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Handmade Macaroni From Scratch

Last week Bogdan and I went to Town Tavern in Royal Oak because Four Square told us the lobster mac and cheese was “to die for.” It was not.

For the most part it was okay. The lobster was cooked well, the macaroni was slightly overdone but acceptable, the sauce could have been creamier. It would have been okay overall (like 6.5 out of 10 maybe?) but the ritz cracker crust was burnt. I don’t mean browned, I mean charred. Seemed to be a theme since the truffle fries we ordered were also covered in burnt garlic, which as far as I know is a big culinary no-no.

We definitely had high expectations not only based on the Four Square reviews, but also based on the cost. At $17 for a small plate of mac and cheese it better be to die for.

Anyway, the point is that after that experience I decided I would make my own mac and cheese from scratch. It’s a longstanding fascination of mine to taste the most scratch-made versions of anything and everything. I especially love making super indulgent guilty pleasures from scratch. They can only get better, right?

When it comes to mac and cheese this means the best cheddar I can find, pure cream, and most importantly homemade macaroni.

The Origins of Macaroni

Have you ever thought about where macaroni originated? Since I started making pasta more often I’ve gained an appreciation for how certain pasta shapes must have developed. For example, I’ll never forget the first time I used the pasta machine and looking down at the long, thin uncut sheets of pasta it my hands it suddenly dawned on me that I was holding lasagna. It was a total revelation.

atlas mercato pasta machine

Lasagna is easy enough to understand, as is spaghetti and fettuccini, but when you consider more elaborate pasta shapes things start to get murkier.

Macaroni isn’t an obvious shape like lasagna or spaghetti. When I decided to make homemade macaroni it occurred to me that I had no idea how to do so. I scoured the internet and YouTube for help. I don’t have an extruder like this so that was out of the question. Luckily, Wikihow came to the rescue.

I don’t know if macaroni emerged spontaneously, the creative ambition of a bored Italian housewife somewhere, or if it came about with the invention of industrial extruders. Whatever the case, making macaroni by hand feels very old world and very traditional.

Macaroni Technique

The method I used was similar to the one described in the Wikihow post.  I made a double batch of my Go-To Pasta Recipe, rolled it out into thin sheets then cut into small roughly 2cm/1inch squares and used a bamboo skewer to roll them into little tubes.

On the one hand, it was tedious and it took a very long time to finish a bowl of macaroni. On the other, it was beautiful. Once I got the technique it was all muscle memory, like knitting. Knitting perfect little pasta jewels that we then got to eat.

Like all fresh pasta boil for up to 3 minutes for al dente. Do not bake in too much cream in the oven for an hour because you will regret wasting so much effort.

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The Perfect Pasta Dough Recipe

Pasta is one of those fundamental “from scratch” things that can seriously impress your dinner guests and also totally change the game on what you thought you knew. Once you’ve had fresh homemade pasta, it’s really hard to even call that stuff you buy in boxes pasta anymore.

I learned to make pasta the way I learned to make bread, which is to say with a few bumps in the beginning. My first bread was like a hard little football shaped rock. My first time making pasta it was similarly hard, which was all the more difficult since I didn’t have a pasta machine back then and so it needed to be (laboriously) rolled out the old fashioned way. The final cooked pasta wasn’t much better.

Somehow with both bread and pasta it was only the first time that was a disaster. Every time after was not only passable but definitely edible and quite good in fact.

The first pasta recipe I got to know and like was Giada’s recipe found on Food Network.

It’s a good recipe and turned out some very good pasta quite a few times. The only hang up I had with it is that it’s measurements are given in volume rather than by weight, which I think is important especially in the early stages of learning the fundamentals like bread and pasta.

If you don’t have a kitchen scale then it’s still a good starting place but if you want to really get into the finer points of pasta (or bread) then in my humble opinion a kitchen scale is essential to the learning process.

When I got my pasta maker a few weeks ago I decided to look for a more precise recipe so I could control and understand the process a little better. I am forever grateful to the lovely people at seriouseats.com who put together this super comprehensive guide to fresh pasta making, which takes into account so many variables like egg or no egg and water or no water.

The results of their intensive research and great documentation is this beautiful and foolproof go to pasta recipe.


