over easy

I Love This Ugly, Easy Fresh Pasta Disaster

Malfatti. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

One day back in 1785 — 233 years before I found myself hunched over in the children’s clothing section of Brooklyn’s Fulton St. Target — Scottish poet Robert Burns was ploughing fields. That’s what people spent a lot of their time doing back then, I think. Legend has it, as he was ploughing, he accidentally ran over a mouse’s nest. Moved by the plight of the tiny, homeless rodent whose life had been unexpectedly upended, Burns composed his poem “To a Mouse,” writing, “The best-laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.” Actually, he wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft adley,” but I don’t speak Scots, so I was thinking of the modern English version when I realized, tired and sweaty in the Fulton St. Target that, despite my careful planning, I would not be acquiring a pasta maker that day.

I’ve wanted to make fresh pasta for a long time — it seems at once sophisticated and homey, aspirational yet comforting, and like something I would absolutely love to brag about to anyone who made the mistake of coming within ten feet of me. After poking around a bit, I found the elegant, yolk-filled recipe of my dreams. I read it through five times, readied all the equipment I already had, and planned out where I would buy all the ingredients. But there was one piece of equipment I did not have: a pasta maker. And after spending a day wandering miles through several home-good stores, making lengthy phone calls to several others, and desperately texting my friends “u have pasta maker??”, it became clear that this recipe was not in the cards for me.

Slumped over next to a stack of toddler’s leggings in the quietest area of Target I could find, I scrolled through list after list of summer pasta recipes, and found this Bon Appetit one by Ignacio Mattos, for malfatti with pancetta and cherry tomatoes. It said you don’t need “any fancy equipment” (great) and that malfatti — which translates literally to “badly made” — is “low pressure, high participation, big payoff” (great, sure, great). It was not where I had foreseen my evening going, and my past pasta experiences have been, uh, less than successful, but I figured I could badly make some badly made pasta.

Mattos’s recipe calls for “plenty of workspace,” which I don’t have, but even if you had dozens of square feet of counter space, and one of those beautiful kitchen islands that is the size of a life boat, making malfatti is a messy operation. First you dry out two cups of whole-milk fresh ricotta with a cheesecloth, but having never drained ricotta before, I wasn’t sure how much liquid was supposed to come out. Does it drip? Gush? Mist? As I squeezed and squeezed, a little bit of slimy liquid oozed slowly through the cloth, which I brushed off with my hands. When bits of cheese started to ooze out as well, I decided that was as good as it was going to get, and plopped the ricotta on some paper towels where I patted it dry some more.

Next, I mixed the semi-dry ricotta, six ounces of Parmesan, an egg, and some salt in a food processor, poured the combination into a large bowl, and mixed it with a cup of flour. I was supposed to do this until it was “just barely combined,” but again, I wasn’t sure exactly that meant. I interpreted it as “not having huge clumps of only flour or only cheese,” but take some deep breaths, quiet your busy mind, and listen to your inner voice to find out what it means to you.

Dough bbs. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

This is where the “plenty of workspace” really comes in handy. On a floured surface, you’re supposed to divide the ricotta mixture into four pieces, and roll each piece into a 22-and-¾-inch rope. The only flat, non-upholstered surface in my apartment that would accommodate that length of cheese is my dining table (or the floor, but my dog pees there sometimes when she gets excited and/or nervous) so I unrolled a bunch of parchment paper, taped it to the dining table, covered it with flour, and got to work making a huge mess. After rolling out each section, I cut it up into ¾-inch pieces, measured carefully on a ruler, and then set them aside on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and dusted with flour. When my roommate came into the flour-covered kitchen and saw the dumplings, she did not say “What the hell have you done to our home,” which would have been fair, she said, “Aw!” They are, indeed, cute little dough lumps.

Once the dumplings were done, I cooked four ounces of pancetta (a salt-cured Italian bacon) in three tablespoons of olive oil for about seven minutes until it was brown and crispy and then, after taking the pancetta out and burning my mouth by eating some of it when it was still too hot, I set the oil aside to cook the dumplings and the rest of the sauce in later. In a big pot of simmering water (NOT boiling, the recipe says) I cooked my cheesy li’l dumplings for about five minutes until they floated to the surface, toward their buttery, delicious demise.

Finally, in the skillet with the pancetta grease, I added three-quarters cup of pasta water, two tablespoons of butter, the malfatti, and two cups of cherry tomatoes, and let it cook for six-ish minutes, until the sauce had thickened. Then I took it off the heat, salt and peppered it, and made myself a bowl topped with pancetta and Parmesan.

Ten years ago, 223 years after Robert Burns rudely de-housed that mouse, Oprah’s friend Deepak Chopra wrote, “The coincidences or little miracles that happen every day of your life are hints that the universe has much bigger plans for you than you ever dreamed of for yourself.” I don’t know that the universe has a plan; I generally suspect everything in the world is just stardust and chaos. But I believe the universe, or at least the kitchen sections of Target and Bed Bath & Beyond, had a plan for me that day. I wasn’t meant to make that first pasta recipe, I was destined to make this bowl of malfatti — with the cheesy, earthiness of the dumplings, the salt and crunch of the pancetta, and the tangy burst of the tomatoes.

I also learned some important lessons, like that you don’t need a pasta maker to make great, fresh pasta, and to not eat a bunch of heavy, cheesy dumplings before climbing a bunch of flights of stairs to the roof and watching fireworks, because you will want to barf. Who knows how long it would have taken me to learn these things if I had found a pasta maker that day?

My report card
Preparation: B+
Taste: A++!
Surrender to that which is unseen: B

My Overall Performance: A-

I Love This Ugly, Easy Fresh Pasta Disaster