It’s all about the flour.
It’s said that if you want to taste cream, make panna cotta. If you want to taste butter, croissants are your bet. If you want to taste eggs, omelets. But if you want to taste grain, if you really really want to taste grain, then you can’t do any better than pasta. Breads, especially those leavened with strong-tasting natural starters, can mask the true flavor of grain. But with pasta, flour is pretty much all you get. That and some egg, of course, and maybe a drop or two of water.
What about the sauce? you say. There’s plenty of flavor there, isn’t there? Yes that’s true, especially here in the States where we tend to eat our pasta swimming in sauce. The attitude is different in Italy where sauce is applied to pasta in the same way we apply sauce to a steak: sparingly, as a condiment. Italians don’t drown good pasta in sauce for the same reason Americans don’t drown a prime, dry-aged cut in A-1, because the real pleasure is what’s underneath. Of course we here in the States tend not to have very good pasta (Italy, conversely, doesn’t have very good steak). Thus it’s not too surprising we haven’t learned how to treat it well. Making one’s own is a major step down that road.
Since pasta is all about the flour, it makes sense that the higher quality the flour, the better the pasta. Freshness also counts, but then “fresh flour” isn’t something most people — especially bakers — want. Why? Because the proteins in freshly-milled flours don’t join together well into the chains we know as “gluten”. This has to do with the sulfurous bonds on their ends, which need to oxidize before they can function they way we like them to. This was once achieved simply by aging the flour and exposing it to air. However, since every square inch of space in a modern mill costs money to maintain, simple aging is practical anymore. That’s where bleaching and bromating have entered the picture, to help “condition” flours for the baker quickly and inexpensively. Both practices have fallen out of favor, though mills compensate with other “natural” additives like citric acid.
For pasta makers, however, the fresher the flour the better. But packages of flour don’t come with “sell by” dates. So unless you’re lucky enough to live near a specialty mill (I’m not), there’s almost no way to know how fresh your flour is. An alternative is of course mail order. As longtime readers of joepastry.com know, my go-to resource for all things baking-related is King Arthur. They’re an established (make that very established — they’ve been around 200 years!) specialty mill that makes and sells a wide variety of non-standard flours. One of them is what they call their Perfect Pasta Blend. It’s a novel mix of Italian-style flours that’s very nice indeed for a pre-made product. It’s expensive, even moreso when you consider the shipping, but once it’s turned into pasta the total cost is actually less than good store-bought noodles. But more importantly, it tastes great — far more complex and interesting than anything you could ever make with off-the-shelf all-purpose. It makes pasta you’d enjoy eating plain. No, really. Little Josephine won’t eat hers it any other way. Which is really saying something for a girl whose main culinary pleasure is her once-a-week Chicken McNugget Happy Meal.