homemade pasta

September 29, 2011

“Everything you see I owe to pasta.” Sophia Loren.

There is something very satisfying about making pasta. I’m not going to bang on about it being good for the soul, apart from the fact that it is, or that it will save you money, because I’m not so sure it does. And I’ve no idea whether it’s a healthy option, although the little bit of physical involved can’t do you any harm. It’s simply delicious, which in my book is the right reason for making any food.

Like most things, the quality of the ingredients you use is most important. Do use good quality, unbleached strong bread flour or Italian double O. And do use good, fresh free-range eggs. That’s it. And having a pasta making machine like the ‘Imperia’ will save you a great deal of laborious rolling pin work. They are about £40.00 or so and are built to last.

So, to get started, the required ingredients are:

500 grams of strong bread flour or Italian double ‘O’

3 medium free-range eggs

8 medium free-range egg yolks

Salt (about a teaspoon)

Weigh out the flour into a large bowl and add the salt. Make a well in the middle and break the eggs into the flour. (The reserved egg whites can go on to make meringues.) Now blend the eggs and flour together with a fork until stiff enough to work with your hands, kneading the dough into a firm ball. You can adjust the firmness with either flour or a little egg white until you feel it’s right. Now wrap it in some cling film and place in the fridge for a couple of hours or so. This will allow the dough to rest and ensure that the flour has absorbed the eggs.

Okay, you can now divide the dough into four, shape each piece into a rectangle about a centimetre or so thick, and start putting it through the pasta machine at its widest setting. Don’t worry if it crumbles a bit, as you keep working it will come together. Now double it over and run it through again. Do this several times, lightly flouring as you go, until the dough is quite springy, smooth and elastic. Then begin to narrow the roller settings, rolling and doubling a couple of times as you go until you get down to the required thickness, and I’d say as a general rule you’d want the thinnest setting for pasta like ravioli and tortellini that are doubled over, and maybe one notch thicker for tagliatelle or lasagne. But you might disagree, which is fine.

Lay the first sheet of pasta onto a floured surface, and start the next one. Pile them up making sure you sprinkle flour or fine semolina between the layers, or they’ll stick together. Now you can start thinking about what type of pasta you’ll be making: lasagne, tagliatelle, pappardelle, tortellini or ravioli.


Another consideration is storage, because, unless you’re expecting the village cricket team round for lunch, you’ve probably made more than you need. There are basically two approaches to the storage issue: drying and freezing. And in truth I think that most pasta benefits from a certain amount of drying (or call it resting). Cooking straight from fresh means a fast cook, and therefore very little salt is taken up from the water, and also it can sometimes have a slightly slimy feel caused by excess flour left on the pasta. Drying helps the flour to be taken into the pasta, and it also needs a few minutes more cooking, thereby allowing extra salt in to help bring out the flavour.

One type that I personally think benefits from cooking fresh is lasagne, and this is simply because I find that dried sheets suck out the moisture from the sauce leaving you with a solid slab of pie. The fresh sheets won’t do this so your lasagne al forno remains good and sloppy. Lasagne sheets freeze well. Cut the sheets to size and pack in small quantities with a little flour rubbed between each sheet, and place in plastic bags in the freezer.


Pasta in strips like tagliatelle and pappardelle dry really well. To cut them, take your sheets at about 50cm long, (What’s that in old money? About 20 inches) fold them over at about 7½ cm (3 inch) intervals, then cut through them to between ½ and 1 cm wide (about ¼ inch) for tagliatelle and about 2 cm (¾ inch) for pappardelle. You can use the pasta machine’s cutters to make the tagliatelle, but you may find that they are a bit uniform. Again, make sure they are still floured or they will stick and drive you bonkers. Now hang them over something like a clotheshorse, or coat hanger for 24 to 36 hours in a dry place. Check their dryness by crunching them. If they’re brittle and crumbly they’re dry. You can also buy pasta drying racks from a number of outlets. When they are thoroughly dry pack them in airtight containers and they’ll keep for up to three months.

