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In the Kitchen with Cindy Swain: Homemade pasta

Turmeric powder turns pasta a golden yellow. It’s served with roasted butternut squash, walnuts and crispy sage. (Cindy Swain)
Turmeric powder turns pasta a golden yellow. It’s served with roasted butternut squash, walnuts and crispy sage. (Cindy Swain)

It doesn’t take much – flour, eggs, a bit of salt – to make pasta. It comes together quickly, too – in about an hour.

Sure, store-bought dried pasta is faster to prepare. But there’s something special about fresh, handmade pasta. The texture is more tender, silkier and delicate. The taste, somehow sweeter and richer.

Even more special: brightening homemade noodles with natural ingredients. Beet for pink – for Valentine’s Day, perhaps? Spinach for green – for St. Patrick’s Day or maybe Christmas? Turmeric for golden yellow – for Easter or just because?

“Experimenting with natural colorings is super fun,” said food blogger Cindy Swain.

She’s been leading demonstrations and classes on pasta-making for the past two years, but has been perfecting her technique since moving to Italy in 2009.

This month, she’s back in the States to host a dozen pasta demos – from Coeur d’Alene to British Columbia. In March, she has 17 more scheduled in Chicago and New York City.

“What I love most about the pasta demonstrations is to promote making homemade pasta in general with whatever tools you have in your kitchen – rolling pin, knife, stand mixer or hand rollers,” said Swain, who turns 34 in February and runs the Italicana Kitchen food blog.

She lives in Correggio, a small town in the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s near Bologna, known for lasagna and meat sauce, as well as Modena, known for balsamic vinegars, and Parma, known for prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Before moving to Italy, where she’s appeared on culinary TV shows as well as radio programs, Swain said she thought making fresh pasta – brightly colored or plain – would be way too difficult. Now, she said, she knows better. While making pasta from scratch seems intimidating, especially at first, it’s fairly easy, and fresh pasta, she said, is worth the effort.

The Davenport native learned to make fresh pasta from Italian friends and, later, her Italian mother-in-law. Finely milled, high-protein Italian “00” flour lends itself to super silky noodles. But all-purpose flour works OK, too.

Purees, spices and other natural ingredients can be used to color the dough. Squid ink for black. Purple potatoes for blue. Saffron for yellow. Tomato paste, roasted red peppers, butternut squash, pumpkin or carrots for yellow-orange. Chocolate for brown. Chopped fresh herbs for a speckled look.

Swain recommends making fresh pasta a few times without coloring to get a feel for the dough, which starts out shaggy and sticky. Starch and protein mix with water – there’s nearly 41 grams of water in a raw egg – to form the tough gluten needed to make great pasta.

The moisture content of vegetables used for coloring will vary. But pasta dough is relatively forgiving. If the dough is crumbly and not coming together in a ball, add 1 tablespoon of water at a time. If the dough seems sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time.

Whatever you do, you must give it rest. Resting the dough helps the gluten network to relax, making the dough easier to roll and producing a smoother, creamier noodle.

Rest the dough at least a half hour. An hour would be even better. Use that time to prepare pasta sauce or other pasta toppings.

Once cut , fresh pasta cooks rapidly in a large pot of boiling water.

Fresh Beet Pasta with Beet Sauce Topped with Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Goat Cheese and Toasted Pine Nuts

From Cindy Swain of Italicana Kitchen

For roasting:

1 pound red beets, medium size

Extra virgin olive oil, as needed

Coarse salt, as needed

30 Brussels sprouts, thinly sliced

For dough:

3 large eggs, beaten

4 tablespoons cooked beet puree

3 cups (or 14 ounces or 400 grams) all-purpose or Italian “00” flour, plus more for rolling out

2 pinches salt

For serving:

6 tablespoons butter

2 pinches of fine salt

1 (4-ounce) goat cheese log, crumbled

2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Roast: Trim beet leaves and stems. Wash and scrub beets, but leave skin on. Place each beet on a square of aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Wrap each beet like a package and place in a shallow baking dish or on a cookie sheet. Bake 1 hour.

Cut off the hard end of Brussels sprouts and discard. Finely slice the rest and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake on another rack in the 400-degree oven, 10-15 minutes.

Make puree: Remove beets from oven and let cool, then peel skin, roughly chop and add beets to food processor or use an immersion mixer to blend into a puree.

Make dough: Add eggs and 4 tablespoons beet puree to a mixing bowl and blend with a hand-held immersion blender for about 10 seconds or until homogeneous. Attach dough hook to stand mixer and add flour, salt and egg-puree mixture. Mix on low for 3-5 minutes until the dough comes together as a ball. Wrap with plastic wrap and let rest 30 minutes.

Attach pasta roller accessory to stand mixer. Divide dough into 4 pieces, press into flat rectangles and flour each side. Pass one piece through machine on low speed on thickest setting. Fold ends toward each other and pass through again. Continue to pass dough through, reducing setting each time until reaching thinnest setting.

Let pasta sheets dry 10 minutes on floured work space. Attach fettuccine accessory and run one sheet through on low speed. Continue with the rest. Flour fettuccine ribbons well so they don’t stick together.

Cook pasta: Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water. Add fresh pasta and cook al dente, 1-3 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water and drain.

Finish sauce: Add butter to a large skillet. Brown butter over high heat, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium and add pureed beets and mix until combined. Remove from heat and add pasta. Stir until coated, adding pasta water to thin sauce, if needed.

