MOORHEAD — Americans have had a love affair with pasta ever since Thomas Jefferson raved about eating macaroni on a trip to Paris in 1784.
From there, pasta love percolated and exploded in the early 20th century when an Italian immigrant named Etoore Boiardi began bottling the spaghetti sauce his New York City restaurant customers loved so much. To help his American customers learn to pronounce his name correctly, he sold the sauce under the name “Chef Boyardee.”
Since then, pasta has become an easy go-to meals for American families. What could be easier after a long day of work than to throw some dry spaghetti noodles into a pot of boiling water? Top it with bottled marinara sauce and voila (or Prego! Or Ragu!), you have a meal.
But in recent years, more culinary crazed Americans are making their own homemade pasta. Is it worth it?
This week on "The Scoop with Tracy Briggs," we decided to give it a try. Like most Americans, I grew up eating dry boxed noodles. I think my childhood blood ran somewhere between Kraft Macaroni and Cheese yellow and SpaghettiOs orange. Mom, while a great cook, never served us homemade noodles — we didn’t even call it pasta back then. It was the '70s, so she was too busy serving us Tang and fondue.
When I became a mom, I certainly didn’t jump at the chance to make homemade pasta. It was about convenience and expectation. I learned my lesson not to monkey with my girls' favorite noodle dishes when my kids were about 5 and 3. I had seen an ad for healthier Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Somehow the (cheese) whiz kids at Kraft found a way to impart more vitamins into the dried powder product. So, wanting to sneak nutrition into my kids' bellies any chance I got, I gave the healthier version a go.
It cooked the same. It looked the same. But after one bite, my 3-year-old said, “What’s wrong with this?” Failed experiment. I went back to the same old dried boxed pasta, sometimes with cheese sauce, sometimes with butter, but always pretty much the same.
A couple of years ago, things changed after I shot a video segment with my friend Russ Peterson from Post-Traumatic Funk Syndrome. He's a great cook and showed me how easy and delicious homemade pasta could be (check out his recipe for Orecchioni with Funky Sage and Butter here). He let me take the leftovers home and my kids devoured it. They obviously agreed the homemade pasta was delicious, but is it worth the time and effort?
I decided to get help from two of my friends in the neighborhood. Janelle Leiseth and Jane Skunberg live down the block from me. Janelle has four kids and Jane has three, and both are busy driving them from activity to activity and try hard to still get food on the table. Is homemade pasta really something they’d mess with or is boxed best?
We found a fairly inexpensive pasta maker for $25 and decided to give it a go. We made both fettuccine and elbow macaroni and just used store-bought marinara and Alfredo sauce to cover it. Here’s what we learned.
It’s hard work
It’s certainly not “working in a coal mine” hard or anything, but making pasta by hand — at least with the machine I bought — required some serious arm strength. My kitchen was hot anyway, but I could feel the sweat forming as I turned the crank of the manual maker. The dense dough wasn’t that easy to get out, and my arms were even sore the next day.
Granted, this would be a nonissue if I would have sprung for the pasta attachment for my KitchenAid mixer, but I wasn’t ready to spend $200. If I planned to make homemade pasta frequently, I think it would be worth it.
Bigger is better
We found that making fettuccine was a lot faster and easier than making elbow macaroni. I think the same is true for lasagna and ravioli. Because of its size, the smaller macaroni glopped together in little balls when it fell from the machine. Sometimes it didn’t really look like macaroni, and I put the dough back into the machine to try again.
Don’t just think you’ll be done after you buy a pasta maker — you're going to need a pasta drying rack, too (think a miniature clothesline for your noodles). You need a place to hang the noodles, especially the longer ones, after it comes out of the machine. The drying rack I found was only about $10 and worked well. If you don’t want to buy this, just look around your kitchen for places to let the pasta hang out like laundry on a treadmill.
Apples and oranges
After sampling the fettuccine and macaroni, Jane, Janelle and I all agreed that homemade was definitely much better. You could taste the freshness in every bite. The pasta was tender, soft and held up well to both the marinara and Alfredo sauces. It tasted quite different from the boxed pasta. It was almost hard to truly compare them.
The bottom line?
We all agreed fresh was best, but we spent well over an hour setting up the machine, mixing the dough, turning pasta, drying it and finally cooking it. That doesn’t even include cleaning up. So it might not be the best choice for a quick weekday dinner. We’ll stick with dried boxed noodles for that.
But for a great weekend meal, homemade pasta is delightful, and you might get some nice biceps in the process.
Have an idea for "The Scoop"? Reach Tracy Briggs at email@example.com or 701-451-5632.