A few years ago I bought some fresh pasta at the farmers market. (Well, frozen fresh pasta, anyway.) I asked how much it cost, and the lady said six dollars. Not cheap for plain noodles, I thought, but ok — let’s try the new business. I handed over six dollars. She handed me a six-ounce package of noodles.
That’s sixteen dollars a pound for noodles, y’all. Silly me, thinking I’d get a whole pound for just six bucks.
As I have since learned, it isn’t actually all that difficult to make fresh noodles. What’s difficult is making them look perfect. That takes equipment and space. But if you are willing to accept the style commonly known as rustic, you can make fresh pasta for a weeknight dinner. Seriously. You need a food processor, but you certainly don’t need a pasta machine. And depending on how you shape your noodles, it only takes about ten minutes of hands-on work.
I don’t normally recommend anyone use a food processor or a mixer for making dough the first time, because I think it’s difficult to learn to recognize the right consistency without getting your hands in it, and food processors go so fast that you can easily miss what’s happening even if you’re watching carefully. But pasta dough is fairly straightforward; there’s no yeast to worry about, nor do you have to treat it gently like pastry dough. And while kneading pasta dough by hand only takes about five minutes, it makes a disaster of your counter (not to mention your hands). This is a rare case where cleaning the food processor bowl and blade is easier than cleaning up the mess you’d make otherwise.
I’m indebted to Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, from whose book Beyond the Great Wall the original proportions and food processor technique come, in a recipe for “earlobe noodles.”1 (More about those later.)
Recipe: Homemade noodles
These are rustic noodles, chewy, sturdy, rough-textured, pale yellow to golden from the egg — and quite attractive for all that, not to mention delicious. The recipe goes on a bit, but its length belies its simplicity. It has more variations than Goldberg, but that’s the point: it’s more a theme than a recipe, and you can take it any number of directions.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
- a tablespoon oil (optional; see note)
- 1 to 3 eggs
- up to ½ cup warm water
Making the dough
Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to blend. The salt is optional: it isn’t traditional in Italian pasta, certainly, nor in some kinds of Asian noodles, but I like to add a bit, as fresh noodles don’t cook long enough to absorb much if any salt from the water.
With the oil and egg you have several options. Oil is not, again, traditional in many kinds of noodles, but I think it makes the dough easier to roll out. If your context is Asian, go with something neutral, but olive oil is nice if you’re planning Italian flavors. The number of eggs will affect texture and taste: one is good for a basic all-purpose Asian-style noodle; three will give you a fresh Italian-style egg pasta. I usually split the difference and use two.
Whatever you decide, add the oil and the egg(s) to the flour and run the food processor for 10 seconds or so until all is well blended.
Then slowly pour in warm water2 while the machine is running. If you’ve used one egg, you’ll need about a half-cup of water; if you’ve used three eggs, you may need only a tablespoon or two. In any case you’ll need to go by eye. Stop pouring when the dough has not quite come together and still looks like a shaggy mess; it will continue to come together over the next several seconds. If it doesn’t, add another teaspoon or two of water. If you’ve added too much and the dough is wet, add a few more tablespoons of flour. The dough should be smooth and just slightly tacky, especially if you’ve used more than one egg, but not dry and definitely not sticky.
Remove the dough from the machine and knead on the counter a couple of times just to check the consistency. Then set it under an overturned bowl and let it rest for fifteen to twenty minutes to let the gluten relax. I find it helpful at this point to open a beer. Dough is a social creature, and more apt to relax if others around it are doing the same. If dinner takes longer to prepare than you anticipated, or if that beer turns into two or three, don’t worry; the dough can rest for an hour or two if need be. Just keep it covered so it doesn’t dry out. (Use plastic wrap for longer resting, but I find that in plastic the dough can get a little sticky.)
Get your water boiling. (I assume you can handle this part on your own.)
Shaping and cooking the noodles
When you are very nearly ready to serve dinner — table set, everything else simmering to perfection or waiting for a finishing touch — shape your noodles. At this point, again, you have a couple of options.
Option 1: Noodles-as-dumplings
The easiest way to shape them is to make Alford and Duguid’s earlobe noodles, which are based on a noodle from Tibet and are like little chewy dumplings. Divide the dough into eight pieces. Oil your hands lightly and roll each piece into a snake about as thick as your thumb. To shape the noodles, hold a snake gently in one hand and pinch off bits with the other — about as big a piece as will come off neatly between your thumb and forefinger. As you do this, you’ll flatten the pieces of dough somewhat so that they look like — you guessed it — earlobes. Then flick them into the boiling water. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to do this all in one motion — pinch, squish, flick, and repeat. If you find that you’re very slow at this on your first attempt, you may want to cook the noodles in two batches, but after a couple of times you should be doing it fairly quickly. I find I can get the whole mess of noodles pinched off and in the pot in about a minute.
Boil the noodles for two to three minutes, or longer, depending on how thick you made them. They should be chewy but not doughy. (Al dente. You know the drill.)