Ravioli and tortellini can be stored, covered, for a few hours in the fridge before use, being careful to dust with some fine semolina or flour to avoid sticking. This will have the effect of partially drying them and also allowing them to rest. These pasta varieties will freeze well if there is no cheese in the filling. But you can, of course, cut the shapes, freeze them and make up with the filling at a later date.


Use sheets rolled to the thinnest setting on the pasta machine, as you will be doubling their thickness when you make them up. Cut discs from the sheet with a pastry cutter (you can get them with nice wiggly edges) about 7½ cm (3 inches) in diameter. Run the remaining pasta back through the pasta machine and cut more discs until it’s more or less finished.

Okay, now place a teaspoonful or so of your filling (I like to use spinach and ricotta) in the centre of one disc and with a pastry brush wet around the rim. Place a second disc over this and carefully press together, working round from one side making sure to exclude any air before the final seal.

When you’ve made the ravioli place them on a clean tea towel to rest. As I said earlier, I like to put them in the fridge for a few hours before cooking. When you’re ready to cook them drop them into a large pan with plenty of boiling, salted water for just a few minutes until al dente. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Three or four at a time is enough. They will swell up with cooking and you’ll probably find that half a dozen or so per serving is plenty, but don’t let me stop you from pigging out. Drain well and serve with melted butter and perhaps a fried sage leaf or three and a good grating of fresh Parmesan.


Cut squares from the sheet rolled to the thinnest setting, and to 10 cm (4 inches) square. Place a teaspoonful of your filling in the centre, moisten around the edges with water, and fold corner to corner, forming a triangle and press the sides down until they stick. Taking the two acute angles of the triangle fold over the filled part once, and turn the points back, moisten with a little water and stick them together. There. How easy was that? Cook these as with Ravioli.

Variations: Try adding a good dollop of tomato puree to your pasta mix before running it through the machine. Or alternatively a fresh clove of garlic crushed with some sea salt. Then again, maybe add some finely chopped, cooked spinach. I also like to finely chop some fresh herbs in a food processor and add those to the dough. Some people like to add squid ink, but I’ve never tried this, mainly, I guess, because I wouldn’t know where to buy the squid ink in the first place.

Fresh pasta responds very well to being tossed in some light summer accompaniments like a few vegetables and herbs and some prawns fried in garlic butter or oil. Or a delicious pesto sauce.


“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Julia Child

The regular baking of bread can, I’m afraid, bring out a certain irritating smugness in me, but that’s something I’ll have to learn to live with because I’m not going back to shop bought now. Once you’ve been making your own bread for a little while you will bring your own techniques to the process without even noticing and the bread will reward you with a character that is a reflection of yourself. It happens. My wife Mo and I started with basically the same recipe for our regular loaf, but the tastes are quite different.

We began when she discovered this excellent YouTube film by Mark Bittman from The New York Times visiting the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13Ah9ES2yTU

Watching this film will give you a taste for just how easy great bread making can be. Mo and I have since departed from this recipe each in our own way, so now I’ll let you have my version. As well as the following ingredients you will need a cast iron casserole dish of the Le Creuset type. Ours is 20cm (8”) in diameter by 10cm (4”) deep, which suits this quantity quite nicely, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t use one larger than that. The crust and crumb should be the same. And once again with flour as your only main ingredient, it stands to reason that you should use the best you can find.

The simple ingredient that renders this ‘no-knead’ bread is time. Kneading is a method traditionally used to speed up the proving process, and given up to twenty-four hours to prove you will find this process completely unnecessary.


500 grams of unbleached strong bread flour.

2 tsp salt

¼ tsp dried yeast

350 ml lukewarm water

I like to plan things so that my bread will be ready for tomorrow’s lunch so I’ll run you through my timetable beginning at about late morning to early afternoon.

Dissolve the yeast in the water (you will already have noticed that this is a very small amount of yeast compared to the usual bread recipe. This is because the yeast, being a living organism, increases naturally throughout the long proving process). In the meantime weigh out the flour and mix in the salt. Make a well in the flour, pour in the water/yeast mixture and stir together with a spoon until all the flour is taken up. Incidentally, If you’d prefer wholemeal bread I’d suggest 200 grams of wholemeal or granary flour* to 300 grams of white flour. Cover with clingfilm (I use a shower cap) and place out of the way in a cool place for 18-24 hours. So far, so easy. Five minutes work and no mess.