Fresh Pasta Go-To Recipe

Ingredients

2 egg yolks and 1 whole egg for every 5 oz (141 grams) of flour. No water.


Isn’t that just a thing of beauty? That’s it. That’s the whole recipe. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

Each time I’ve made this I doubled the recipe, which made enough pasta for 3-4 very generous servings.

Special Equipment

Kitchen scale (optional but highly recommended) – substitute volumetric recipe like the one above)

Pasta rolling machine (optional but recommended) – substitute rolling pin.

As I mentioned above a kitchen scale is not essential but very good to have when learning about the nuances of pasta and bread. Likewise, a pasta machine isn’t absolutely necessary and can easily be substituted for a rolling pin but I think it produces much better results with less effort. More on the pasta machine below.

Simple Ingredients & Good Technique

Italian and French cuisine are characterized in part by their very simple preparations executed with utmost attention to detail. So of course the first step to good pasta is good flour and good eggs. What’s also important is good technique, which can be summarized mostly as a bit of patience.

Mixing the Flour & Eggs

Most recipes ask that you make a little mountain of flour with a hollow in the middle where the eggs are placed.  A fork is then used to mix the eggs, pulling flour in slowly as you go.

I’ve done it this way on a marble pastry board (as shown above) but I’ve also done it just in a bowl (which makes for easier clean up) and honestly it comes out virtually the same as far as I can tell.

No Water

The recipe I followed is very clear on the point of no water. Unless your dough is so dry that you’ve been kneading it together for 3-5 minutes and it’s still a pile of bits then you shouldn’t add water.

I haven’t had a problem so far. It may not seem like enough but the amount of liquid in the eggs is enough to hydrate the flour.

Salt

Whether you add salt to the pasta dough is up to you. I’ve done it both ways (with or without salt in the dough) and it seems indistinguishable since the pasta is boiled in salted water.

Other Additions

Added at the mixing stage

Juices: I’m planning to make some coloured ravioli soon with the help of some beet juice, spinach juice, and maybe carrot juice. About a tbsp of strained liquid should be enough to colour the pasta without upsetting the liquid balance too much.

Spices & seasonings: Of course you can add any spice or seasoning that you like. Dried oregano comes to mind but I think it’s pretty flexible.

Added at the rolling stage

Basil: A few times I’ve added basil leaves during the rolling out process. I wish I had taken a photo. I will in the future. I think it gives the pasta a nice basil flavour and makes it look very pretty. The basil stretches a lot during the rolling and by the end you have very large green leaf motifs.

I usually add it just after the first setting (so around 1) but you could also add it at a later stage in the process (maybe at 5 or 6) for smaller basil motifs and see how that works. More on rolling out below.

Resting the Dough

After the initial mixing pasta dough (like bread dough) likes to rest covered so it doesn’t dry. I like to cover mine with a layer of plastic wrap and then a cloth. There’s nothing worse for dough than it drying out before you’ve had a chance to use it.

The resting period is so that the flour can fully hydrate (which aids gluten formation) and also so the dough has a chance to soften, which gives it that beautiful spring and body. If you try to roll out pasta dough too soon after mixing, it will snap and break because it doesn’t have sufficient elasticity. About 20 minutes should do it.

Rolling out the Dough

Before when I would make pasta without my pasta roller I rolled out the dough with a rolling pin. I found this to be very physically demanding, so much that I didn’t want to make pasta too often. It’s possible I wasn’t letting the dough rest sufficiently and I will have to try one day to see.

A more important point may be that the roller makes the dough much thinner than I’ve ever made any dough, from pie to empanada to roti and of course pasta.

Side Note: Short vs Hard Dough

Doughs can be hard (i.e. with gluten) which makes lovely elastic doughs like pasta or wonton, or they can be short (i.e. ideally no gluten development) which makes crumbly and tender pie crusts and tart shells. For pasta we want the gluten, but the gluten also fights back.


Pasta Rollers vs Rolling Pin

I very much recommend a pasta roller if you can afford the cost and the space in your home and plan to make pasta often. The one I bought is the Atlas Mercato 150mm manual crank machine.

