaningful in my hands. Suddenly I knew exactly what it means for the dough to feel “shaggy," how to make it “tacky” but not “sticky.” Once the dough was ready, I was able to do some stubby sculpturing to make the orecchiette. The stubby pastas became my stubby children, each one of them special and stubby in their own way. 

This process requires a little patience, a virtue that's antithetical to what I typically love about pasta. I usually turn to pasta for its convenience and simplicity, but in my new indoor life, I’m craving a little more complexity. If, like me, you've been resorting to pasta more often than not, but you're looking for a way to treat yourself, I recommend making your own. You might have some gluten potential.

From Katie Parla’s Food of the Italian South

Orecchiette, Raschiatelli, e Cicatielli

Makes about 1 ⅓ pounds

3 ½ cups (400 grams) farina di semola (semolina flour), plus more as needed
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
Semolina, for dusting

Note: The raw, unshaped dough can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 week; it does not freeze well. Shaped pasta can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for up to 1 week. 

Pour the flour onto a work surface and make a fist-size well in the middle. Add the water, then mix with a fork, working from the edges of the well into the center, gradually incorporating it into the flour to form a shaggy dough. The dough should feel tacky but not sticky. If the dough sticks to your fingers, add 2 tablespoons more flour.

Knead the dough energetically until it is a smooth, compact mass, 10 to 12 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before shaping.

To make all shapes, flatten the dough into a disc about ½ inch thick. Cut off a strip of dough about ½ inch wide, then follow the shaping instructions of your choice below.

To shape orecchiette: Roll the dough into a long strand about ¼ inch thick by pressing down on the dough with your fingertips in a back-and-forth motion. Press a knife into the edge of the strand and use it to drag the dough across the work surface, forming a roughly ¾ inch circular curled-up pasta shape. Set aside on a plate dusted with semolina. Repeat with the remaining dough. 

To shape raschiatelli: Roll the dough into a long strand about ¼ inch thick by pressing down on the dough with your fingertips in a back-and-forth motion. Cut the strand into ½-inch pieces. Using your index, middle, and ring fingers, press into the far edge of each pasta piece while pressing down on the dough and rolling it toward you, dragging it along the work surface to form an irregular curled pasta shape. Set aside on a plate dusted with semolina. Repeat with remaining dough. 

To shape cicatielli: Roll the dough into a long strand about ¼ inch thick by pressing down on the dough with your fingertips in a back-and-forth motion. Cut the strand into 1-inch pieces. Using the end of a knife, gently press into the middle of each pasta piece while pressing down slightly and rolling it toward you to form a curled pasta tube. Set aside on a plate dusted with semolina. Repeat with remaining dough. 

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Heavily salt the water. When the salt has dissolved, add the pasta and cook until the raw bite is gone, about 3 minutes. Serve with the condiment of your choosing.

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Ned Riseley is a New York-based writer and performer.