*Granary flour is a registered trade mark of Hovis, but you can find similar products in supermarkets and farm shops sold as ‘malted seeded bread flour’.

First thing next morning flour a work surface (and your hands) and gently ease your dough out of the bowl. It should be quite wet. Stretch the dough to the size of a ciabatta loaf and fold one side two-thirds the way over and then take the other side across. Turn through 90º and repeat. You will notice at this stage that the dough becomes springy and elastic. This is the gluten doing its job. (This process is clearly demonstrated in the YouTube film). Tip: If you are re-using the same bowl it will need a quick clean to prevent the dough from sticking. Throw in a small handful of flour and rub around with your fingers to remove any dough that has stuck to the sides. A thin smear of olive oil around the bowl at this stage will help to slide it out later.

Lift back into the bowl and leave to rise in a warm place for a further two hours or so. Pre-heat oven to 230ºC/Gas mark 8 and put your cast iron casserole dish in for ½ hour to get piping hot.

Now tip the dough onto a floured surface, and using oven gloves carefully lift the casserole dish from the oven, and drop the dough into the dish. With a sharp knife, you can cut a deep cross in the top to allow for expansion, replace the lid and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. After that time remove the lid and continue baking for another 10–12 minutes. Carefully roll the loaf from the dish, tap the bottom to listen for the hollow sound that tells you it’s ready, then onto a cooling grid for twenty minutes before tearing into it.

You see, no kneading, no effort, just a bit of patience required, and by 11.00 am you have delicious hot fresh bread for lunch.

I have long been a firm believer that anything produced effortlessly is rarely worth the effort, but this bread proves the exception.

UPDATE, 6 MAY 2017: I have been making bread using this method for several years, and I’m now much more relaxed about the method, but that comes with practice. I am more flexible with the starting time for the first mix, and can sometimes leave it until mid-afternoon. The later start still gives you up to eighteen hours for the first proving, which is plenty. But I still start the second process early morning if I want to eat bread for my lunch.

UPDATE, 19 JUNE 2017: I have of late taken to playing with a few fancy variations on this basic recipe, and have found it to be very rewarding indeed. This weekend I made a tomato and olive variety with chilli and oregano, and it was quFullSizeRenderite delicious. The process is simple: at the first stage of mixing, take four to six sundried tomatoes (depending on their size) roughly chopped, eight to ten black olives (stones removed) also roughly chopped. Add a finely chopped small red chilli (seeds removed) and a heaped dessert spoonful of oregano. I like to then pour in some of the oil from the tomatoes, which will give you a smoother crumb, and a softer crust. The chilli is, of course, optional. To leave it out will still give you a lovely loaf of bread. After this, proceed as normal.

UPDATE, 17 MAY 2018: I have recently made a fruit loaf based on this recipe, and I’m as thrilled as thruppence by the outcome. To the basic recipe I added about four tablespoons of vanilla caster sugar (you can use plain caster sugar plus vanilla paste or extract), and two tablespoons of ground almonds. Then, next day at the stretching stage, lay a large tablespoon of Christmas mincemeat along the dough, turn it and lay another spoonful, then continue as above. I’m sure this would also work with a couple of spoons of high fruit jam or conserve. Delicious.

You can also add just olive oil to the recipe, for a variation in texture, or try a small brush of sesame oil over the bread after removing from the oven, whilst still hot. In the meantime, I’ll continue to play and post an occasional progress report. Have fun.

…and another thing

June 21, 2010

I sometimes weep to think of the perfectly acceptable, and frequently expensive, cook pots and pans that have been thrown in the bin simply because the very fragile non-stick surface has broken down or worn out. So last week I decided to have a go at salvaging one of them, and would you believe, the process worked like a dream.

