In 1978, at a tag sale in New Canaan, Connecticut, held in a beautiful house with an extraordinarily well-equipped kitchen, I purchased my first pasta machine. It was a small, steel, manually operated Atlas machine, the type that clamped onto a breadboard or the edge of a counter. It came in a cardboard box and had a roller for broad noodles -- about six inches wide -- and two cutters: one for fettuccine and one for spaghetti. I clearly remember the most important instruction, which was printed both on the box and inside on the sheet of directions: Do not wash. I immediately started rolling and cutting fresh pasta.
In those days, there was nowhere in Westport, where I lived, to buy freshly made pasta. In New York City, in the mid-1970s, Henry Lambert opened the first Pasta and Cheese shops and began popularizing fresh-pasta counters. These wonderful stores were crowded with customers eager to buy something freshly made right then and there to take home to transform into what was fast becoming everyone's favorite food -- pasta. And it was called pasta, not spaghetti.
In the grocery stores, there were three or four brands of spaghetti and broad lasagna noodles, all dried and boxed. There were also several types of sauced and canned spaghetti. We tried to like those as convenient snacks for children, but they were sorely lacking in texture, flavor, and interest.
Fresh pasta was a revelation -- tender and delicate, but flavorful and firm to the tooth. I remember going to an innovative restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan where one could sit at a counter and watch the chefs kneading dough, rolling and cutting pasta, and making plump ravioli, cannelloni, and generously high lasagna. Pasta was even better when made with your own flour and eggs, and making it at home soon became all the rage.
Then came the Dean and DeLuca stores and scores of other gourmet shops and even supermarkets that produced and provided the fresh pastas everyone craved. In Norwalk, Connecticut, Joe Bruno launched the now legendary Pasta Nostra, and his pasta machine was busy every weekday morning. It still is. And Hay Day opened, heralding yet another source for colored, flavorful fresh pastas.
My favorite flavors in those days were red pepper, yellow pepper, and beet. A restaurant named Barocco, reviewed in 1986 by the New York Times, served oversize spinach ravioli, dark-red beet pasta, and black squid-ink pasta. It soon became a favorite. Many other restaurants, among them Le Cirque, Le Madri, and Sette Mezzo, followed suit, concocting carrot, whole wheat, and other varieties, each more delicious than the last.
With these flavored pastas came more inventive sauces, such as pesto, brown butter with sage, anchovy with capers, and even bottarga with breadcrumbs and parsley, and caviar with lemon and creme fraiche. A true food revolution had occurred. It continues today, with Mario Batali updating traditional pastas. At Felidia, Lidia Bastianich constantly reinvents pastas from her homeland, as does Cesare Casella at Maremma.
Now, enough of American pasta history as I remember it, and back to the subject at hand: Why bother making fresh pasta when one can buy it? Well, for several reasons -- it is easier than you think, faster than you can imagine, and fun for you and your family. Looking at the versions I've created in my Bedford kitchen, it is easy to conjure big platters of steaming, colorful pastas, simply dressed, that will send you into pasta heaven.
By using a food processor and a pasta-making attachment for a standing mixer, the making of the dough and the cutting of the pasta become remarkably simple. The addition of vegetable purees colors and flavors the dough. I have added salt to the various doughs, finding that it is necessary for illuminating the vegetable flavors. Once rolled and cut, the long strips of dough can be slightly dried on a wooden rack, or even a broomstick or a dowel resting on the backs of two chairs.
The recipes are all excellent, and I cannot urge you enough to get out your old Atlas or Imperia machine, or your new electric version, and start to roll and cut. It is definitely worth it.
Fresh Beet Pasta Dough
Fresh Carrot Pasta Dough
Fresh Spinach Pasta Dough
Fresh Red-Pepper Pasta Dough
Carrot Farfalle with Lemon and Herbs
Individual Mushroom Lasagnas with Crispy Breadcrumbs
Beet Ravioli Stuffed with Ricotta, Goat Cheese, and Mint
Perfecting Pasta Dough
Before making any of the colorful pasta doughs, be sure to clear ample counter space for kneading, laying, and cutting the dough. Each of these pasta doughs comes together easily in a food processor. This ensures that the vegetable puree is distributed evenly throughout the dough.
1. Combine pureed vegetables and other ingredients in a food processor.
2. Pulse until the ingredients just begin to come together and cling to the side of the bowl. Be careful not to overprocess.
3. Generously dust the work surface with flour. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball that springs back lightly when touched. Sprinkle the dough with additional flour if necessary to prevent sticking. Divide dough into portions and cover with an inverted bowl.
4. Working with one portion at a time, feed the dough into the machine in one continuous, fluid motion, supporting both ends of the sheet with your palms to keep it flat. Pass the sheet of dough through the various settings until it is smooth and almost transparent.
5. To make strands of pasta, such as linguine, transfer freshly rolled sheets directly to a rack to dry slightly, then cut. Hang the strands briefly to dry. To make ravioli, place sheets on a lightly floured work surface. Cut each freshly rolled pasta sheet crosswise into two strips of equal length. Drop spoonfuls of filling along the center of one strip, spacing the mounds 3 1/2 inches apart. Top with the second strip and gently press the pasta around the filling, gradually working your way to the edge to seal. This forces out any air, which may result in the ravioli bursting during cooking. If the dough isn't moist enough to adhere, lightly brush the edges with water and press again.
6. Cut the filled dough into squares, using a pastry cutter or a knife and a ruler.
Making fresh pasta dough requires little effort when you have the right tools. In addition to a food processor and a pasta roller, it's helpful to designate a soft brush as your "dry" brush, using it only for dusting excess flour off pasta or pastry (be sure this brush hasn't previously been used with oil or butter). A pastry cutter cuts out shapes quickly, but a knife and ruler will also do the trick. For ribbon pastas, you will need a drying rack, such as the converted laundry rack used by Martha.