I read some reviews before buying which suggested it was the best one but since I’ve had it I’ve noticed it literally everywhere. It seems to be the roller of choice for bloggers and chefs alike. It’s also the machine seriouseats.com used in their pasta experiments.

Every time I see this I’m more convinced I made the right choice without even having all the information. So lucky.

Laminating the Dough

After the dough has a chance to rest you can begin working on it by cutting it into pieces to be fed into the pasta roller on the widest setting. You should do this at least 2-3 times per piece of dough (though some suggest up to 10), folding it and returning it into the roller on the widest setting each time.

This process is called laminating and it helps gluten formation which makes for better pasta texture.

When you’ve finished laminating a piece of dough I recommend putting it under a cloth again while you work on the rest so that it doesn’t dry. It’s best not to put the pieces on top of each other or they will stick together. These are best practices that I don’t always follow myself (to save time and space) so I work quickly to prevent drying and gently pull the pieces apart if they’ve stuck together. The choice is yours. Definitely don’t do this with thinner dough because it’s too fragile to pull apart.

If your flour and egg didn’t mix quite enough you may notice dry pieces, chunks or uneven texture when you first cut the dough. Usually this can be remedied by a thorough lamination process. If my dough is dry and uneven I laminate up to 6 times and it usually does the trick.

Rolling out the Dough

Once you’ve laminated the dough start again from the first piece feeding it through the machine from widest setting (0) to thinnest setting (9). Sometimes I skip a few of the steps, which I think makes the dough crimp weirdly. It’s never caused a big problem but the choice is yours how to proceed through the steps. Definitely more patience makes better texture.

Since the dough dries so fast (especially when it’s rolled out) what I like to do is to roll out each piece all the way from thickest to thinnest, then shape it or cut it into my desired form, and put it properly to dry before I move on to the next piece of dough.

That’s just my process to deal with fast drying dough. You may find one that suits you better.

Shaping & Cutting the Dough

The Mercato machine has 2 cutting attachments that make fettuccini and spaghetti. I’ve made both and I think the spaghetti is slightly harder to work with but also my favourite as it soaks up so much sauce and has such a hearty mouth feel.

You can also make different kinds of pasta once the dough is rolled out. You could cut it into 1 inch strips for pappardelle, or into bigger pieces for lasagna, or even into tiny squares for macaroni (see Handmade Macaroni From Scratch.) I think I’ll need to write a whole post just about pasta shapes. Coming soon I promise.

Drying the Dough

The little baskets I made from the fettuccini in the feature image for this post look very cute but I’m not sure it’s the most practical solution. When the dough dries in this shape it can adhere together, which makes for clumpy stuck together pasta once it’s cooked.

When I made these cute little fettuccini baskets I ended up re-rolling all the pasta I had rolled and cut because it was sticking together so badly. I know a lot of very professional chefs do it this way and maybe with a good dusting of flour it won’t stick but in my experience this is probably a pro move not the best for beginners.

My favourite way to dry pasta is either on the edge of a large bowl as shown below or otherwise on the back of a chair (only if I’m cooking it right away since it’s a vulnerable spot for our hungry dog and stray elbows.)

When I posted this on Instagram I got a few suggestions:

  • A friend’s Italian grandmother dries her pasta on a cloth hanging off the edge of a table.
  • Another friend dries hers on a broomstick suspended between two chairs.

Cooking the Pasta

Fresh pasta cooks in boiling water very quickly. Depending on the shape about 3 minutes should be enough for perfectly al dente pasta. I recently heard a chef on Chopped say that fresh pasta cooks in 45 seconds, but that hasn’t been my experience. Ultimate test is the taste test.

Shown here is fettuccini in a simple homemade alfredo sauce with seared scallops. This was our very first pasta after buying the pasta machine.

I hope I haven’t missed anything and that this has been helpful. Please comment with any questions below.

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Andouille Carbonara

We were at the farmers market asking around everywhere for chorizo. A few weeks earlier we attended a dinner to celebrate the engagement of two of our friends. They showed us a really neat Portuguese cooking method that involves setting alcohol on fire in a ceramic pig.