I’ve frequently seen professional cooks on TV working in their sweaty kitchens with blackened heavy aluminium pans that they have prepared themselves through a process known as ‘sealing’. This is achieved by spreading a thin layer of cooking oil over the surface of the pan and to place on a medium to high heat until the oil blackens and becomes baked on. Now you have a perfectly good and shiny non-stick pan.

So there’s no reason at all that the same cannot be done to a battered, but well loved old non-stick pan. they are usually made from an aluminium base, so the first job is to remove the surface. OK, a little muscle is required here but its not too much. With some dry course wire wool or scouring pad scrub the pan until the battered old non-stick surface is gone and replaced by a shiny metallic base. You might want to finish off with a finer wire wool to produce a perfectly smooth surface.

Next pour in a spoonful of cooking oil and smear around the whole of the pan with some paper kitchen towel, and place pan on a hot flame until it smokes. (An open window or smoke extractor fan would be useful here if you don’t want your smoke alarm driving you nuts). As the oil burns off and begins to brown add another layer, and repeat until you have a shiny black, good-as-new cook pan.

It is recommended, by people who know better than I about these things, that you only wipe the pan clean (as opposed to a full dish-wash) to maintain the surface, but you can always renew it with a quick repeat of the above technique. This should only be necessary every three to four months depending on your use of the pan, but I’m sure that you will very soon grow to love it and use it all the time.

Elderflower: I’ve really got mixed feelings towards the Elder which is flowering in abundance right now in the UK. I tend to regard the plant as little more than a giant weed that tenaciously establishes itself in some of the most unlikely places, although I’ll admit that it is only a problem when you have a small garden, where it can take you by surprise and spring up so suddenly that before you know it you can be looking at a sizeable tree that’s almost impossible to remove. On the other hand it is supposed to ward off witches and evil influences so we mustn’t be too hasty in our condemnation.

As a kid I used to love making whistles and pea shooters from the hollowed stem, and gardeners boil the leaves and spray the resulting liquor on plants to keep them free from caterpillars. I think I’ll try that on my cabbages this year. The leaves have also been regarded as an efficient fly repellent, and were at one time placed in the harnesses of horses for this very purpose.

But the creamy blossom of the elderflower with the rich fragrance of summer is one of nature’s triumphs. And its in the kitchen that this wonderful flower comes into its own. This week I’ve been making cordial and sorbet for family guests who arrived yesterday. The cordial in particular makes a great gift when presented in some kind of fancy bottle, and made up with sparkling mineral water, frozen lemon segments as ice cubes and a good slug of chilled vodka makes a wonderful summer drink. And let me tell you that a scoop of sorbet served with a measure of frozen vodka will give you a lovely instant dessert. Also, how about elderflower fritters? I’ll spell out a few recipes for you here:

Elderflower cordial

20-25 heads of elderflowers

3 1/2 lbs of granulated sugar

2 oz tartaric or citric acid (available from chemists)

2 lemons

Place 3 pints of water into a large saucepan with the sugar over a medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, stirring more or less continuously. When the sugar is dissolved turn up the flame and bring to the boil, then simmer for about four minutes to create a syrup. While this is happening peel the zest from the lemons and slice the flesh. When the water boils remove from the heat and throw in the flower heads, lemon zest and sliced flesh plus the citric acid. Stir and leave to infuse for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Then strain through a sieve, maybe with muslin to remove all unwanted bits, and pour into clean bottles. Store in a fridge, or if you want long term storage freeze in smaller quantities. Easy. Drink with one part cordial to five parts sparkling or still cold water for a delicious and very refreshing summer drink. Not forgetting the vodka (or gin, or white rum) for an even more refreshing drink. Tip: I like to keep any surplus lemons cut into wedges and frozen in bags to use as ice cubes.

Elderflower sorbet

350 grams of sugar

20-25 heads of elderflowers

juice of 2 lemons

white of 1 egg

Gently heat sugar in 900 ml of water until dissolved, then bring to the boil and simmer for about four minutes to create syrup. Remove from heat and add the flower heads and leave to infuse for about an hour, then stir in the lemon juice. Allow the infusion to cool then place in fridge to chill. From here strain the mix and use an ice cream maker according to makers instructions to freeze, or if making by hand strain mix into plastic container and place in freezer for about an hour. Take out every hour or so to stir with a fork until set. Whip egg white to soft peaks and fold into mix just before final freeze.