Option 2: Roll ’em out
If you simply must have noodles, you can of course roll out the dough and cut it into long strips. Unless you do this for a living or are extremely pretentious, or maybe just a Virgo, you do not need a pasta machine for this. I had a pasta machine once, and it was a royal pain to use and to clean. If your noodles must all be delicately thin and precisely the same width, get out your wallet and pay someone to make them for you. This is home cooking. A little variability is a good thing in craft work.
On a lightly floured board, roll out your dough to about 1/16" thick. (I do mean, ideally, a wooden board rather than a countertop that can be scratched when you cut the dough — but your countertop will do, of course.) The thickness is really up to you; be aware that they’ll swell in the water to about double the thickness you roll. A sixteenth of an inch will give you chewy noodles that curl and tangle attractively in the bowl. I’ve never bothered to find out what happens if you roll them much thinner.
To cut the noodles, the best tool is a sharp pizza wheel, but you can use a knife. With a pizza wheel you just roll it along to mark off the widths you want, but either way you’re simply cutting the dough into strips. (Or squares! Two-inch squares, or even slightly irregular quadrilaterals, make very nice pasta. So do triangles. Or hexagons, if you have that kind of time.) You will not make the strips all exactly the same width. Some will be narrower than others; some will be narrow at one end and wide at the other. Nobody will mind, unless your guest list includes, say, Ming Tsai, and even he would probably be nice about it. Everybody else will be impressed and delighted that you made homemade noodles.
Now lift them off the board and drop them individually into the boiling water. This is actually the tricky part, and why I don’t often bother rolling and cutting noodles: they nearly always stick together, and a few of them stick to the board no matter now well I flour it. To minimize that risk, in contradiction to the advice of practically every cookbook I have ever read, do not roll and cut the noodles in advance. If you do, the humidity of the kitchen (you’re boiling water!) will cause them to swell and stick together again — unless you drape them individually over some kind of ad-hoc drying rack, which would take up half the kitchen. (Unless, that is, your kitchen is palatial, in which case I don’t want to talk to you.) Maybe there really is some reason why fresh noodles need to dry briefly before they’re cooked, but I’ve never been able to tell the difference.
So, to repeat: roll and cut your dough when the water is about to boil, and get the noodles off the board and into the water as quickly as possible. And make sure your knife or pizza wheel is sharp, and slice cleanly all the way to the end of the dough — don’t pull up at the end, as I sometimes do, or your noodles will cling and open up like an endless Z.
Here again, two to five minutes’ boil is about right. I know that’s a wide window, but everybody rolls their noodles a little differently, so grab one with tongs, pinch off a piece, and taste it. God gave you teeth for a reason.
If you have read this far you must surely have some notion of what to do with these noodles once you have cooked them, but here are my thoughts anyway.
You could certainly make Italian-style pasta. If you cut these as noodles, you’ll wind up with something like chunky fettuccine; pinched off as dumplings you could treat them as oricchiette. Any decent Italian cookbook will give you lots of ideas for fresh pasta dishes. You don’t need me to list them for you. But I don’t recommend anything fussy; these are not delicate noodles. And I tend to think that alfredo would get gloppy on such thick noodles. But chopped fresh tomatoes, slivers of basil, fresh mozzerella, and a sprinkling of salt is fantastic. So is something briefly-cooked and chunky with sausage, garlic, and canned tomatoes.
You could shape them as “earlobes” and call them German dumplings. Put them in chicken soup. Serve them with gravy. Brown them in butter, top them with sour cream and eat them with sauerkraut.
But what I usually do is to make this:
Asian-style noodles with pork and greens
This is one of my very favorite things to cook. And to eat. It’s far too simple for a recipe, but here’s what you do. Let’s say you’re serving three people with one recipe of noodles.
Start with some coarsely ground pork. I use Boston butt and run it through the grinder with the coarse die, because coarse-ground pork has more and meatier flavor than fine-ground, not to mention better texture. You could use regular ground pork, or you could get a piece of pork and chop it finely. Two ounces per person is plenty; it’s flavoring.
Heat a wok super-hot, add a bit of oil and then the pork. Break it up and stir it around until it’s no longer pink, then add, if you happen to have one, a sliced leek. Stir-fry until the leek collapses a bit and then add a couple of cloves of garlic, smashed and minced, some minced ginger (maybe a tablespoon), and a chopped scallion. (If you don’t have a leek, add more scallion.) Stir-fry for a minute.
Now add your greens. The skinny broccoli-looking stuff from the Chinese grocery — I can’t remember its Chinese name — would be excellent here, but I most often use Swiss chard from the farmer’s market, two bunches for three people. Wash them, chop them, and throw them in, with a sprinkle of salt and just a little water to help them steam, no more than necessary. Cover the wok and cook them until the greens are tender.
Drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil and serve with the noodles in bowls. If you want some spice, add a dab of Chinese chili sauce. (I like the stuff made by the Har Har Pickle Food Factory of Taiwan, and not only because they have the best name of any food company anywhere in the world.)
Variations. If you like, you can turn this into an Italian-style dish: omit the ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil; use olive oil, add a little red chile flake with the garlic, and grate some good cheese over it when you serve it.