Category Archives: Books & Reviews

Literature, culture, fiction, non-fiction, writers, authors and the craft of writing.

The Geometry and Topology of Pasta

Pasta by DesignI’ve always had a geeky appreciation – and awe – of mathematics. I have spent countless hours tinkering with programs that create math-based designs like fractals and Spirograph-style curves. As a young teenager I spent hours playing with an oscilloscope making sound waves dance on the tiny screen. But I never really thought much about the math behind pasta until I stumbled on two books: The Geometry of Pasta and Pasta by Design. And once you open them, you have one of those ‘ah ha!’ moments where you discover mathematics and cooking intersect.

These books offer radically different approaches to pasta from my usual reading (and neither are about making your own pasta, although the shapes and histories may help inspire you). What is odd is that both take an unusual approach and yet both were published within a year of one another.

Shape of course matters. The shape of pasta defines several key elements: amount of surface area and size (which matters to cooking and when determining which utensils to use to eat it), thickness (matters to cooking time), sauce holding ability (rough or convoluted shapes hold more when eating) and visual appeal. Shape determines how much water a piece of pasta absorbs, how the heat is absorbed and transferred – knowing these data, one could choose the type of pasta to best match a particular sauce, or vice versa.

Texture, too matters, to sauce retention, cooking and mouth feel, but that’s micro-topology, and not covered here.

The first, The Geometry of Pasta, is really a cookbook designed to both entertain and express the complex design inherent in pasta shapes, as well as offering a bit of history and regional information. It comes from the chef of a very chic UK restaurant ( Bocca di Lupo) and a brilliant graphic designer. It also sports a delightful website in which you can explore the shapes of 77 types of pasta in elegant black-and-white illustrations:

Lasanga ricce

The text that accompanies that illustration of lasagna ricce at the top – the shape for which I recently acquired an attachment cutter for my Atlas pasta machine – says:

Lasagne ricce are crimped, wavy or ruffled lasagne – lasagne with wavy edges – that are decorative and may allow lighter sauces to infiltrate the dish better. This shape of pasta is primarily a southern thing. Across Sicily, baked al forno with layers of a rich ragù and ricotta, it is a staple of the Christmas table.

Under the heading of sauces, there is a recipe for using lasagna ricce which, since it contains mammal meat, I will have to eschew. However, there are other equally attractive recipes on the site (and in the book) I can substitute. If, that is, the authors don’t know I’ve done so. They have written in the introduction, that…

…the Italian “preoccupation with choosing the right pasta shape to go with the right sauce” is not just some silly European thang, but can actually “[make] the difference between pasta dishes that are merely ordinary and truly sublime”.

Reviewer Joanne at Eats Well With Others has written:

Using the geometry of a given pasta – each with its own nuances, personality traits, online dating profile – one can actually turn the art of pasta preparation into a science; an architectural study, if you will.

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Pasta Books Reviewed, Part 1

pasta booksWhile I can’t say my collection of pasta making and recipe books is as exhaustive as it could be had I an unlimited amount to spend and equivalent time to read and make pasta, I have garnered a few useful books over the past month. I wanted to share some opinions and comments about those I have collected to date. Also see part two of this review for more titles.

Books on pasta have been around ever since cookbooks themselves. But the art of making pasta at home – outside Italy or by those of Italian descent – seems to have been fringe pastime in North American kitchens, given way to the convenience of store-bought, dried pasta. It is, I believe, slowly gathering momentum. After all, homemade pasta is, like homemade bread, infinitely better than the mass-produced varieties.

Making basic pasta using a home roller isn’t very difficult: mix the dough, let it rest, roll it, cut it. But after you’ve done that once or twice, you really want to expand to other types and doughs with other ingredients. That’s where the cookbooks come in. Unlike some publishing areas, the market for them isn’t saturated (yet).

The history of the pasta machine is somewhat hard to uncover. The first machines to extrude pastas seem to have been created in the 1600s. Back in the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson had one and experimented with other types. Machines have been manufactured in Italy since around 1800. The common kitchen machine was patented in 1906 by Angelo Vitantonio, an Italian who had immigrated to the USA.

It seems that it wasn’t until the widespread introduction of inexpensive, small, home pasta rollers/cutters in the late 1980s (as far as I can tell – many of them now made in China) that pasta making started to gain attention in North America. And that’s when the first popular-press pasta-making books also appeared. Most of the books reflect only the roller-type machine, not the extruder, which seems a somewhat later invention for home use. One of the things for novices to look for is detail about using a pasta machine (i.e. the optimum thickness of a particular pasta), not simply general statements.

Some of the books reviewed here are for strictly semolina pastas, some for all-purpose flour, others introduce different flours, and some extend to noodles and dumplings (which bypass durum and semolina flours). Pasta can be made from many types of gluten flour, and I recommend trying several. Tastes and textures will vary (as a point of personal preference and dislike of fads, I avoid any book with recipes for gluten-free products).

