Making pasta is, for me, therapeutic. There is a zen in noodle-making that I am certain Asian noodle makers understand, and it definitely translates into Italian pasta. Good pasta requires an outside awareness of what is not obvious: A feeling about whether there is too much water in the dough or not enough, an inkling that the dough has been kneaded enough.
Making spaghetti alla chitarra is less zen and more rock and roll, however.
A chitarra is an odd wooden contraption we think originated in Abruzzi, in central Italy on the Adriatic side of the peninsula. Meaning ‘guitar,’ a chitarra looks like a double-sided harp, with strings set close on one side, farther on the other. In then center of the device is a slanted board, designed to allow the cut pasta to slide off easily once it’s been cut by the strings.
I’ve never been too sure about why a chitarra was exactly necessary. The wide side is basically tagliatelle, which are easily cut by hand. The narrower side makes more sense because hand-cut spaghetti are trickier. This is probably why people normally make spaghetti alla chitarra, not tagliatelle alla chitarra.
I began reading about chitarra, and, best I can tell, no one can really determine how thick the noodles ought to be. The Encyclopedia of Pasta says roll the dough out “not too thin,” and that ‘s about the best advice I can give: Pasta alla chitarra is not delicate, except for a rare version where the wires are spaced so thin they make angel hair pasta.
I decided to make a square spaghetti, which meant rolling out the dough to No. 2 on my Atlas machine — pretty thick. As for the chitarra itself, you can buy one online, or buy a chitarra attachment for your Atlas. Gotta say though, “playing the chitarra” was way more fun than cranking a machine handle.
When you dislodge the pasta from the machine, you literally play the strings, and the vibration knocks the noodles onto the slanted board. Dust them with plenty of flour immediately so they don’t stick together.
What dough to use? Well, as some of you know, I am a huge fan of alternate flours: whole wheat, chestnut, rye, barley, spelt, even chickpea and acorn. I love the flavor of farro, also known as emmer: It is the oldest known variety of cultivated wheat, and eating it — whole like a risotto, or ground into flour — makes you understand why, 10,000 years ago, humans decided to settle down and try to grow more of this amazing stuff. Farro is to typical whole wheat flour what supermarket baloney is to real mortadella.
Doughs are idiosyncratic. The use of eggs is always optional, but they add strength and flavor and, if you’re using yolks, color. I like the coffee-with-cream look of a straight farro pasta, but I had the whites of several duck eggs lying around (I used the yolks to make my oregano ice cream for an upcoming dinner party). So I used them in the pasta dough.
I like the idea, but the dough turned out too wet, so I ended up adding a fair bit of regular flour as I kneaded the dough — for a full 10 minutes, as farro is a tough grain. I let it set for two hours so the farro could absorb all the liquid, and went to work.
I had originally planned to serve this farro spaghetti alla chitarra with a puree of cardoons stewed with leeks, but the cardoons turn to water when I tried, so I left them out and just used the leeks. Worked for me, and made a great winter-into-spring dish — a little hearty, a little sprightly.
Maybe I was overstating it a bit when I said making spaghetti alla chitarra lacks the calming power of making other kinds. That’s not true. I felt better making something with my hands.
And honestly, playing crazy anarchist harp player while strumming the chitarra made Holly and I both laugh. A lot.
This is a general recipe for the brown wheat flours: whole wheat, spelt or farro — the last two are older varieties of wheat that can be found in a health food store. The point of this kind of pasta is to be rustic and earthy: Bigger shapes, thicker ribbons, chunkier sauces and heartier accompaniments.
- 10 ounces whole wheat, farro, spelt or einkorn flour about 1 1/2 cups
- 3 ounces all-purpose flour, about 1/2 cup
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- Whites from 4 eggs
- 2 tablespoons water
Whisk together flours and pour into a large bowl. Make a well at the center.
- Whisk together the egg whites, water and olive oil and pour into the well. Mix together by hand, and when the dough comes together begin kneading — if you suspect the dough may be too dry, add a smidge of water. Use extra flour if it is too wet.
Knead for a good 5 to 10 minutes. Wrap in plastic and set aside to rest for 1 hour, or up to 24 hours in the fridge. One neat trick is to vacuum seal your dough, which will hydrate it instantly.
To make spaghetti alla chitarra, you want to roll out your dough to about 1/8" thick, either with a rolling pin or with a pasta maker. If you do it with a pasta maker, it will only need to be passed through to the No. 2 setting, which is fairly thick. Make sheets of dough about as long as you want your spaghetti to be.
Lay the dough sheet on your chitarra, then use a rolling pin to roll the dough through wires. Some will stick, so you "play the guitar" by strumming the wires, which releases the pasta. Dust it in a little all-purpose flour and set aside until ready to cook.
Farro is the best of the three choices here, as it is just the essence of wheat — a lovely aroma and pretty coffee-and-cream color. Spelt is nearly as good, but is slightly more metallic-tasting. Whole wheat flour is the fall-back, although freshly ground whole wheat flour is excellent.