Danny Freeman Squashes The Intimidation Behind Pasta-Making In New Cookbook - Exclusive Interview

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Making fresh pasta isn't scary. That's one of the first lessons Danny Freeman wants you to learn when it comes to his new cookbook, "Danny Loves Pasta." As a dad of a young daughter, the TikToker became known for his creative and colorful pasta shapes that feature characters, cartoons, and patterns. In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Freeman sat down in a Los Angeles café on a very hot day to discuss pasta tips, describe the cookbook-making process, and comment on his lasagna soup recipe that swept the internet.

The social media star's first cookbook features over 75 pasta shapes, sauces, and more — with vegan and gluten-free options. Freeman told us about his chocolate chip cookie ravioli and his mint pea sauce, and he revealed his favorite recipe so far: mini lasagna. While he continues to push the boundaries on fun and creative pasta meals, he also creates gummy worm pasta on his YouTube channel, and he gave us an idea of how that tastes.

Individual lasagnas should be on your dinner list

Let's talk about your first cookbook. What recipe are you most looking forward to sharing?

I love the mini lasagna, which is little lasagna in these ramekins. You can do the ramekin or a small bowl. When I started making it a long time ago — when I first started dating my now-husband — we would make lasagna sometimes. It lasts a while, but he's a vegetarian, and I'm not. We would want different cheeses, we'd want different things, so we tried to split the lasagna down the middle. It never quite worked, so we started making our individual lasagna.

Now we have a 3-year-old, so she can pick her own ingredients ... She can put her own things in there, so I like that one. I have all the different fresh pastas with different vegetables and things. I love the roasted red pepper pasta, which is a very bright orange color. It's beautiful. In terms of shapes, I like making bow ties. It's classic, simple — but they're fun to make.

With many of your designs being colorful and decorative, would you say there is a level of difficulty to your cookbook recipes?

No. Sometimes, people are intimidated by fresh pasta, but I don't think you need to be. The book starts with the expectation that you've never made fresh pasta before. It takes you through the steps and teaches how to incorporate a vegetable or spice to make the color. Some of the shapes are harder to make than others — that's true — but someone can start with the bow ties or something more simple. A lot of the times when I make fresh pasta now, especially if I'm doing multiple colors, I do it in a food processor. That method is in the book. You can have fresh pasta in five minutes — that's very quick.

As a kid, we would sometimes make fresh pasta, and I have these memories of it taking over the whole kitchen and making a big mess. Sometimes people think that, but actually, you can make fresh pasta very quickly and easily.

Pay attention to the moisture in pasta dough

Do you ever make gnocchi? Is that in the book?

Yes. There's a recipe for sweet potato gnocchi in the book.

That one is hard to perfect, I've learned.

It can be hard to get the texture right, because with regular pasta dough, it doesn't matter. You can't over-knead it. You can keep kneading it, you can always adjust the flour and the eggs and the liquid. But with gnocchi, sometimes it can be tricky to get it right — takes a little bit of practice.

What's your number one tip for cooking fresh pasta? As you said, it's intimidating for some.

My number one tip is to be mindful of the moisture content and the feel of the dough. Even if you follow a recipe exactly, and you measure your flour with a scale and everything, you can always have variations. Your eggs might be slightly different sizes, or you might have a lot of humidity in the air or moisture in your hands. The number one thing that people write to me about is they say, "I tried to make fresh pasta once. It was very, very sticky. I went to cook it, and it all formed a big ball of dough. It didn't work."

Usually, that's because your dough is too wet. Never be afraid of adjusting it. If you're kneading the dough and it's sticking to your hands, add more flour. That's usually the problem people have — they have to add a little bit more flour. If it's very dry, you can always add a little bit more water. Don't be afraid to adjust; it's very forgiving.

So aim for less, and then adjust if you need.

Yes. If people have made bread dough or pizza dough, those can be very sticky. Pasta dough, once you have a ball and you're kneading it, it should not be sticking to your hands or sticking to your counter. If it is, sprinkle on more flour. That's the number one problem people have — they need to add a little bit more flour.

You actually can put vegetables in tomato sauce

What was the behind-the-scenes like for this cookbook? I'm curious what it looked like for you since it was your first one.

I started the process about 18 months ago. I had my TikTok for about a year at that point, I'd been making a lot of fresh pasta and making videos, and I started working on a proposal for the cookbook. At that time, I had a literary agent — I still do. We wrote a proposal, which included sample recipes and a sample table of contents, sample chapters, [and an] introduction. She pitched it around to different publishers, and I went with this publisher I did, which is DK, which is part of Penguin Random House. Then, I started working on the book at the beginning of last summer. I had a few months where it's me alone in my kitchen, making every recipe, testing it, tweaking it. For most people, when you cook, you're not always measuring every little thing; you're adjusting.

But for this, you have to write exactly how much you're doing. People are free to deviate and try their own, but the recipe has to be clear enough that someone could follow it and have it turn out right. That took a while — tweaking a little bit, seeing which was better, and then writing the final versions, writing all the narrative. My publisher hired someone to test every recipe in the book, so she tested every recipe and would give me some notes here and there. Then we had an eight-day photo shoot, so we rented a kitchen space and made every recipe in the book.