To serve: Divide pasta onto 4-6 plates, and top with roasted Brussels sprouts, crumbled goat cheese and toasted pine nuts. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Note: To save time, you can use pre-cooked, store-bought beets and skip the roasting step.

Spinach Pasta with Kale Pesto, Leeks and Toasted Almonds

From Cindy Swain of Italicana Kitchen

For dough:

4 large eggs

1.4 ounces (40 grams) spinach

3 cups all-purpose or “00” flour, plus more for rolling out

2 pinches salt

For pesto:

1 cup olive oil, plus more if needed to arrive at the desired consistency

3 cups torn Tuscan kale leaves (no stems)

1/2 clove garlic, skin removed

1/3 cup almonds, chopped and toasted

1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

Salt and black pepper, to taste

For toppings:

1 leek, white part only, julienned

1 garlic clove, skin removed but left whole

1/2 cup almonds, roughly chopped

Make dough: Add eggs and spinach to a mixing bowl and blend with a handheld immersion blender for about 10 seconds or until homogeneous. Follow dough-making and pasta-cooking instructions in the previous recipe.

Make pesto: Place all pesto ingredients in a blender, making sure to add olive oil first. Blend until smooth, adding more olive oil if needed. Season with salt and black pepper, to taste.

For topping and serving: Add 2 to 4 tablespoons of water to a medium skillet. Add leeks and garlic. Cook over medium heat until soft and water has evaporated, 6-8 minutes.

Add pesto to a large skillet along with 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Heat until simmering. Add pasta to skillet and toss to coat. Divide pasta on plates and top with leeks, toasted almonds and additional Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, if desired. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Turmeric Pasta with Roasted Butternut Squash, Walnuts and Crispy Sage

From Cindy Swain of Italicana Kitchen

For dough:

3 cups all-purpose or “00” flour, plus more for rolling out

2 pinches salt

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

4 large eggs

For sauce and toppings:

2.5 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed and cubed (pumpkin or Kabocha squash would work, too)

1 to 1 1/ 2 cups water

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 pinches salt

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped and toasted

10 sage leaves, sliced into ribbons

Salt and black pepper, to taste

For dough: Attach dough hook to stand mixer and add flour, salt, eggs and turmeric. Follow dough-making and pasta-cooking instructions in the first recipe.

For sauce and toppings: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread squash on baking sheet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 2 pinches of salt. Bake for 20 minutes or until soft. Reserve half of the roasted squash for garnish and put the rest in a blender or food processor. Pour in 1 cup of water. Blend until smooth.

Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a small skillet. Cook sage ribbons over medium heat until crispy, about 3-4 minutes. Set aside.

Add squash puree to a skillet along with enough cooking water to arrive at a thick-sauce consistency. Heat over medium heat until warm, then add pasta. Toss to coat. Divide pasta on plates and top with reserved roasted squash pieces, toasted walnuts, crispy sage ribbons, extra Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a swirl of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Homemade Pasta Do’s and Don’ts

From Cindy Swain of Italicana Kitchen

Do

Use large, fresh eggs. To check if your eggs are fresh, place an egg in a bowl of water. If the egg lays on its side on the bottom, it’s at its freshest state. If it floats, it’s past its prime. Large eggs weigh approximately 2.3 ounces or 65 grams each. The total weight of eggs you want for pasta for 4 servings is 260 grams. (For natural colorings with a high liquid content such as purees, pesto, squid ink, remove 1 egg from the pasta recipe.)

Knead dough until elastic and smooth. The end result should allow you to leave an imprint of your finger that bounces back without the dough sticking to your finger.

Be flexible with measurements. Each flour absorbs liquid differently. Absorption depends on flour type and brand, storage, age, how it’s milled, and more.

Generously flour workspace. This helps keep pasta from sticking to the surface or clumping together.

Let pasta sheets dry 10 minutes before cutting them. They will cut more easily and without sticking together.

Plate like a pro. Use tongs to grab pasta that’s been mixed with sauce. Twirl pasta inside soup ladle, then gently slide it onto a plate to create a nest, then garnish.

Don’t

Forget to reduce thickness with each pass through of the pasta roller. But leave speed on low.

Forget salt. Add 2 tablespoons of coarse salt to a large pot of boiling water per 1 pound of pasta.

Discard cooking water. Reserve 1/4 to 1/2 cup to add to the sauce. The starch will help bind the sauce to the pasta.

Rinse cooked pasta. It cools the pasta and removes the starch.

Save it for later

By Cindy Swain of Italicana Kitchen

1-2 days in advance: Let freshly cut noodles dry for 10 minutes, then wrap about 10 strands around your hand like you would an electrical cord and slide them onto a plate lined with a floured dishtowel or parchment paper. Repeat, but don’t stack these little clusters of pasta called “nidi” or “nests.” Store, covered, in refrigerator.

Freeze: Place nests on a plate in a single layer and put in freezer for 30 minutes. Stack nests in zip-top freezer bags. Consume within 2-3 months. Note: Frozen pasta does not need to be thawed before it is cooked.

Dry: Allow nests to dry completely at room temperature for 2-3 days. Flip over nests 2-3 times per day to make sure air can reach all parts of the pasta. Store in plastic bags in a cool, dark place. Consume within 4-5 months.


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