Photo: Marcus Nilsson
Sometimes a mother of three needs a time-out. Tahiti? Aspen? Try closer to home. Celia Barbour discovers flour power—and some hard-won fresh homemade noodles—in her own kitchen.
I love my kids; my kids love me; yeah yeah yeah. But there are evenings when I am thankful that the human brain is equipped with small, private spaces where a mother can go and talk to herself without being overheard. These are the evenings when I feel my patience slipping at 5:02, and several hours later, at 5:04, realize that my good cheer is completely gone, and meanwhile my husband, Peter, won't be home until after 7.
One such evening, desperate to fill the intervening eternity, I think, "Why not make pasta from scratch?" Granted, it's not the most obvious solution, but it works. It gives me something creative and satisfying to do, and confers upon me great, mystical power. All I have to do is say to my kids, 8, 6, and 3, "I can't help you arrange the furniture into a hockey rink right now, I'm making homemade noodles," and their eyes open wide and they back off, reverentially. Most things having to do with noodles have this effect on children.
My kitchen overlooks the living/dining/playroom of our open-plan home, so I can embark on a project like this and still appear to be spending time with my dear offspring—responding to their questions, refereeing disputes, preventing serious injuries. But, secretly, as the three of them begin whacking at a small stuffed animal that has been commandeered as a hockey puck, I am far, far away.
My countertop is a peaceful and orderly landscape. I pour one and a half cups of flour onto my great wooden board, pat it into a nice pile, form a little well in the middle, and pour two beaten eggs into it.
Now, I am not naive. I know that the creation of anything worthwhile—a novel, a pyramid, noodles—will have its moments of grief and despair. They're part of what makes the result feel like such a swell accomplishment. Typically, with cooking, this little visit to hell comes at the very end of the process, when I am trying to coax one radically undercooked dish and another disastrously overcooked dish into the semblance of a coherent dinner.
But with homemade pasta the anguish comes right away, with the flour well. Here's why: It always collapses. Usually, I get about half the flour incorporated into the egg, drawing it in bit by bit as I circle my fingers gently around the perimeter, and then, just as I am feeling optimistic, the wall of flour cracks like a weak levee, loosing a flood of eggy glop onto my board, which I then must clumsily corral with my hands, mashing and pushing until it all comes together into a raggedy mess. This little catastrophe doesn't seem to make much difference to the pasta, but it absolutely destroys my well-being.
For a moment, anyway. Because then I wash and dry my hands, and begin to knead. Kneading is surely the most therapeutic task ever invented. You do something incredibly simple: Push the dough down with the heel of your hand, fold it over, turn it 90 degrees, and push it again, fold it over, turn, push, fold, turn. You do this for about ten minutes. And while you are doing this plain, repetitive thing, something miraculous takes place. The discrete little grains of flour dust are turning into long, elastic protein molecules and getting stretched and tangled up in each other and making a dough, something cohesive and soft and springy, something that feels almost alive, like baby skin, something that cannot ever revert to mere flour and egg. It has been irreversibly changed.
About a month ago, I met a guy from MIT who was wearing a T-shirt that read AT THE CELLULAR LEVEL, I'M ACTUALLY QUITE BUSY! That's what it's like inside the pasta dough: quite busy. Meanwhile the cook (me) has just been doing this ordinary thing with her hands.
We Hear You!