Last month, I was cleaning photos off on my old hard drive and discovered a glaring oversight on my food blogging part: I had never told you about one of my proudest kitchen triumphs to date, mastering the pasta nest!
By “pasta nest” I mean the method of creating a well inside a mound of flour, placing several egg yolks in the center and creating pasta dough with your fingertips alone. Why is this process so intimidating? Don’t countless cooks all over Italy do precisely this every single day without fail? Clearly, they have never read Jeffrey Steingarten, who I alone blame for my fear of The Nest.
“… I ran into a problem,” Steingarten writes in The Man Who Ate Everything.
As I began to incorporate flour from the crater’s inner wall, a wavelet of egg slashed over the top, causing a serious erosion problem, and when I nimble scooped up a handful of flour and from the stable side of the mound and used it to stanch the flow, the crate collapsed. A torrent of egg yolks, now thick with flour and cornmeal, surged across the table, carried a pile of chopped garlic, and like molten lava rolling over a Hawaiin housing development, leaving death and destruction in its wake, headed toward my handwritten notes. As I snatched away the notebook, the flood plunged on, lifting two rosemary branches as though they were matchsticks and cascading over the edge of the table and into an open silverware drawer…
It gets worse from there as he does not wash the silverware immediately, and it takes on “the feel of industrial-grade sandpaper” and you can see why, as another home cook in a tiny New York City kitchen, I couldn’t imagine my pasta nest experience being any less of a disaster.
My single counter is tiny, has not just a drawer with every cooking utensil I own beneath it but two open shelves with assorted stuff that fits nowhere else and a cabinet with serving platters, food processor and KitchenAid parts, measuring spoons and, ironically, my pasta maker and the thought of scrubbing a yolk-flour crust from each of these objects kept me from trying this method for the five years between the time I first read Steingarten’s story and, well, three and half months ago, when I was working on the agnolotti recipe in my dumplings article for NPR.
It was the fantastic amount of detail in Thomas Keller’s recipe from the French Laundry Cookbook that drew me in; sure, it is a lot of instruction but it also explains exactly how to keep it from going horribly awry, little details like creating a large enough well, pulling in only the smallest amount of flour at a time and kneading the dough even longer than one. Even better, it works. Thirty minutes later I had the most shiny, elastic, sunny round of pasta dough that has yet to grace the smitten kitchen and now it is the only way I will make it. And really, if it has been working for Italian cooks for hundreds of years, why not us?
Question: What are you most the most scared to cook?
One year ago: Sour Cream Bran Muffins
Seven-Yolk Pasta Dough
Adapted from French Laundry Cookbook
1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
6 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon milk
Mound flour on a board or other surface and create a well in the center, pushing the flour to all sides to make a ring with sides about 1-inch wide. Make sure that the well is wide enough to hold all the eggs without spilling.
Pour the egg yolks, egg, oil and milk into the well. Use your fingers to break the eggs up. Still using your fingers, begin turning the eggs in a circular motion, keeping them within the well and not allowing them to spill over the sides. This circular motion allows the eggs to gradually pull in flour from the sides of the well; it is important that the flour not be incorporated too rapidly, or dough will be lumpy. Keep moving the eggs while slowly incorporating the flour. Using a pastry scraper, occasionally push the flour toward the eggs; the flour should be moved only enough to maintain the gradual incorporation of the flour, and the eggs should continue to be contained within the well. The mixture will thicken and eventually get too tight to keep turning with your fingers.
When the dough begins thickening and starts lifting itself from the board, begin incorporating the remaining flour with the pastry scraper by lifting the flour up and over the dough that’s beginning to form and cutting it into the dough. When the remaining flour from the sides of the well has been cut into the dough, the dough will still look shaggy. Bring the dough together with the palms of your hands and form it into a ball. It will look flaky but will hold together.
Knead the dough by pressing it, bit by bit, in a forward motion with the heels of your hands rather than folding it over on itself as you would with a bread dough. Re-form the dough into a ball and repeat the process several times. The dough should feel moist but not sticky. Let the dough rest for a few minutes while you clean the work surface.
Dust the clean work surface with a little flour. Knead the dough by pushing against it in a forward motion with the heels of your hands. Form the dough into a ball again and knead it again. Keep kneading in this forward motion until the dough becomes silky smooth. The dough is ready when you can pull your finger through it and the dough wants to snap back into place. The kneading process can take from 10 to 15 minutes.
Even if you think you are finished kneading, knead it for an extra 10 minutes; you cannot overknead this dough. It is important to work the dough long enough to pass the pull test; otherwise, when it rests, it will collapse.
Double-wrap the dough in plastic wrap to ensure that it does not dry out. Let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour before rolling it through a pasta machine. The dough can be made a day ahead, wrapped and refrigerated; bring to room temperature before proceeding.
Once you’ve triumphed over your seven-yolk pasta dough, here are some ideas of what to cook with it: