That kids love pasta is one of those parenting truisms that begins as relief (it’s easy, it’s cheap), quickly graduates to fatigue, and usually culminates in parody. I still remember the Year of the Noodle, in which my daughter ate almost nothing but milk and buttered ziti.
Instead of fighting this (it won’t work), try harnessing it. Ask, what would Marcella do? Marcella Hazan, that is, the go-to Italian food authority in my house.
Making your own pasta is fun, a lot easier than it sounds, and your children will probably love it too. What kid doesn’t love playing with food?
Pasta-making is a bit like a kid’s project anyway. Mix flour and eggs together into something that resembles Play-Doh. Then roll it out, cut it into funny shapes, boil it and eat it under a spoonful of sauce.
As parents, chef-instructors and dietitians know, kids are more likely to eat something they’ve made themselves than food that magically appears in front of them. And with ownership comes responsibility -- not just for eating what’s on their plates, but also for cleaning up and helping with the dishes.
If your kids make the sauce, so much the better.
One of the great things about making homemade pasta these days (as opposed to the days of your Neapolitan great-grandmother) is that you have some nifty little tools to help you out if you want them. You can have your kids squash the dough by hand for 20 minutes of remember-when-you-did-this-with-mud fun. Or they can press the buttons on a food processor, which can be equally rewarding.
Similarly, rolling out the dough with a rolling pin is fun for some -- my kids usually get bored and leave before the pasta is thin enough. But they still fight over who gets to crank the handle on the Atlas pasta machine.
Ready for sauce
Once the dough is rolled out, you have a lot of options.
If the kids are hitting a low-blood-sugar wall and dinner needs to be on the table fast, just have them crank out a nest of fettuccine with the machine. Fresh pasta cooks in minutes, so all you need is a dab of butter, a splash of olive oil and a grating of Parmesan -- and dinner’s pretty much done.
If you have more time, let the sheets of pasta dry out a little (this makes them easier to cut), and give the kids a fluted pasta cutter, a pizza wheel or even a pair of kitchen shears, and let them cut out pappardelle (broad noodles, about an inch wide, traditionally with rippled edges).
Next, maybe while one kid is finishing up the pappardelle (or cutting the trimmings into smiley faces), another can get started on pesto. Pesto is a great kid-friendly sauce that doesn’t require any cooking, and the cheese and nuts provide a good amount of protein.
You can make pesto in a blender. Put the kids in charge of adding ingredients and pushing the buttons. Blenders are great because they’re loud; just be sure someone has a firm hand on the lid.
Or if you have one, use a mortar and pestle. There’s a lovely Flintstones quality to these things -- especially the ones made out of blocks of Thai granite -- that kids will appreciate even more than you do. The pesto works up quickly and is virtually foolproof. You can teach your progeny how to use a pretty cool kitchen tool -- while reminding them about pre-high-tech gadgets.
I make my pesto with pine nuts, since I’ve noticed that if I toast up some extra, my daughter eats them like popcorn while she’s making the sauce. If your kid likes walnuts, which are cheaper, use them instead.
Depending on how many children are in your kitchen, you can divide up tasks according to skill sets and interest. My 10-year-old and 7-year-old love cutting pasta noodles and grinding things up with the mortar and pestle. Younger kids tend to get a bigger charge out of pushing buttons and making noise, while older ones often appreciate the opportunity to show off their (supervised) knife skills.
Cook the pasta, then let the kids serve themselves (and you), by lifting out the noodles from the colander. Use a pair of big kitchen tongs if you have them -- for some reason, kids just love these things -- adding a spoonful of pesto, a sprinkling of pine nuts (if there are any left), maybe a dollop of fresh ricotta and a handful of cherry tomatoes.
Depending on how many people you’re cooking for and what kind of appetites they have, you can use a full recipe’s worth of pasta for dinner. Or you can do a little breakfast planning.
Use half of the pasta dough for dinner, then roll out the other half into slightly thinner sheets, cut these into pappardelle too and dry them overnight -- just hang them over the back of a chair. (My daughters think this is hilarious.)
The next morning, while you’re making coffee and the kids are, you hope, still asleep, cook the dried pasta and make a breakfast kugel. (If you change your mind, save the dried pasta in a plastic bag -- broken into pieces, it’s terrific in a pasta e fagioli soup.)
A kugel is a kind of Jewish pudding, like a baked mac ‘n’ cheese, which can be made either sweet, with dried fruit and spices like cinnamon, or savory, with cheese and onions, maybe garlic. Your fresh pasta needs to be dried overnight to give it enough texture to hold up during 50 minutes of baking. The resulting dish is tender and moist, rather like a delicate lasagna.
Laced with apples, currants and walnuts, with a little mascarpone in the custard and spiced brown sugar scattered over the top like a crumble topping, it’s a lovely dish that the kids will love. Noodles for breakfast!
A slice of the kugel, maybe with an extra bit of mascarpone and a cup of coffee, makes for a pretty great morning timeout for grown-ups too. If you’re still sweeping a bit of flour off the floor, maybe pulling a stray noodle from the wall, you might make that a large cup of coffee.