IMG_9058

How cool is that? As you can imagine I had to have one. I got the pig but the chorizo was no where to be found.   I asked everywhere but the closest thing I could find was andouille. I wasn’t sure if I would torch it (authenticity and all) but I knew I’d find something interesting to do with it in any case.

Carbonara is one of those things I crave every so often. What’s not to love about it? Creamy, cheesy, smoked cured meat….delicious. It was late on a lazy Saturday night and we had guests. We were all hungry for something comforting and rich. I was also hoping it would be easy and quick.

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I opened the fridge and stood there for a few minutes, thinking through the logistics of the different things I could make. I thought about pasta. I saw the andouille. That was that. The chives add a fresh counterpoint to the smokiness and flavour of the andouille. If you use andouille, look for a natural one without nitrites or preservatives like this andouille by Neto’s. You could use any sausage you have on hand like Spanish chorizo, Polish kabanosy, or even grassfed German Landjaeger. This makes about four average sized servings (or two enormous ones).

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Ingredients

4 servings spaghetti, fettuccine or other pasta of your choice

About 1/2 TBSP olive oil for sautéing

1/2 kg / 1 lb andouille (or other smoked sausage)

3 eggs

150 grams / 5.5 oz grated pecorino romano or parmigiano (you could also use gruyère in a pinch)

Salt to taste

Drizzle of olive oil for pasta

Freshly cracked black pepper and chopped chives for garnish

 

Method

Boil pasta, al dente is preferable. The time depends on the type of pasta so check the package directions. Generously salt the water so it tastes like the ocean.

Heat oil in a skillet on medium heat. While heating, cut the sausage into thin slices.

Pan fry the sausage until browned and crispy (or to your liking).

While sausage is frying, crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk. Add the cheese and mix until incorporated.

When pasta is finished cooking, drain it reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Return the drained pasta in the skillet with the andouille and add the cooking liquid. Increase heat and agitate pan to keep things moving. You want to get it hot.

Once hot, remove from heat and pour into the egg mixture while whisking quickly and consistently until the eggs thicken. The residual heat from the pasta and sausage will cook the eggs. Pouring the hot ingredients over the eggs and working quickly will prevent scrambling the eggs. It should be salty enough from the pasta water and sausage but taste and adjust to your preferences.

Garnish with fresh cracked black pepper and chives.

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Creamy Portobello & Thyme Pappardelle

Mmmmm this was so SO good. It was Friday evening. We got in late after another rousing round of house hunting. We were really tired and just wanted something comforting and quick. This really delivered. Mushrooms are amazingly versatile and so delicious in so many ways. They impart a really satisfying and robust umami to this pasta that plays so well with the creamy and sharp cheese. Combine that with the herbaceous quality of thyme and spice of pepper and it makes for a really flavourful dish. I happened to have roasted garlic in the fridge from the day before, so it was a no brainer to toss it in. It would be pretty simple to make some:

Roasted Garlic

Turn oven on to 400 F / 200 C. Make a sort of bowl out of aluminum foil by cupping it in your hand. Place about 7 unpeeled cloves of garlic in and drizzle with olive oil. Close up the bowl of foil and put it in the oven (even if it’s still preheating). Leave it in there about 20 minutes. That’s probably how long it’ll take you to prepare the rest of the ingredients and cook the mushrooms. When ready remove from oven, peel and mash cloves and put them in the sauce.

A splash of white wine would also be lovely. Overall, I think it took me about 30 minutes. The mushrooms need to release their liquid and soften which is probably what takes the longest. This isn’t at all a finicky dish so feel free to make it on a weeknight!

Ingredients

4 servings egg pappardelle or pasta of your choice

About 1 TBSP olive oil for sauteeing

1/2 yellow onion

4 large portobello mushroom caps

2 TBSP salted butter

2 cups milk

1 TBSP corn starch

100 grams / 3.5 oz grated parmigiano reggiano plus another 25 grams / about an ounce petals for garnish (I used a mandolin to make the petals but you can also slice thinly or buy them pre-made)

1.5 tsp fresh thyme

7 cloves roasted garlic (see recipe above)

Fresh cracked black pepper and salt to taste

Drizzle of olive oil for pasta

Method

Boil pasta per package directions.

Heat oil in a skillet on medium heat.

Add onions and sauté until translucent.

