Nothing says “comfort” to me like a big plate of pasta with butter, salt, pepper, and a bit of grated Parmesan cheese. Unless it's pasta with alfredo sauce. Or fresh tomato sauce. Or maybe pasta with fresh spinach and tomatoes, with a few hunks of mozzarella cheese just barely melting on top.
OK, I confess all pasta is comfort food to me and my family. Like most folks, I used to use boxed pasta, and probably overcooked it 90% of the time; but it still tasted good to us.
Several years ago I purchased a pasta machine, and tried my hand at fresh pasta. This was long before I came to King Arthur and my cooking skills were, ummm, still “developing,” if you will. (Ask my husband about the infamous “fried stew beef with honey glaze” incident.)
While I'm sure the fresh pasta recipe wasn't too complicated, it seemed to take an entire day to make, and I just couldn't find a way to work it into my schedule. So the machine was banished to the basement as yard sale fodder. I eventually gave it to my daughter, Shannon, to use with polymer clay; and the machine now lives in my studio. For awhile it seemed to mock me each time I went near it, but I refused to listen. Pasta was just too hard to make by hand.
Fast forward to last summer, when I was lucky enough to assist at on of King Arthur's baking classes on pasta-making. According to the schedule, we would be making pasta in two shapes, with two sauces, all in 4 hours. “At last!” I thought. “Someone is going to show me how to do this right.” So, thank you Rosemary, our wonderful pasta teacher, for opening my eyes to the ease and joy of fresh pasta.
The recipe for Homemade Pasta with Sage Butter couldn't be more basic: just flour and eggs. And while having a pasta machine makes the process easier, the whole process can be done by hand in under 2 hours, making this a perfect dish for a winter's day. Shall we begin, gentle reader?
I would have to say making pasta in a bowl is the neater way, but I rarely use a bowl. If you choose the bowl method, place the flour in the bowl, and make a “well” in the center.
If you're feeling brave, pile your flour on the counter and make a well in the center. Enlarge the well evenly all around. You need a wide enough hole to hold 4 eggs, and thick enough walls to hold it all in. Try to make the walls as even as possible. See where my left wall is too thick?
Just in case, I like to keep 2 dough scrapers handy, to quickly stem any possible leaks.
Much better. Even walls means less chance of a fatal breech.
Crack your eggs directly into the well. Scramble them a bit with your fingers or a fork.
Soon, your walls will be quite thin and your dough will be thickening in the well. Should the wall break now, just grab your scraper and mix the dough together with the rest of the flour.
Working quickly, pull larger amounts of flour to the center until a loose, wet dough forms.
Begin kneading the dough as you would bread dough. It'll still be wet, but keep on kneading in the flour left on the counter.
Soon your fingers will be covered with little bits of dough. DON'T wash this off. Pull it off and work it back into the main dough. There's quite a bit of egg there that you don't want to lose.
Continue to fold and knead the dough. You may not use every bit of flour, or you may need a little additional flour. You're shooting for a medium-firm dough, one that's not dry or crusty to the touch.
After about 8 to 10 minutes kneading, you'll have a smooth, springy dough. It won't be as supple and elastic as bread dough, but should feel slightly moist to the touch. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
One VERY important caveat of serving fresh pasta is that it takes just 2 to 3 minutes to cook in boiling water, so your topping/sauce of choice must be ready to go when the pasta is done. Fresh pasta waits for no one! Place 1 stick of butter in a sauté pan, and place over low heat. For the brown butter sage sauce, you're looking to slowly cook the milk solids in the butter until they turn a rich shade of brown, and develop a lovely, nutty flavor.
Now, I know y'all are going to ask. But absolutely not, dried sage just won't work for this recipe. Do go for the fresh sage, it's worth the effort for the end result. You should be able to find fresh sage in your supermarket, in the produce section.
Pull off several fresh leaves, leaving the stems behind.
Stacking the leaves as best you can, mince the sage to 1/4” or smaller pieces. Set aside.
Time to set up the pasta machine. Most simple machines clamp to the countertop with a C-clamp style device.
After its 30-minute rest, the dough will have hydrated and absorbed all the egg. It should feel smooth, soft, and pliable. Divide into 4 equal pieces. Cover up 3 of the pieces so they don't dry out and develop a crust as you work with the first piece.
Using fresh flour on your counter, lightly dip the dough piece, and work it into a rough rectangle. Set the pasta machine to its widest setting.
The premise of the machine is to stretch and flatten the dough into thin sheets. To begin the process, you want to roll the dough through the widest setting 6 times, folding the piece over onto itself between each roll. (If you're not using a machine, roll the dough with a rolling pin as you would pie dough. Stop every few minutes and let the gluten relax; the dough will roll into thin sheets more easily)
See the difference? The pudgy piece of dough on the left is the “before,” the flat piece is after 6 roll/folds.
Dial the machine to the next setting down. You'll only roll through this and the successive settings once. Only the first, largest setting gets multiple passes. Continue to roll and dial until you've reached the next-to-last smallest setting. This is perfect for wide noodles. The thinnest setting is best for ravioli, etc., which is another blog post altogether.
Wow! Check out how different the same dough looks now. Once you've rolled the pasta into sheets, let those sheets rest and firm up for about 10 to 15 minutes. This will help the pasta pass through the cutting blades evenly. Lightly flouring the sheets will help in the drying process, too.
*Now is a good time to set your pasta water on the stove and bring it to a rolling boil. Use a large stockpot with about 3-4 quarts of water. Remember, you need to check your butter on the stovetop too!
For this dish, use the wider setting on your pasta machine cutting attachment, most like linguine-sized noodles. This size will hold the sauce and sage bits better than a smaller sized noodle.
Gently feed the end of one pasta sheet into the blades.
As you turn the handle, the blades will cut the large sheet into separate noodles. If the pasta is still a little moist, you may need to finish separating the individual noodles by hand, but this is very easy to do.
TA-DA! A beautiful pile of fresh noodles! Loosely "nest" the bundle and leave it to dry as you cut the rest of the pasta sheets.
By now, your pasta water should be nearing the boil. Remember, your pasta has no salt added to the dough so you will need to salt the pasta water fairly heavily to season the pasta. I use about 1/2 a palmful, or 1 1/2 tablespoons. Add the pasta to the water and quickly put together the sauce.
Your butter should now be a lovely brown color, with bits of solids in the bottom of the pan. Quickly add all of the sage. It will sizzle and pop a bit, but that is normal. Normally, this is when you would call the family to dinner, but the delicious scent of sage will draw them to the kitchen without a word from you!
The pasta will cook very quickly, 2-3 minutes at most. Carefully test a piece for doneness. You are looking for tenderness, with just a slight bit of toothiness in the very center. This is the famous al dente or "to the tooth" texture. Drain the pasta well, but do not rinse.
Check out the close up of the sage butter. Lovely sizzled bits of sage, browned milk solids, and rich buttery flavor.
To serve the pasta, make a small nest of the pasta and spoon the sage sauce over, being sure to get plenty of the sizzled bits. A side salad of mixed greens is a perfect side to this dish and of course fresh baked bread to mop up any leftover sauce. Buon appetito!