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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More Pasta Making

RavioliMy first attempt at ravioli was, I admit, a disaster. But you learn from trying what you need to do the next time. And you also learn from reading what tools you might need to do better. Sure, you can make ravioli and other stuffed pasta by hand, but what I wanted was a plaque. That’s the one I bought in the photo on the right. Simple, inexpensive and easy to use.

A plaque is a die for making ravioli. It has a metal base, 12 holes, with ridged borders around each, and holes. It also comes with a plastic press. A plaque is great for making symmetrical ravioli.

RavioliThe process is relatively straightforward: make your pasta and roll it into a sheet wide enough to lay over the lightly-floured plaque with some on either side. I rolled it out to setting seven (7), which was thin enough so it would cook quickly, but thick enough to be bent into shape when the press is applied. You don’t want the bottom layer of dough too thin or it will tear, but I could have rolled the top layer at 8. Next time I’ll try it.

Gently push the press onto the dough so it creates the indentations, then remove it. Fill with your choice of ingredients (I used Ricotta cheese and finely-chopped sundried tomato). Use a spoon to smooth it into the indentations as necessary. Lay another sheet of dough on top, then use a rolling pin to press the top sheet flat. The ridges on the plaque poke through the dough. Turn it over and tap out the individual ravioli. If you’ve rolled it properly, each piece will separate cleanly.

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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.

Continue reading “Pasta Books Reviewed, Part 1”

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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Resting, Relaxing and Rising

BreadI’ve been reading of late about gluten. How it works, how it develops, why it matters. Gluten is the key to good bread and pasta (the gluten-free fadists notwithstanding, gluten-free anything is an aberration that should be shunned by anyone not diagnosed with celiac disease*).

I’m learning more about how gluten links with itself to form the chains necessary to make our food, and how to improve it in my cooking. The Canadian Grains Commission tells us:

Gluten is a protein composite that accounts for 75 to 85% of the total protein content in bread wheat. Gluten component proteins are found in the endosperm of mature wheat grain, where they form a continuous framework around the starch granules… Gluten forms when water is added to flour and is mixed. During mixing, a continuous network of protein forms, giving the dough its strength and elasticity. By holding gas produced during fermentation, the protein network allows bread to rise.

Key words: “Gluten forms when water is added to flour and is mixed.”

At one point, I tried adding extra vital wheat gluten to my doughs to help create a better crumb when I felt it was failing, but I’ve learned that is unnecessary with the typical unbleached white flour I use. With the mixes of whole grain, rye and heritage flours, however, it might help. But it seems the best remedy is mixing and time.

Recent books on baking bread and making pasta have provided me some new insights into gluten in both bread and pasta, which are, of course, related by their common component: flour. Gluten – the wheat protein strand that gives dough both its plasticity and elasticity – is essential to both bread and pasta. But it doesn’t automatically develop to its fullest without human intervention.

The Big Bake Theory adds:

…there are ways of controlling gluten to obtain the optimal amount of gluten development for the particular baked good you are working with. These include:

  • Extent of mixing
  • Type of flour
  • Amount of water
  • Presence of fats
  • Other such as pH, salt, temperature…

Humans have been eating wheat and its gluten for at least 10,000 years. Approximately 1% of us has celiac disease, a severe intolerance to gluten. Another 3-6% have a lesser intolerance. The other 93% of us can digest wheat and gluten with no ill effect, as we have done so for ten millennia.

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Update: expanding my pasta making

Regina pasta makerI’ve just ordered a pasta extruder – the Marcato “Regina” pasta machine, which I expect to arrive in another week. This will allow me to make hollow pasta types like penne and rigatoni, not just the flat varieties I’ve been making to date. The machine got fairly good reviews online at various cooking sites.

These extruders work much like a meat or dough grinder: a corkscrew gear forces the dough through a cutting die that determines the extruded shape and diameter. In fact, they can also be used for making other dough products like biscuits. This one is made from plastic.

On top of that, I received my ravioli plaque last week and will try a batch of ravioli this week using it. This requires making the wide sheets of dough first, as well as a suitable stuffing (I have some cheeses already selected, as well as some fresh kale which I plan to cook then blend into a paste I can include with the cheese, although my first inclination was to use sundried tomatoes).

I’ll have to do a bit of reading on making ravioli first, especially on how to prepare the stuffing so it doesn’t remain too moist. And advice or recipes would be appreciated.

And I also ordered a new cutting attachment for the roller to allow me to make wider noodles: 12mm, double what I can make at present. I’ve been looking at even wider cutters for lasagnaette and lasagne, but they can wait until later.

I’ll post photos and a story about my results, later.

Late Spring Pastas

pastaI’m still working on a formula for the perfect pasta dough, trying different mixes of flour and other ingredients to get both the best consistency and taste. And to experiment with texture so the pasta has the best mouth feel. I make fresh pasta once or twice a week now.

My efforts so far have been pretty damned tasty and all but one – a notable one – have been a success as dinner. However, I just got a new book on making artisan pasta, so I have a lot more things to try in the coming weeks.

It’s a fairly good book, albeit thin, but a bit disorganized, and lacks some information (i.e. on drying times and methods). However, it’s one of a very few books with this sort of information and recipes, so it’s worth getting if you’re new to pasta making (plus, it offers information and recipes for other related foods, like Japanese udon noodles and various types of dumpling).

pastaMy basic recipe creates enough finished pasta for two. I use 140 grams of flour total, but the mixture differs with each batch. I vary the amount of semolina from none to 20 to, in my last batch, 50 grams. In my latest effort, I rolled the dough a little thinner (setting 6 on my machines instead of the usual 5), so I got more, but thinner pieces of fettuccine (photo on rack, below).

The thinner pasta cooks faster, but is more brittle when dried. It might be better cooked when still a little damp to help avoid breakage. Also, the spaghetti is a bit brittle when dried. I don’t know if the mix of flours contributes to the brittleness, or if one type of flour is more elastic.

The amount of semolina affects both texture and colour – making the dough more yellow than without it, and slightly rougher. When I made spaghetti, I didn’t use much if any and you can see the difference in colour in the photo of the drying pasta, on the right. The photo at the top shows the latest batch with 50g of semolina in the mix. Quite a difference in colour.

pastaThe rest is mostly tipo 00 Italian flour (a very fine grind I found at the local Freshco store in the international foods section), but I also use all-purpose unbleached, especially for the dusting.

I recently bought a bag of Robin Hood’s ‘blending’ flour to see if it worked in pasta – it’s supposed to be a fine grind, but it’s not unbleached. I thought it might be a more-readily available substitute for times I couldn’t find the proper Italian flour. I’ll let you know how it works out.

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