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Nicholson’s first attempt at adding color to pasta started with green nettles to make Strettine, a green pasta traditional to Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. (Read more about nettles—they’re one of 7 common backyard weeds that are medicinal herbs in disguise.) She blanched the greens in salted baking soda water—a trick that turns the green color more vibrant and stops it from browning—then strained them right away. Next, she pureed them with eggs and kneaded the mix into flour to make a fettuccine-like pasta.
“My son responded to it as if it was play dough,” she recounts. “And I thought, Yes! I’ve totally hit upon something that’s going to be fun for me and that he’s going to eat every night. I wondered: What else can I do with it?”
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In answer, she came up with 5 more colored doughs which, at first, she’d shape into simple single-color Farfalle (bow-tie) shapes, but then started combining into bi-colored pasta and experimenting with polka dots and other patterns.
Since then she’s added to her arsenal of colored doughs: there’s yellow from Turmeric root, orange from harissa, a Tunisian chile paste, fuchsia from beets, and a deep brown from raw cacao. She’s played with surprising ingredients to coax different hues of every color into pasta — “Goji berries’ dough turns out bright yellow, Parsley turns out a lighter green”—and she’s invented altogether new kinds of dough for tricky accent colors. Her white ‘non-traditional’ dough is made with milk and heavy cream and no eggs, while the black dough she uses for outlines has activated charcoal powder.
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Blue posed a particular challenge. “There are very few naturally occurring blue foods—and no, blueberry does not make blue, it makes purple,” Nicholson explains. She chanced upon vividly blue butterfly pea flowers and ordered them online from South East Asia, where they grow. (You can order blue butterfly pea flowers through Amazon.) “The process for them is totally different because eggs are yellow, so you can’t mix blue and yellow together, ’cause you would get green,” she clarifies.
Instead, she steeps them in hot water till it’s the shade of blue she wants — the longer you let it sit, the bluer it becomes—and then uses the blue water to make an eggless hot water dough. It’s a technique she uses with some other ingredients too, like matcha powder, when she’s trying not to dilute their color.
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Even more stunning than the vibrant colors of Nicholson’s pasta creations, are the intricate patterns she imprints on them, from textile-like Argyle lasagna noodles to Kate Spade-inspired pappardalle. “I get ideas from everywhere—the fabric store, pop culture. I’ll see somebody’s shirt and go up to them and say can I take a picture,” she confesses. “When I tell them I’m going to turn the print into pasta, they look at me like I’m crazy,” she laughs.
Nicholson starts with laminating her dough—a process of folding it onto itself and feeding it through the roller, several times, to make it sturdier and easier to manage—to finally roll out a strong, thin pasta sheet. She then brushes the base sheet with water to make it sticky enough for a top sheet or bits of pasta to adhere to it. Then comes the design. Noodle strips of multi-colored doughs, red heart cutouts, a yellow sheet with star-cutwork or whatever else she can imagine goes onto the base sheet.
Her message is clear—you can use any food to naturally color pasta dough, as long as you’re willing to experiment. Or you can take her list of tried and tested ingredients and just start coloring.
Sometimes, especially when she’s working with faces or drawings, Nicholson will use a rolling pin instead to lightly embed the design without distortion. She uses a toolbox full of cutters, punch-outs, tweezers, and brushes for her intricate patterns. “I’m always trying to find stuff and be like, can this be repurposed for pasta,” she says.
From her toolbox, a cake-piping tip becomes an eyeball-shape stencil for an emoji ravioli; a large round cookie cutter, used strategically, comes handy to cut thick crescent eyebrows; and a four-petaled fondant plunger-cutter turns out to be a shortcut to blue tears. When she doesn’t find a tool for what she wants to make—like, the poop Emoji on a ravioli—she goes to basics like a paper stencil and scissors.
Some of her pasta work is incredibly detailed, like one that depicts Mt. Rainier. “Those are some of the harder ones, when there’s a lot of detail work on something relatively small,” she admits, “because there’s a lot of color involved and you’ve to work really fast so it won’t dry out.” But she insists that making these pastas doesn’t need a lot of skill, just the desire and patience to keep at it.
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For those looking to make pasta like hers, she recommends starting with making fettuccini from a simple green dough. “Once you’re good with that, then you can try making bi-colored fettuccine noodles, with one side green and the other side, say, blue,” she says. For more advanced projects, she suggests making the colored doughs a day before, so you can focus only on making the patterns on that day.
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But ultimately, it’s about fun. “It’s not rocket science and you’re not going to ruin anything,” she says. Kids, especially, love getting imaginative with the colorful doughs, so get them involved. Make a fun activity out of it. Bring your artistic instincts into the process. And remember to just play around.
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Beet-Blueberry Perfect Purple Pasta Dough Recipe
This is the dough to make if you’re aiming for classic purple. It’s colorfast and extra smooth, although keep in mind the blueberry seeds give it tiny, charming flecks of purple.
- 1 small beet, peeled and roughly chopped (about 2 ounces)
- ¼ cup fresh or frozen blueberries
- 2 large eggs
- 2 ¼ cups “00” pasta flour
1. Place the chopped beet in a small, non-metal bowl and cover. Microwave for 50 seconds. Let sit for two minutes. Alternatively, beets can be roasted (never boiled).
2. Uncover and add to a blender along with the blueberries and eggs, and blend on low speed, slowly increasing speed until a smooth puree forms.
3. Combine the flour and puree in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until a ball of dough forms. Continue to knead, either by hand or in the mixer for 3 minutes, so that the dough develops elasticity and silkiness. Seal the ball of dough in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before turning into sheets according to directions on your pasta machine. Can be turned into fettuccine, pappardelle, or any other typical sheeted pasta.
Alternatively, you can let the dough rest for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. The color will turn grayish-brown after that, although the dough is still usable for up to 3 days.