Who invented pasta? As a kid, you learned it was the Italians. As a slightly older kid, you found out that it only became an “Italian thing” when Marco Polo returned from the Far East with these unusual things called “noodles”, so it was probably the Chinese that invented pasta. Maybe it was the Arab invaders who brought a pasta predecessor to The Boot during the 8th century, or the Greeks who settled in Naples before Polo was even alive. Whether Italians invented pasta or not isn’t really my point. The point is, once the nonnas got their hands on pasta, it was game over.
The world loves pasta. Even as countless other culinary fads have come and gone, our love for pasta continues unabated, and I’m not surprised. For starters, it’s economical. An average package costs about the same as an espresso in an upscale coffee bar. Pasta is also the busy cook’s best friend in the kitchen. Packaged pasta can be prepared in less than half an hour, and in the time it takes to boil water and cook the noodles, you can easily whip up a sauce.
But pasta is about more than practicality- it is a creative cook’s dream. Whether you are making fresh noodles or using dried ones, pasta can be prepared in a thousand ways, and depending on how you choose to sauce it, will easily accommodate the pickiest eater.
Recently, I got together with my friend Alyssa for a lesson in pasta. Not only is Alyssa Italian, she’s also a Red Seal chef with the uncanny ability to take simple ingredients and transform them into masterpieces. Sharing and building on old recipes is at the heart of Italian gastronomic tradition, so with that, I would like to share with you what Alyssa passed on to me.
Here are the six things you need to know to make pasta:
- Basic Fresh Pasta Dough:
For the pasta lover, making fresh noodles has its own special reward. It is lighter than dry pasta and deeply flavorful. Fresh pasta isn’t something to master in one go, but the end result is truly worthwhile. Alyssa uses a recipe from Domenica Marchetti. This particular recipe for an all-purpose egg dough is versatile, and can take on flavors from whole grain flours, herbs, or sautéed greens. It can also be shaped into a number of different styles. If you have never made pasta, take it on as a weekend cooking project. With time and practice, it may ultimately replace those boxes of dry pasta to become the foundation for weeknight meals to come. Click here for Domenica’s All-Purpose Egg Pasta Dough recipe.
- Flavoring the Dough:
Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe, you can vary the flour or add flavorings and pair them with different sauces. For example: whole grain noodles with a hearty meat sauce, saffron fettuccine with shrimp and basil and green ravioli with a ricotta filling.
- Rolling the Dough:
The rolling process can be meditative, but it also requires your attention to ensure the dough doesn’t tear, wrap or stick to itself. Invest in a pasta roller, whether a hand-cranked model or a stand mixer attachment – it doesn’t have to be fancy. You’ll quickly learn every batch is different depending on several factors, including, but not limited to, humidity, weather, the type of flour, and the size of eggs. If your pasta threatens to stick, dust both the pasta and work surface with flour. Your judgment is as important for success as the recipe.
- Shaping, Cutting and Filling:
Basic pasta dough presents many possibilities. You could cut it into tried-and-true noodles; trim it into sheets for a savory lasagna or cannelloni; use it as a base for ravioli and tortellini or form it into bow ties for farfalle. If you decide to make a filled pasta, make the filling while the dough rests. There are so many ways to fill your shapes – greens (swiss chard), cheese, meats (beef, pork), vegetables (mushrooms) – any combination you choose.
Fresh pasta is so flavorful and tender that just a drizzle of good olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan will make it shine. If you’re in the mood for something more, try a red or butter sauce with parmesan and black pepper. You can also pair your pasta with a sauce of parsley, garlic and red pepper flakes or a spicy braised broccoli rabe with ricotta salata.
- Cooking and Storing:
Unlike dry pasta, which should never be cooked past al dente, fresh pasta must be cooked through, but just barely. A few tricks, like adding the right amount of salt, preheating the sauce, and positioning pasta water carefully will yield the best plate of pappardelle or ravioli you’ve ever had. Fresh pasta can be stored in the refrigerator up to one night or frozen. Store it in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet, covered with plastic wrap, to keep it from drying out.
As I mentioned, Alyssa is a Red Seal chef and has worked in renowned restaurants such as Range Rd. and the Fairmont Hotel McDonald. She recently branched off on her own and opened Alyssa Cooks Catering Company. For more information, check out for Instagram: @alyssacookscatering.