Getting Schooled in Pasta

Last Friday, I barreled out of Arlington and headed to greener pastures - Berryville, Va., to be exact.

My destination was Smithfield Farm, home to the Pritchard family, a flock of chickens and small free-ranging herds of pigs, cows, goats and lamb. Their naturally-raised meats and eggs are sold at nine farm markets in the Washington area, but the reason for my visit last week was to learn the fine art of making pasta.

Smithfield Farm's Nancy Pritchard feeding the chickens, aka "the girls," their breakfast of veggie and pasta dough scraps. (Kim O'Donnel)

While Forrest Pritchard and his sister, Betsy, tend to the animals and the great outdoors, Nancy, Forrest's wife, is busy indoors mixing flour and semolina. Since 2003, Nancy has been selling one-pound boxes of fresh noodles and ravioli, at the height of farmer's market season, she and her staff of three crank out 500 boxes a week.

To meet production needs, Nancy has two high-powered Italian pasta machines that will bite your finger if you're not careful. But for kicks, I brought along my hand-cranked pasta machine, a recent kitchen hand-me-down from my friend, Dan, to see how it would pass pasta muster.

Pushing clumps of pasta dough into the hand-cranked machine to create pasta sheets. (Kim O'Donnel)

But before any flour was measured, my first job was to collect eggs, straight from the source. We walked a few hundred feet into the fields, where a roving chicken coop was parked and a few hundred "girls" and one or two roosters run amok. As we neared the netted border fence, Nancy tossed scraps of pasta dough and veggies into the middle of the flock, and a feeding frenzy ensued.

While they feasted, we walked over to the coop and collected eggs from individual laying alcoves. Eggs were still warm, a first for me.

We went back inside and proceeded to make the dough, which includes oat flour, an ingredient not commonly found in pasta dough, but in the course of research and experimentation, Nancy says she fell in love with its nuttiness and buttery quality. There's a nice hearty texture to her oaty blend, a quality that is hard to find in fresh pasta.

Although we made a huge batch in a Hobart commercial-size mixer, Nancy says that pasta dough can easily be made at home with your hands (recipe details below), then sheeted and cut with a hand-cranked pasta machine. Ampia is the brand of my hand-me-down, which seemed to work fine, and Nancy, who started out her business with a hand-cranker, recommends Imperia brand, if you are considering buying one for your kitchen. Expect to spend about 50 bucks at a cookware store or online.

Making your own pasta is not hard, but I highly recommend working with someone, particularly on your first venture. There are many tasks, and I think the job would feel less overwhelming if duties were shared.

Below, Nancy's recipe for plain egg pasta dough. And in case you're wondering, yes, it's worth trying at least once in your life, and finally, I didn't feel like Lucille Ball dipped in flour. I also have details on making ravioli, but I'll save that for another post, with a filling recipe as well.

And by all means, share DIY pasta tips and tricks in the comments area.

Nancy and I sort through bundles of just-cut noodles that are dredged in semolina. (Betsy Pritchard)

Nancy Pritchard's Plain Egg Pasta Dough
(6-Egg Batch)

The recipe below is appropriate for home cooks, which Nancy says will make 10-12 servings of noodles.

6 eggs (1 1/3 cups)
2 cups oat flour
2 cups white or whole wheat pastry flour
3 cups semolina
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons water

Crack eggs and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine flours, semolina and salt, creating a well in the center. Pour in eggs and water, and with a wooden spoon, stir to combine, until you have something that resembles a ball. With your hands, knead dough until it's no longer moist and not quite crumbly. Think of the consistency of Play-Doh or sculpting clay.

Using a hand-cranked pasta machine, pass clumps through to begin making a sheet of pasta, and pass through, adding more clumps until you have a uniformed sheet that is about 1/4 inch thick. Set aside and dredge in semolina while you make sheets out of the rest of the dough.

When ready to cut, place edge of one sheet in mouth of desired cutter, the other hand cranking to pass the sheet all the way through. Retrieve your cut pasta and dredge in semolina as you cut the rest of your dough.

Pasta should be kept in an airtight plastic containers, covered with paper liners. Can be stored in fridge for a few days or frozen.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 8, 2007; 10:59 AM ET Farmers Markets
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Thanks for the tips! My boyfriend and I first tried our hand at homemade pasta a few weeks ago, and it was delicious with a homemade marinara. I can't to try the recipe with the oat flour!

Posted by: Rachael | May 8, 2007 3:26 PM

I have to share one of my favorite food-related memories. My father is of Italian extraction and he LOVES pasta with red sauce. He craves it periodically and calls it his "Italian transfusion". My mother is a midwestern farmer's daughter, and learned to cook Italian cuisine to satisfy Dad. She made her own sauce but typically used store pasta. Every year, Dad asked for homemade pasta for his birthday. So, every year when I was old enough, I'd help Mom make it. We'd have pasta drying all over every counter surface! It was oh-so-good. Mom made pasta for an army and there was never leftovers.

I can't remember the recipe that she used, but yours sounds similar. Mom didn't use oat flour. I think I'll ask to borrow her machine one day.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | May 8, 2007 3:30 PM

I used to have a fresh pasta-making business, Endless Pastabilities. One of the key lessons I learned in my pasta-making days was the unless you dust the pasta with flour after it is cut (I used rice flour for the dusting), it will all stick together.

I also used to make various flavored pastas- lemon-dill, tomato basil, spinach, whole wheat. It was great fun to experiment!

Posted by: Heidi | May 8, 2007 4:04 PM

My eighth grade Family and Consumer Science students make pasta to go along with their marinara sauce (from scratch) It gets very quiet as they crank the dough through the pasta machine--think really fancy Play-Doh Fun Factory. My Italian mentor taught me to fold the dough and crank it through three times at each thickness setting until it is thin enough for the final cut. Dust it with flour, and place the cut pasta on sheets of parchment paper. I have found that it will freeze well for a few days.

Posted by: Laurie in Chicago | May 8, 2007 4:44 PM

Hey Kim - I started making pasta with my Dad as a toddler. It was our family Christmas tradition to bring the fresh pasta to dinner at Grandpa's house. We do it a bit differently, mostly because there was no recipe for so long. The recipe is now formalized as "1 green tupperware mug of flour/egg, add a sprinkle of water if needed". It is important that the dough be shiny when it is ready, and it should also be stiffer than play-doh.
We put it through the machine using several progressively thinner settings to get the sheets very thin.
It is important to keep the dough covered while it is waiting for its first pass through the machine. Then, let it dry a bit between each rolling (2-3) and cutting. Keep the little short bits that fall out of the machine for soup.

Posted by: Teresa | May 8, 2007 5:20 PM

I have the pasta-making attachment for my Kitchenaid Mixer, and LOVE IT! One question though, I have not been able to find semolina at any of the stores I frequent (Giant, Balduccis) -- do you know where its sold in the area?

Posted by: Amelia | May 9, 2007 8:17 AM

Try Whole Foods or the Italian Store in Arlington for the semolina.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | May 9, 2007 9:53 AM

Thank you Kim & Nancy,
What a great article. Nancy's pasta is the greatest, there is always a fabulously creative variety available.
The farm is wonderful to see, as well as the Bed and Breakfast, on Smithfield Farm. A true family operation - you see so few these days!

Posted by: Allison | May 9, 2007 3:07 PM

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