Handmade Pasta in Savory Broth
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.

Tenderly, I wrap the ball of dough in plastic—it needs half an hour to rest so that those tangled up protein strands can relax a bit—and I take this time to heat the broth and chop the vegetables. Then, hooray, it's back to the dough. With any luck, this is the moment when my youngest child, my daughter, abandons the hockey game and decides that she'd like to come and check out what I'm doing. She dusts the board with flour, then plunges her hand back into the flour bag and leaves it there for a minute, just twiddling her fingers in the softness. I should stop her, but I can't; I am bewitched by her shy pleasure.

Rolling out the pasta is hard work—not hard as in complicated, but hard as in muscle building. It wouldn't necessarily have to be a Herculean task if my husband had just gone ahead and bought me the pasta-maker attachment for my KitchenAid that I've been requesting for three Christmases in a row now. He always forgets, then feels guilty and gets me earrings instead—so pretty and pricey that I can't stay mad.

Those earrings are of no use to me now, as I take a cherry-tomato-size lump of the dough and pat it flat on my board, then begin rolling—bearing down and really pushing on the rolling pin, flipping and turning the dough until it has grown beyond reckoning to a sheet the size of a hand towel. This is my second-favorite miracle: The flour and eggs are now as thin, dry, and flexible as a piece of parchment.

I repeat this three more times—pulling a small piece of dough off the big mother lump and rolling it out. I sandwich herbs and cheese between pairs of layers, then roll them thin again. By now it's getting late, but there's still time for my pasta to perform one last miracle. "Time to clean up," I call out to the kids, "so we can have homemade noodles for supper." To my astonishment, they obey.

I feel like a hero when my family loves the food I serve them. But there's a shadow over my exultation, because I want to raise kids who don't just love to eat, but love to cook as well. And I fear I'm not setting such a stellar example by retreating into an extravagantly pointless task for two hours. I mean, maybe they'll merely resent the kitchen because they know I go there to escape from them. I hope, however, that they'll be wise and realize what else I've been trying to teach them: that things that seem to magically appear in their lives—noodles, socks, TV shows—are the result of real work by real people, for example. And that work is not just the part of life you rush through mindlessly in order to be done with it, but that it can be a fine and noble pursuit; that, often, work—good work—is more fun than so-called "fun."

The soup in which the finished pasta is served is really a kind of swindle. The sad fact is that this whole great expenditure of time and labor will not result in enough noodles to fill five plates. But there will be enough to float impressively in five bowls of soup, with some left over for seconds, even. It's okay. Sometimes cooking is not about stuffing everyone's tummies. It's about filling my spirit so I can sit down with my family at the end of a long afternoon, look at their sweet, flushed cheeks, and pray that I can always figure out how best to nourish us all.


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