While onions are sautéing, slice the mushrooms into 1 cm strips.

Add mushrooms to pan and cover (it might seem like a lot of mushrooms but they’ll reduce down significantly)

Uncover when they’ve reduced in size and darkened in colour. Use a spatula to gently turn them in the pan. Recover until they are consistently cooked. The mushrooms are very fragile until they cook through so they can break easily if moved. I wanted my slices to stay intact but it’s up to you how you want them to turn out. You may notice some liquid in the pan as the mushrooms release their water.

Once all of the mushrooms are roughly the same colour, add the milk to the pan and gently mix in. Sprinkle on the cornstarch and use your spatula to mix it in.

Add the thyme, roasted garlic, and grated cheese and mix to combine. Simmer uncovered for another 5-10 minutes until the milk has reduced to a sauce consistency. If it doesn’t reduce enough add a bit more cornstarch and simmer another 5 minutes or until it reaches desired consistency.

Salt to taste.

Garnish with fresh cracked black pepper, thyme, and parmigiana petals. Beautiful. Simple. Enjoy.

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Saffron Mac & Cheese

One Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago we woke up and had quite a few things to do around the house. We’ve been so busy over the past few months that it was one of the first weekends we had available to just be together at home.

So after shuffling around for a couple hours and sort-of kind-of doing some things, we decided it was time to relax and needed some comfort food to go along with our newfound laziness. The Saturday before our lazy Sunday escapade we took Oliver for a 5k run that turned into 5k running plus 6k walking to and from the dog park.

All 3 of us were beat by the end of it. So on Sunday not only did we want comfort food, we wanted reward comfort food. I was craving something rich and creamy with a hint of sharp umami to balance it all out. My first thought was grits, but sadly we were out. So the next best thing was mac and cheese.

My go to mac and cheese is homemade. Once I learned how easy it was to make bechamel I never thought about making boxed mac and cheese again. We had whole milk in the house for eggnog purposes so I used that instead of my usual 2% and wow was it amazing.

I cooked the roux for a few minutes to bring out the nuttiness and then added the milk and it smelled like sugar cookies. When we were in Milan over the summer we wanted to try the quintessential Milanese dish. That happens to be risotto alla milanese, which in Milan might just be called risotto.

In any case, risotto alla milanese is a risotto cooked with saffron. The combination of starch, cream, cheese, and saffron makes for a beautiful balance and flavour profile. I figured it would also work for mac & cheese and wow did it ever. I don’t think I’m ever making mac & cheese without saffron again.

It’s such an elegant and exotic twist on a classic comfort food. I use this saffron and I’m really happy with it – its rated really well, reasonably priced, and appears to be of very good quality.

 

saffron mac and cheese

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Serving Size: 1 portion

saffron mac and cheese

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups dry pasta of your choice (I used farfalle because I didn't have anything else - macaroni or rotini is probably better)
  • 6 quarts salted water
  • 2 TBSP salted butter
  • 2 TBSP AP flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 3/4 cup mild or sharp cheddar grated
  • 2-3 pinches of saffron
  • ¼ cup grated manchego or other hard cheese (preferably - you can also just use cheddar)
  • ¼ cup breadcrumbs

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees and boil pasta per package directions to al dente consistency
  2. Melt butter in skillet at medium heat
  3. Add flour and stir until incorporated
  4. Cook for up to 5 minutes until the roux slightly darkens and takes on a nutty aroma
  5. Slowly add milk ¼ cup at a time stirring continuously. Your mixture may be a bit clumpy - I used a silicon spatula and pressed out the clumps as I went
  6. Once milk is incorporated, continue cooking for 5-10 minutes until mixture thickens to a sauce-like consistency
  7. Add cheddar cheese and stir until incorporated
  8. Add Saffron and stir until incorporated
  9. Taste it - add salt if necessary. I wouldn't add anything else because I it would interfere with the subtle saffron flavour
  10. Add drained pasta to skillet and mix to coat it evenly with the sauce
  11. Sprinkle even layer of the breadcrumbs and cheese on top
  12. Put under low broiler for 10-15 minutes
  13. Enjoy!

Notes

Oven safe skillet, preferably cast-iron

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