That's a lot.

It was a lot. Especially with this type of pasta ... I wanted it to look perfect and a certain way. I was making everything, and they would photograph it, and we had an amazing photographer and food stylist who were there to help. Then it was editing the manuscript and going back and forth with little changes. It was done basically in the New Year's of this year; I've just been waiting until now for it to come out. It's been out for a few weeks.

That's anticipation though — it's exciting. Were there any recipes that didn't make the cut that you wanted to make the cut?

I have one that I'm still working on — maybe in a future book, it'll be there. I wanted a recipe that's like a tomato sauce, but you can sneak other vegetables in, because I have a daughter.

I can use that.

There's recipes out there where someone will make a tomato sauce, but they'll add a bunch of other vegetables to get your kids to eat more vegetables. They say, "It tastes just like tomato sauce — your kids will never know." I worked on that idea for a long time, and I felt like you could always tell there are other veggies in there. Kids will know. It looked like a tomato sauce, but I never felt like it had a real tomato sauce taste, so I ended up scrapping that one. Maybe one day, we'll add it back to some future book.

Vegan pasta dough is easier to make than you'd think

You have a vegan pasta dough. How do you go about making that?

You can make a basic dough with flour and water, which is what's in the box of pastas — just flour. Fresh pasta often has eggs in it, but it doesn't have to. You can just do flour and water. That is in there, but I try to incorporate some of the vegetables and things into the vegan dough — the book is supposed to be very colorful, so the vegan dough can be colorful also. I include a spinach vegan dough and a Harissa vegan dough.

It's about playing around with the moisture content. With the vegan dough, you want to use about twice as much flour as water. If you use 200 milliliters of water, you should use 400 grams of flour. If you're using spinach, I would puree it. If you're using red peppers, or beets, or whatever you're adding, I would puree it and use enough of that so you have half a liquid to the flour.

I also saw your chocolate chip cookie ravioli ... I didn't know what that was at first. I was like, "That has to be sweet." But it has small amounts of cocoa.

Those are ravioli that do look like chocolate chip cookies, but they're not, actually. For that, I use whole wheat flour for the dough to make the tan cookie color. For the chocolate chips, there's a little bit of cocoa powder in that dough to make it brown. You can use cocoa powder to make brown dough, and some people do serve it as a dessert pasta.

Does it change the flavor that much?

In my experience, you can definitely taste the chocolate. Some things you add, you don't really taste. I don't feel you taste spinach that much. Even the beets, you don't taste too much — especially if you add a sauce. Something like roasted red pepper ... that taste comes through more. Turmeric usually comes through more, and sometimes chocolate comes through more.

Freeman gets creative with edible designs

Chocolate has a strong flavor, but you mentioned the beets as well. In your beet and goat cheese recipe, you recommended using canned beets if you didn't have fresh ones. How does that upgrade the flavor? Is there a big difference if you don't use fresh?

Fresh beets, first off, give you a much brighter color if you're using it in the dough. They hold the color better. They taste better, but they take a lot longer to cook. Beets cook slowly. Sometimes you have to use something else in a pinch. Fresh ones do taste better.

If someone were to use canned, would the process be the same?

If you use canned, then they'll already be soft, because they'll already be cooked. That's why it's faster. You can just put them in the blender [or] your food processor with the goat cheese and mix it all together.

That's a creative one. What would you say is the most intricate pasta that you've made to date? I saw your "Minions" one — that one came up on my TikTok For You Page.

There's one intricate one that's in the book, which is the succulents. That's one I made a couple of years ago, so I made that before I had the book. This is intricate — I had to include this stencil so people can make the shade. I was like, "I don't know if people are really going to do it," but people have been tagging me in their pictures of making this.

And they're doing it?

Yes, so it is possible. But the more recent ones ... I did this whole series on cartoon ravioli, like the minions, and then I did a couple of real people. We did a SZA lasagna, recreating her cover album, because I'm a big SZA fan.

Did she comment on that?

Yes. She randomly found my Instagram — my account was pretty small — and started following me. So I think she's a pasta fan.

I love it. You have to meet her one day.

Oh my god, I would die. That's my dream. Something like the SZA lasagna ... or I did the Harry Styles lasagna once. Ones where it's a picture of a real person [are the most intricate]. It's very hard to get facial features. You're working on such a small little thing to make it look realistic. A cartoon is a little bit easier, because usually it's already pretty simple, but it's hard to recreate a real face this size on a ravioli. Recently, I recreated the [book] cover in pasta. 

Wow. How long does that take you?

It usually doesn't take me too long. When I first started, I was a full-time caretaker for my daughter, so I was doing everything during her nap time. You can see the face is pretty wonky.

That is better than I can do, I can tell you that.

You can see that worked out.

Mint pea sauce may be your new summer favorite

Do you find, with the characters [and cartoons] you create for your daughter, that you cater more toward parents? Or is it everyone who loves pasta?