Few books provide  information on drying and storing homemade pasta, but because many recipes use eggs, this is quite important.

Some general or regional cookbooks include (often limited or brief) instructions on making pasta by hand. These aren’t covered here, nor are the cookbooks which focus solely on using premade or store-bought pasta (with one exception). The rest of these books were purchased specifically to learn about making my own pasta, using a roller (and more recently an extruder) machine, and eventually by hand-rolling.

The three challenges fledgling pasta makers face is 1) finding the appropriate recipes from the myriad of them in print and online, and 2) scaling the recipes for your serving size (in my case, two people with average-to-small appetites). 3) Can I substitute for something I can’t find locally? What about altering a meat-based recipe for a meatless one (or to use, say, fish or chicken instead of beef or pork)? Do the chefs offer suggestions  or alternatives?

I’m still playing with percentages of flours in my mix; I have learned that 140g of flour is about right for we two for most pastas, but too much by about one third for ravioli. Some sauces require a reduction in dough to balance pasta with the additional ingredients. Many of the books have recipes for 4-6 or more. You need to scale the recipes to suit, and that is not always a simple mathematical activity.

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Pasta Books Reviewed, Part 2

pasta booksThis follows from part one of my book reviews, posted on this blog. Please see that post for the introduction. These, with either the Pasta Bible or Pasta Cookbook (preferred) by Jeni Wright, from the first post, are the recommended books.

I’ve rated the books from A (highest) to E on TRIPDO technical content (T – what details they offer, whether they use weights and volume measurements or only volume, how much technical information about ingredients is presented, etc.); recipes (R – quality and quantity); imagination (I – what variety of ideas, what variations in items to make, what new or unusual concepts or recipes are contained); presentation (P – attractiveness; how the book looks: its illustrations, layout, typography and design), depth (D – what what breadth of foods and ingredients they cover beyond basic pasta and how exotic are the recipes) and an overall impression (O) also the ‘wow’ factor.

Contributing to the ratings are such things as how many unusual or different ideas are presented; for example whether the recipes explore Asian noodles and dishes use heritage flours, non-Italian cheeses, use unusual or uncommon (for North America) types of pasta, etc.

Keep in mind these are personal and highly subjective, and based on my own rather limited experience making pastas. I’ve also noted whether I think these are for beginner, intermediate or advanced pasta chef.  For me, pasta is a staple in my life, and making my own is like making my own bread: I control the ingredients, the process, the result. While my own experience is limited to a few types, I hope to extend to other types, including  Asian-style noodles, this summer.

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This week’s reading

Going Clear Going Clear by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright is an expose of the Church of Scientology. Fascinating, scary stuff and it makes you want to keep looking back over your shoulder to see if someone is watching you.

A great read, though, and a real eye-opener if you’ve ever wanted to know the inner workings of this group (they hate to be called a cult but it’s hard to think of a better name as you’re reading this). The New York Times called it “essential” reading.

It’s also the inspiration for an HBO documentary of that name, apparently not (yet?) available in Canada. However, you can watch the BBC’s Panorama series on Scientology on YouTube, which, while a bit older, is still worth seeing. This isn’t the only book I’ve tread about Scientology, but it is both the most impressive and the most thorough. My only quibble might be that Wright sometimes seems too accommodating to the church, especially when he recounts the details of their bizarre teachings.

I plan to review this more thoroughly, but I’m only about three-quarters of the way through it now. Another few days and I’ll be done. I found the hardcover as Chapters at a discounted price, since the paperback has since been released.

Morning Noon and NightMorning Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books was another discounted title that caught my eye at Chapters. It’s about how guidance through and explanation for our rites of passage can be found throughout literature. Kirkus Reviews called it a “beautifully, tenderly conceived work.”

It’s part of the ongoing discussion about the value of literature and storytelling to our lives, a subject that has intrigued me ever since I read Joseph Campbell’s works on mythology, back in the 1970s. I have several books on this subject including some recent ones on the value of storytelling in public relations (which I referred to in my own book, Buzz, Brands and Going Viral). This is, however, more personal than the rest.

It is also a guide through some of the writing that has inspired Weinstein himself, and I’m always keen to learn what works have awakened passion or the intellect in others. I delight in discovering an author or a work I didn’t or overlooked because it opens up a path to follow I had not trod before.

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How Many Virtues?

cardinal virtuesThe Greeks had but four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). To this, many centuries later, the Catholic church (notably Aquinas) added three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (or love). These are the seven basic virtues of Western culture. But they’re not the only ones.

