Essentials Week highlights unexpected objects that improve our daily lives a little.
My shoulders hurt. I’m a little out of breath. I can feel a light sweat beading on my forehead. I try not to sigh loudly because my partner has a work call a few feet away. I wonder why I was so determined to have a dinner party for six when restaurants just reopened for fully vaccinated people, what the hell would have been wrong with just roasting a fucking chicken, if I already cooked something really good, and most importantly, if the dough in my hands should ever stop looking like a dusty, cracked heel in the height of summer. It’s always worked before, but there’s always a first time for everything. And then, just another spiraling anxiety loop later, the sad alien rock dough came to life, all supple and bouncy with a glow like a skincare influencer’s cheekbones. I made pie crust. Everything will be alright.
If you think that sounds exhausting, imagine the stress I feel trying to make bread – a carb-centric kitchen project with a long list of terrifying variables, working with terrifying porridge or fermented powder that’s literally alive humidity and steam from your oven. Fresh pasta is just eggs and soft 00 flour and your hands, and a brilliant machine so simple a five-year-old can operate it.
When the pandemic-induced frenzy of project prep swept through the locked-in masses, my long-held dread was not eased by boredom or the need not to think about the news. I love baking and I’m good at cookies, but I can’t stand the feeling of putting in all that effort and then dumping my hard work in an oven to be graded by those cutthroat physics and chemistry teachers. Cooking is uncertainty. Baking is a waiting game. Baking is like spending an hour writing a super casual text to your crush, then watching those three little dots to find out if you’re getting a delicious treat or a sad disappointment.
Pasta, on the other hand.
Making fresh pasta is like having a conversation in person. You can read the piece, adjust your approach. You can be precise in your measurements, zero a scale and take fractions of egg white for ideal hydration, or the wing with the basic ratio of one egg to 100 grams of flour. (This lovely formula, unlike so many baking recipes found online, pokes fun at the absurd, lumpy asymmetries of the imperial system. But it’s about 3.5 ounces, if you must.)
With pasta, I get the satisfaction of a project cook, with the casual vibe of, say, pancakes. Each step of the process gives you multiple chances to see if something is wrong and fix it. You can’t really over-knead egg pasta dough to ruthless tenacity like you can with bread or even over-mixed muffin dough; if it still doesn’t feel good, keep kneading. If it is too dry, you can add a little water. If it’s too sticky, you can dust it with more flour at any stage, from kneading to cutting into tagliatelle. When you start rolling your flattened dough through the rollers of a pasta machine, you always start at zero and go up one number at a time, no room for impatience. If you mess it up, rip a hole, or smash the edges like some kind of horrible industrial accident, you can just fold this baby up on itself and start over. You’re not laminating croissants here.
And at the end of it all, you have a dinner that literally cooks in a minute, and you’ve put in enough work that no one is judging you if you only dress it with butter and a burst of parmesan cheese. But whether I do that, or make the effort to make a quick pesto while my dough rests, or oven-roasted buttered tomato sauce, or a large pot of my family bolognese recipe for a complete lasagna from scratch, even my crappy, raggedest pasta tastes nothing short of miraculous.
I didn’t go on my pasta adventure this year a complete novice. My dad, the kind of cook who makes two old-fashioned English pork pies every Christmas and flavors the house with chicken broth on the stovetop on Sundays, bought a pasta maker when I was about 11 and died. taught me and my sisters how to feed the little patties into the machine’s sleek rollers. We took turns wielding them again and again, grabbing the elongated leaves hanging over our forearms like fine silk, and hanging them from open cupboard doors to harden them before cutting them. I did the same with my daughters-in-law earlier this year on a dented machine that had lost its handle, painstakingly turning the rollers with a pair of kitchen shears stuck in the crank hole and promising myself that I would buy finally the brilliant Marcato Atlas 150 I’d been eyeing for years.
A pasta machine may be a unit, but it’s an old-fashioned machine. There’s nothing quite like clutching a pair of pliers on the kitchen bench and turning a handle to make the thing happen rather than flipping a switch – it makes me feel as accomplished as if I made butter in a churn between my knees. And as long as you resist the siren song of motorized units, you shouldn’t shell out more than around $80, even for the Ferrari of pasta makers.
The best bread makers to make your own fresh breads at home
However, you don’t need the machine to get the full experience. Plan to unroll it by hand like an old Italian lady, and you can revel in its elemental character. You toss two eggs into a shallow volcano of flour, whip those yolks into an expanded whirlwind of shiny, creamy goodness, then spend about 10 minutes mashing dry to wet and vice versa. Crushing fat globules around tiny grains over and over again, brutally forcing transformation at the molecular level with your bare hands, instead of the cold metal hook of a fancy stand mixer. (You can totally use a stand mixer, if you want. I’m not your nonna.) I have the same patience for meditation like I do for baking, but the mix of attention, physicality and repetition that goes into kneading my pasta dough centers me.
Most of all, I love the fact that I can never quite pinpoint when this ball of dough goes from Not Together to Together. Every time I do it there’s a moment where I feel like it’s never gonna happen – and then moments later I realize it’s starting to feel springy and alive and it glows almost towards me from the counter, reflecting the light instead of absorbing it into the dull floury mass. It is, in microcosm, exactly the same as the feeling you get when you realize that you are happier now than you were a few days, weeks or months ago, that contentment or joy s has crept into you and you desperately want to go tell your old self that, yes, everything will be fine. And if not, at least you have pasta.