Elderflower fritters

In a large bowl place 200 grams of plain flour, a heaped dessert spoonful of caster sugar, the juice of half a lemon and make up to a thin batter with chilled sparkling mineral water. Dip the elderflower heads into the batter and deep fry until crisp and golden. Dust with a little icing sugar to serve, and maybe throw in a few lemon wedges. Magnificent.

This is such a big day for me. I’ve taken the first steps on the sourdough road and made my first loaf of sourdough bread. There’s no turning back now. It is a kind of commitment as the ‘starter’ needs feeding at least every other day. I’m following the technique in Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s River Cottage Everyday book and I began preparing the starter (Italians call it a biga) a couple of weeks ago. Starting with 100 grams of strong flour mixed with enough warm water to form a thick batter which is whisked to introduce air and therefore admit the wild natural yeasts present in the air which is the essence of sourdough baking.

The whole process is fairly effortless but does require a little patience. Every day you pour away half the mix, add another 100g of flour and enough water to maintain the sloppy batter consistency. You will see it begin to bubble in a  day or two but don’t be tempted to use it for at least a week. When the starter is ready to go and smelling very yummy you take 100ml of the mix and combine with 250g of strong flour (white, brown or a mix) and 275ml of warm water. Mix well, cover and leave for about 12 hours. This is your ‘sponge’.

To make the dough you add 300g flour and a couple of teaspoons of salt to the sponge and knead for 10 minutes (or use the dough hook on your mixer). This is really about as near as this comes to hard work. Leave it again to rise slowly, maybe another 8 hours or overnight as I do, in a fairly cool place. The slow rising adds so much taste to the bread.

Knock it back and then prove the dough in a warm place for another couple of hours until double in size. Then tip out onto a generously floured baking sheet, leave covered for half an hour or so then put it into the middle of a cold oven. Place a dish of boiling water on a low shelf and turn oven on to maximum, at least 230ºC, for about twenty minutes, then lower to around 200ºC for a further twenty-five minutes.

Remove the loaf and leave to cool on a wire rack for twenty minutes, then enjoy.

From now on you need to keep the starter ‘alive’ in a warmish place and continue feeding the beast every day or two as before. But with this little bit of effort you will always have the loveliest bread known to humanity. How bad’s that?

I like to be seasonal when I cook, but in winter you don’t want to eat only turnips and sprouts so you just have to preserve a few things from the garden if you don’t want to buy supermarket stuff that’s been shipped halfway round the world. And, of course, what’s seasonal here in England is not necessarily seasonal in Cincinnati or Sidney or wherever you foodie fools live, so I’ll post these tips here and now and if it’s the wrong time of year for you then you’ll just have to write them down and stick them to an appropriate domestic appliance with a colourful and amusing fridge magnet.

Fresh green coriander (cilantro) seeds. This is a favourite ingredient of mine, so this year in your herb garden, patio or balcony sow coriander seeds. They are so easy to grow in most climates. Sow them in well drained soil in sunny position, and thin the seedlings to about 4-6 inches apart. After you’ve munched all the yummy broad leaves the plants begin to form the taller, more feathery leaves which will need some support with light canes to stop them collapsing.

As the seeds grow plump harvest them while still green, bag them up and freeze them (and, of course, use them fresh). They are super delicious. Use them as you would the leaves, adding them towards the end of cooking any Indian or Mexican meal, and in a salsa (finely chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, oil, lemon juice and green coriander seeds). You get a wonderful intense coriander hit bursting in your mouth.

They freeze well for a few months and you will wish you’d grown more. You will next year.

Garlic is at its best when fresh and juicy in June and July, but the stuff you buy later in the year has been stored for a long time and soon starts to shoot, giving it a bitter taste. So when it’s plentiful I like to roast the whole heads and freeze them. They last well, and give you lovely sweet, sticky cloves throughout winter which are easy to peel and require no pre-cooking. Keep them in the fridge after defrosting.