In 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius listed seven ‘heavenly’ virtues in his religious poem, Psychomachia: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks said.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks adds: “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

In that sense we have two ‘resume’ virtue lists: the one we present to others, make an ostensible show of and tell people these are the virtues we pursue, even when we do not – and hope these become our eulogy list. And we have a private list of virtues we know we actually believe in, we actually practice in daily life.

But what are those virtues? Are they the four, the seven, or are there more?

Buddhists have two, intertwined lists of virtues. The first is the eightfold path:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

The second list of ten virtues comes from the Natha Sutta:

  1. Sila: good conduct; keeping moral habits;
  2. Bahusutta: great learning;
  3. Kalyana mitta: good company; association with good people;
  4. Sovacassata: amenability to correction; meekness; easy admonishability;
  5. Kingkaraniyesu Dakkhata; willingness to give a helping hand; diligence and skill in managing all the affairs of one’s fellows in the community;
  6. Dhammakamata; love of truth;
  7. Viriyarambha; energy; effort; energetic exertion; making effort; being industrious in avoiding  and abandoning evil actions, and cultivating the good;
  8. Santutthi; contentment;
  9. Sati; mindfulness; the ability to remember what one has done and spoken;
  10. Panna; wisdom; insight.

There are other sutras that list Buddhist virtues (also called perfections, or paramitas) like the Ten Perfections of the Buddhavamsa and the Six Perfections  of the Lotus Sutra, but they are essentially the same list as above.

On the virtuescience page, 119 virtues are listed, including wonder, thrift, thankfulness, respect, responsibility, sobriety, loyalty, honesty, generosity and discretion.  A similar, list can be found on virtuesforlife and similar sites (such as the wikiversity site). In the one-upmanship often found online, there are even longer lists (up to around 160) with terms like prayerfulness, resilience, health, beauty and assertiveness.

Are all of these really virtues? Or merely attributes or qualities: behavioral traits? That depends on how you define virtue.

Loyalty, for example, is relative: like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Loyalty is only a virtue in someone else if they are on the same side or in the same party as you are. It’s a vice in others of different political, religious or cultural beliefs. History is replete with cases of blind loyalty where it was a character flaw, not a virtue. Think of the SS or the Soviet commissars in WWII, the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. None of the victims would consider their loyalty a virtue. Loyalty to a small cause can equally be disloyalty to the greater good.

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Thirty Seven Days

37 DaysBack in the mid-1970s, the BBC launched a dramatic, 13-part series called Fall of Eagles, about the last decades of the 19th century and the lead-up to World War One. It also chronicled the end of the royal dynasties in the aftermath of the war. It was a brilliant series, sweeping in its broad brush across the royalty and politics of Russia, Austria, Germany, and England. France got a mere cameo role because France was not ruled by any of the dynasties which form the central cast in the series.

Viewers got from the series an image of the complex network of connections and ties – often familial, as the royal houses were linked by blood and marriage – between these nations, of the rapidly changing political landscapes in each, and the inexorable end of an era, a time in which nations would erupt to alter radically and forever. The Titanic is the perfect metaphor for this time, as the royal houses, blind to the ferment of change happening under their feet, approached the iceberg, unwilling or unable to change course.

It remains one of my favourite historical dramas, albeit somewhat dated by today’s production standards. Patrick Stewart, by the way, was terrific as Lenin.

Last year, the BBC released 37 Days, a three-part mini-series about the final 37 days before WWI (June 28 to August 4). It is mostly about English and German politics, with a tip of the hat to France and a very minor role for Russia and Austria. It was part of the BBC’s several pieces produced last year to highlight the 100th anniversary of the war’s start.

Part one is the first month of that period, starting with the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Part two is about the week before war broke out, and part three is the final weekend. Despite the shortening time for each part, there is no real sense of urgency or tension as war approaches, especially among the English politicians. There’s more tension between members of the cabinet, some of whom resigned because of military agreements to support war. But we never get to see other political perspectives such as the growing socialist movement that opposed war in all of the European countries.

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Another Archy Poem

Archy and MehitabelMost of Don Marquis’ Archy pieces were written in lowercase. The literate cockroach, we learned, would stand on the typewriter and dive, head first, onto the keys. But this way, he couldn’t use the shift key to get capital letters or punctuation (he did get capital letters, once, when Marquis left the shift-lock on the machine one night; Archy wrote about it in a 1933 piece called ‘CAPITALS AT LAST‘).

But I’ve always felt one of the best pieces to come from the mind of Marquis was Archy’s commentary on criticisms about his grammar and punctuation from readers, in a 1933 piece titled, “archy protests’ which I have copied from the site, but which I came across again this weekend while reading The Best of Archy and Mehitabel (and while enjoying a glass of my homemade wine in the warm spring evening):

say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
caps period

archy period

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Atheist Spirituality?

Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

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