Child’s Play, or Spinning for Noodle-Lovers

It all started so innocently, with leftover roast chicken and a hot summer evening. Browsing through the options, I decided a cold noodle salad dressed with peanut sauce sounded like a good fit. I just used up the last of my cucumber and scallions the other day, and am out of most other fresh veggies at the moment (very ready to hit the farmer’s market on Saturday!), but I decided that shredded carrots and some thawed frozen peas would serve the purpose adequately. Then I opened the pantry and realized we were out of spaghetti, linguine, angel hair, fettuccine, and every other possible long pasta option. Farfalle was just not going to cut it for this recipe, so I resignedly started getting the kitchen ready to make fresh pasta with my usual recipe from Marcella, using the taglierini cutter to make thin strands. This requires two rest periods for the dough—after kneading and after sheeting, to get clean cuts—so there went my quick and easy meal.

But before I could get the dough started, an evil little voice whispered in my ear, “As long as you’re making fresh pasta, why not try making hand-pulled Chinese noodles? It couldn’t be much more time-consuming, and so much more authentic!” I started looking up recipes and how-to videos, and decided I was going to have to give it a shot. The dough is utterly different than my standard egg pasta dough: it is made mostly with cake flour and has a very silky texture. My cake flour had attracted the attention of some ants (sigh), so I got to sift it twice and painstakingly scoop out every speck of black I laid eyes on. Then I beat the dough with a paddle (attachment) for 15 minutes, shown above at left, and started despairing that it would ever achieve the right broken-gluten, silly putty consistency. After turning the mixer up a notch and letting it go for another 5 or 10 minutes, I came back to the photo above on the right: funky stringy dough so clay-like it was starting to reattach itself to the sides of the bowl.

Although I know I achieved the correct texture, I have to wonder if my recipe had the best balance of ingredients, because I had trouble with the strands breaking when using the traditional stretching method, which suddenly gave me flashbacks to cat’s cradle. Mind you, they were breaking because I was stretching them out to thread-like diameters while other strands were closer to the size of my pinky finger—not because the dough was tearing. But I suspect that my dough was just a mite too soft, and after playing with it for a while, I decided I had better just get on with it and make dinner. By working with just a marble-sized lump of dough at a time, I was able to stretch and roll the dough into strands about the size of a lo mein or yakisoba noodle (yes, I know the latter is not Chinese). The process reminded me a lot of spinning yarn, what little I have done with a drop spindle at least: a combination of stretching between the fingers, rolling against the counter, and feeding out more dough from the larger piece. Most of my noodles ended up being about a foot long, which I think is pretty good for a first try, but I also didn’t worry too much about breaks, so I did have some short strands too.

These noodles are so thin that I was concerned about them drying out, not an issue when you are able to stretch a whole pile in one go with the traditional method. For my purposes, I kept the large piece of dough under loose plastic wrap and made my noodles in small batches, basically a handful at a time. I kept a pot of water simmering on the stove, and every time I got enough noodles, I picked them up gingerly and threw them in the water for 30 seconds, then scooped into a bowl of ice water to chill. Be warned: If you squeeze the noodles while moving them, you’ll just end up with one giant noodle, but I didn’t have any trouble with this. After an hour or two of work, I ended up with a bowlful of tender cooked noodles. No sweat, eh?

Once I got that out of my system, it was time to make the rest of the noodle salad, just a few minutes’ work shredding carrots, thawing peas, chopping chicken, and whisking up a little peanut sauce dressing. I went with a Bobby Flay recipe, but I didn’t have chipotles in adobo (probably because that kind of heat makes my toes curl—I am a delicate flower), so instead I substituted, that’s right, peach butter! I’m telling you, that stuff works in everything! I did add a little dried chipotle powder in honor of the original though. This dressing didn’t have a great deal of flavor for me; I kept adding more flavorings and just tasting peanut butter. But this dish was all about the noodles anyway, right?

Well, the noodles tasted great. They were toothsome, long enough to wind around the fork, and held up under the stress of tossing together my salad. Will I make them again? I’m crazy that way, so yes, absolutely! The recipe I tried this time had slightly different proportions than the one from the video, so I plan to try the latter next time and see if I have better success. I realize that hand-pulled noodles are very much an art and I may never get the hang of it, but they are tasty enough to be worth a try—in fact, I think this would be the perfect Daring Cooks challenge if they haven’t taken it on already. And the dough is just plain fun to work with. I can’t wait to sit down with my son when he’s big enough not to just eat the dough, and play at making noodles.

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