Welcome to “Wide Open Table,” a bi-monthly Montana Free Press column on all things food and cooking. “Wide Open Table” is written by Montanan Jon Bennion, who posts recipes and other kitchen content on Instagram as Intermediate Chef.
When the pandemic hit and set in motion long stretches when we were cooped up in our homes, many of us took time to pick up new hobbies. This was especially true in the kitchen, since our favorite meal spots were shuttered. I saw many people try their hand at sourdough baking, slow bbq, and scratch pizza.
I delved into homemade pasta. Despite ancestry.com ruling out any fraction of Italian blood running through my veins, I always felt like pasta was an accessible and inviting dish for people of any background. Italians can be very particular about their pasta traditions — the names, the origins, and the right sauces to pair with certain pastas. I took it all in as I set a goal to make fresh pasta a couple of times each week while the pandemic continued on for months.
I made a lot of bad pasta in the beginning. Pasta in its most basic form is usually just a combination of two or three ingredients: eggs and flour or water and flour. So how hard can it be? Turns out, there are plenty of ways to screw it up if you don’t follow a few basic rules.
That’s where I come in. Three and a half years after the start of my pasta obsession, I’m still going. And even though I have not yet reached “pasta nonna” levels, I have the basic rules you should follow to pave the way to pasta paradise.
To start, I encourage people to begin with the most basic pasta of them all, called “pici” (pronounced “peachy”). It’s a hand-rolled Tuscan variety that requires no special pasta tools. That’s right — no pasta machine, no fancy fluted cutters, no rigged board, no ravioli molds. You probably have all of the ingredients in your house right now: flour, water, and a little olive oil.
These fat noodles are a delicious main course that can be paired with so many sauces. Detailed in this recipe is one option: a rich browned-butter and cream sauce infused with some great flavor courtesy of fresh herbs. If you’d rather try your pici with a marinara or pesto-based sauce, go right ahead. I have also used this pasta in Asian-style dishes that might appear in a future column.
Pici pasta is a bit on the labor-intensive side, so don’t plan to make it for a large dinner party. This is perfect for an intimate date dinner or small family. And if you are making it for one, don’t fret about the number of servings produced by this recipe. I’ve included instructions for freezing so you can stockpile pici for your future.
If you are doing this for the first time and don’t have an electric scale, never fear. I give the rough proportions you can measure out with typical measuring tools. But if you think you might get into this whole fresh pasta business on the regular, an electric scale and gram-specific proportions will always yield a more consistent product.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose or Italian 00 flour (360 grams)
3/4 cup warm water (180 grams)
1 tbsp olive oil
semolina flour for dusting
Serves 3-4 people
You can use your hands or a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment for this process, but I like doing this the old-fashioned way. Pile the flour in a mound on your counter or in a mixing bowl. Using the bottom of a cup in a circular motion, create a deep well 6” in circumference in the center of the flour. Pour the warm water and olive oil into the deep well and let it sit for a minute as the flour and water start to interact on the inside edge.
If you are doing it on the counter, bring tiny bits of flour from the inside of the rim into the water with a fork and mix in gently. Keep doing this until the liquid center becomes thicker and won’t spill over the flour walls. Bring larger amounts of the flour into the center and cut it into the wetter portions with your fork until you don’t see any wet areas. At this point, use your hands to grab all the contents and start smashing and pressing them together until they form a dough ball.
The pici dough needs a 10-minute knead by hand or in the stand mixer. If you are doing it by hand, use your upper body strength to press down on the dough to flatten, then stretch a bit, refold, and turn your dough 90 degrees. Early on, it will look like a shaggy mess with a lot of bumps and irregularities, but keep going for the full 10 minutes. If your measurements were off and the dough is a bit dry, you may need to add a teaspoon or two of water. This can be accomplished by wetting your hands a few times during the knead to gradually work the water in.
If you are doing it by hand and get tired after five minutes, cover the dough with a bowl or plastic wrap and give yourself a 10-minute break. Then return to the dough for another 5-minute knead. When you’re done kneading, place the dough in plastic wrap or in a sealed plastic bag to rest for at least 30 minutes, or up to two hours.
After it’s rested, remove the dough from the plastic wrap or bag and place it on your counter. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin until it’s roughly 1/4 inch thick and in a rectangle shape (about 12” x 6”). Place a damp paper towel over the top so the dough doesn’t dry out.
Hand rolling pici works best on a large wooden cutting board with a damp towel underneath to keep the board from moving around. If you don’t have a large wooden board, just roll the pici out on a clean countertop.
To roll the pici, cut a 1/4” section of the dough along the short side of the rectangle to get a piece roughly 6” long. Place on the cutting board or other surface and roll with both hands from the center out toward the ends. The final noodles should be no larger than 1/8” in diameter. Keep in mind they will plump up some when cooked.
You are not looking for uniformity across the board. This is homemade, after all, so small variations are not just expected, but charming. Place the finished pici on a parchment-lined baking tray with a bit of flour (preferably semolina flour) to prevent sticking.
Pici is best cooked and served within an hour or two of preparation. Pici can also be frozen for later. To freeze, place the semolina-dusted pici into bundles/nests (for this recipe, about 4 bundles) and onto a parchment-lined sheet tray. Freeze for 20 minutes uncovered and then package in freezer-proof plastic bags for as long as 2-3 weeks.
Fresh pici cooks in 3 to 4 minutes in boiling salted water. Frozen pici might take an extra minute. Taste to confirm.
1 stick (8 tbsp) salted butter
3/4 cup heavy cream
any combination of fresh thyme sprigs, sage leaves, or rosemary
In a large frying pan, gradually brown 1 stick of butter on medium heat with the herbs. You don’t need a lot of herbs. I used two sprigs of thyme, two small sprigs of rosemary, and 10 small sage leaves. You can use just one herb if you prefer — just increase the quantity.
You will want to stir gently with a spatula and allow the herbs to infuse their flavor and get a bit crisp. When the butter reaches a very light brown color, remove the herbs onto a plate covered with a paper towel. Continue to stir. You don’t want the butter to burn, so remove it from the heat once it reaches a nutty brown color. Set aside until you begin boiling your pici.
When the pici is boiling, add the cream to the browned butter and allow to gradually heat through on medium-low (you don’t want it to boil). Salt and pepper to taste (if you browned unsalted butter, it will need more salt. When the pici is done cooking, add the pasta to the cream-and-butter sauce using tongs. Swirl it around the sauce for a minute to coat, then turn off the heat. When you plate the mean, sprinkle the crispy herb leaves over the top.
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