Sweet chestnuts. If you live near a sweet chestnut tree gather the delicious nuts as soon as they start falling in quantity. (If the prickly cases are cutting into your hands roll them with your foot and the nut will pop out.) When you get them home cut them in half, peel them and lay them in an ovenproof tray. Roll them in olive oil and salt them as liberally as the salt police allow, then roast them in a medium oven for 15 minutes or so. They make brilliant beer snacks. If you have lots of them you can pack the surplus into a sterilised preserving jar, pour over more oil to cover and seal. As you use them keep topping up the oil to cover them and they will last through to Christmas (if you haven’t already scoffed them all by then). Use them when cooking game, especially roast partridge, or add to any autumn/winter casserole.

Ginger. Here’s a cracker. When ginger is lovely and fat and juicy it’s so hard to resist buying a large lump of it, which you will use liberally in every meal for a few days and it will keep fresh in the fridge for a week or so before it starts to get all dried up and wrinkly (much like myself in many ways). Don’t throw it away or watch it shrivel to nothing. Peel it with a spoon (this leaves you no waste at all) and slice it to usable sized pieces, bung it into a preserving jar and cover with Chinese rice wine vinegar. It lasts for ages and is always there for those store cupboard meals, especially Chinese and Indian.

Broad bean tips. As your broad bean plants approach full size there is a danger that the tips will get attacked by blackfly which, if left, will decimate the whole plant. So just nip out the growing tips, but instead of throwing them away use them in a salad. If you don’t believe me eat them as you nip them out. Delicious.

Making bread

February 12, 2010

I love making bread, although I only got back to it relatively recently. I’ve tried in the past but always found that I’m turning out these very heavy bricks of inedible tooth breaking dough stuff. But this time I was just that bit more determined to get it right, so when my first loaf that I made a couple of months ago turned out a bit dense I decided to explore and experiment with the technique to find out what I was doing wrong.

I found two main things; I wasn’t letting the dough rise long enough in the final stage after it was shaped, and I was putting the bread into a preheated oven at 230º which had the effect of killing the yeast too soon.

So, now I make it like this and it really does work:


This bread recipe is easy and is intended to start in the morning and be ready for lunch. Its light, its delicious and it works.


675g or 1 ½ lb strong bread flour

10ml or 2 tsp salt

15g fresh yeast or 1 level tablespoon dried yeast

430ml or 15 fl oz warm water


Mix the yeast in 150ml of warm water. Measure the flour into a large mixing bowl with the salt and make a well in the centre. When the yeast has fermented add the remaining water, pour into the flour and mix.

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead well for 10 minutes (or use the dough hook in a mixer for 6 minutes and finish by hand). Lightly oil the inside of the bowl and return the dough, covering the bowl with oiled cling film, to prove for two hours or until double in size.

Knock back the dough, turn out onto floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. You can use dough hook but I find hand kneading gets the air into the dough much better and also gives you a feel for the moistness. The dough must not be too sticky as this tends to make it rise outwards instead of upwards, so slowly add more flour if necessary.

Prepare a greased baking sheet. For a bloomer type loaf roll the dough into a rectangle, then roll back into a swiss roll shape. Place it seam side down onto the baking sheet, cut a few deep diagonal slashes in the top using a sharp knife (or bread knife).

Leave to prove for 30 – 40 minutes covered in the oiled cling film.

Boil some water, pour into a shallow dish and place on the lower shelf of the oven to create a steamy atmosphere, which gives a lovely crust.

Put the bread into the middle of the cold oven then turn oven on to 220º (200º if using fan oven) and bake for about 40 minutes (or until golden brown). Check by knocking the base to feel if it sounds hollow. If you want an extra crusty loaf spray with water immediately after removing from the oven.

Transfer to wire rack to cool.

This is today’s loaf (not bad, huh):

I’ve found that putting the dough into a cold oven helps the dough to fully rise as the oven slowly warms up, therefore making a very light and crusty loaf. The baking times will vary according to how fast the oven warms up.