There's an element of the recipes in the video that are good for parents — because one, it gets the vegetables in through the colors and everything, and two, it's fun. Kids like colorful food, and you can involve your kids in the process if they're old enough, and it's a fun activity. Since I'm a dad, there are also a lot of parents who follow me. But I try to appeal to younger people who are just getting into cooking. A lot of the sauce recipes I do [are] not super complicated. They're ones that people can do if they're learning. If you've never made pasta before, this is a fun introduction; you can do it with your friends. I try to balance.

You're segueing right into the topic I am going to ask you about ... What is your go-to non-traditional pasta sauce?

I have a pink sauce, which is basically a vodka sauce with no vodka. It's very popular, very yummy. I was going to say ricotta sauce, but maybe that's too traditional — a very cheesy tomato sauce.

Nothing wrong with that.

Right. This one's non-traditional [points to cookbook]; it's very springy. It's a mint pea sauce. It's pureed peas with a little amount of mint in it, and cheese and lemon and stuff.

Is it more for warmer months?

Yes, it's very spring-summer. Actually, my husband used to make a lot to put on bread. I use it as a pasta sauce. This is a non-traditional one ... I call it pizza pasta. It uses tomato sauce as a base but has a lot more mozzarella. Then I put pepperoni, mushrooms, [and] some oregano — because those are pizza flavors — but you could customize it if you want others.

Are there any ingredients that you add to pasta pizza that aren't in this recipe? Anything else you would add if you're at home?

My husband always orders pizza with onions on it, so I would probably add onions for him.

Caramelized or regular?

It takes a long time to caramelize onions properly, so maybe they'd be half-caramelized. I like to make roasted red peppers, so I'd probably add those, but not everyone likes roasted red peppers. I did not as a kid at all. My dad used to make them. I would hate the smell — it would fill the house — but now I've come to like that.

Freeman has some tips on that viral lasagna soup recipe

I also know you had a lasagna soup recipe. You created that?

Well, lasagna soup has been around for a long time. The earliest I could find — because I was doing some research on it — was some restaurant that had it in the early '90s. It was unpopular on food blogs because it was sort of a deconstructed lasagna. When I made it, I used mozzarella instead of ricotta. Normally, people use ricotta, but maybe people could tell from the book and my videos, I love mozzarella cheese. I put it in everything.

I did not put any ricotta in, I put mozzarella, which gives it this nice stretchiness. I did not use so much broth, so it ended up being more of a stew. I got a lot of negative comments, like, "That's not a soup. You can't call it a soup." But I embrace it.

You always get those.

Yes. I think the reason it became so popular was because it looks almost more like a side dish, or like a stew, and it's very cheesy and so easy to make. It has all the great lasagna flavors, but faster, easier.

Do you have any specific tips for someone trying it for the first time?

Customize it how you want. I make mine with brown beef and Italian sausage, but you could make it vegetarian and use something else. You do it all in one pot, so cook your meat and add some tomato sauce. Add your broth, then break up a bunch of lasagna noodles and put them in, and let it cook in the broth. It'll soak up all the broth. Once they are tender, then it's done. It's very easy. You don't have to watch it super closely; you just let it go. If you want it to be very soupy, you can always add more broth, but I don't add a ton.

Leaning into Freeman's YouTube channel

In addition to the cookbook, what else is next for you? Are there any upcoming projects that you're working on?

I've been doing some longer videos on YouTube with a new channel called "Chef's Kiss," which is featuring some different chefs. The show I've been doing is not that serious. It's called, "Is it Pastable?" and each episode has two parts. In the first part, I'm taking an unconventional ingredient and trying to turn it into pasta. I did a Happy Meal, chocolate chip cookies, Doritos, gummy bears, gummy worms, and seeing if I can turn that into fresh pasta.

What is that like? Does that taste good?

It's very strange because it tastes like whatever it's from. With the gummy worms, you could still taste the gummy worm taste, but the texture is pasta, and your brain doesn't know what to do with it. This is like a chewy noodle, but I can taste the Doritos. The first time is seeing if that works, and assuming it does, the second half is trying to teach a quick and easy sauce that people can make at home. It's targeted toward a younger audience, so it's like cherry tomato sauce, avocado sauce, and garlic sauce. It's half real cooking — you can learn from this — and half just for fun.

I'm continuing my TikTok and Instagram videos. I have a website that is ready to go, except I haven't added any content yet, and I'm months behind on it. Once I have time, I'm going to add a bunch of recipes there as a home for recipes that people can come check out and have more information on pasta and non-pasta.

Would you ever consider doing a cooking class or teaching one?

Yes — I did. When I was promoting the book before it came out, I did a series of online cooking classes, like Pasta Making 101, which is really fun. I've done a couple in-person cooking classes where I live, which has been fun. I would love to get more into that if there's interest.

I think there'd be interest — people are going to like a pasta class.

It's a fun activity. It was popular when COVID-19 first started and people were looking for home activities. My husband did one with his company, like a team-building event, but maybe there's still a market for it.

You can order Danny Freeman's cookbook, "Danny Loves Pasta," on Amazon now. Keep up with Danny's most recent videos on Instagram and TikTok.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.