Pasta Books Reviewed, Part 1

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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.

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 or scientific 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 – the ‘out-off-the-box’ factor) 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 or ingredients, 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.

Pasta BibleThe Pasta Bible (Hardcover: World Publishing, Massachusetts, 2008; softcover: Southwater/Anness, UK, 2011), 150 recipes, 256 pages with index; The Pasta Cookbook (hardcover;  Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2000), 300 recipes, 512 pages with index; How To Make, Serve and Eat Pasta, (softcover; Southwater, UK, 2009), 40 recipes, 128 pages with index.

Oh to be Jeni Wright. She is superb at marketing herself to publishers. And in doing so she has managed to franchise one big book – the 500-page Pasta Cookbook) into several smaller versions, without even changing the text or the images. That’s brilliant marketing!

Her other titles include: Pasta; Good Food: Pasta and Noodle Dishes: Triple-tested Recipes; The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Pasta; The Complete Book Of Pasta; Italy’s 500 Best-Ever Recipes: The Ultimate Collection of Classic Pasta, Pizza, Antipasto, Risotto, Meat, Fish and Vegetable Dishes, and Delicious Desserts; Sainsbury’s Pasta; 100 Pasta Sauces; The Pasta Cookbook; Classic Pasta; Let’s Cook Pasta; Pasta: The Greatest Ever Pasta Cookbook; Pasta The Definite guide to delicious pasta; 100 Pasta Sauces: Fabulous Pasta Sauces, Starters, Salads and Soups; Pasta: Cook’s Kitchen Reference; Pizza, Pasta and Risotto: 180 Best-Loved Recipes; Good Food: 101 Pasta and Noodle Dishes: Triple-tested Recipes: (BBC Good Food); The Cook’s Guide To Pasta: Practical Handbook; and Pasta A Comprehensive Guide to All the Varieties and Styles of Fresh and Dried Pasta. How many of these are derived from the same source, or are simply a previous book reprinted with a new cover and title, I cannot say. But she is prolific!

Her books are lovely and informative and she has great recipes in the larger collections. But of her pasta books I’ve encountered, if you see one, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Of course, you don’t learn this from the lively descriptions on Amazon or other online bookstores or from the reviews. You learn it by buying a few then realizing, “Hey! I already have this book…” This isn’t an exaggeration: the books of hers I have are printed from the same plates so the layout of any page is identical. Well, I only ended up with three of them (plus a second Pasta Bible).

Don’t get me wrong: they’re good books, informative and well-illustrated and the recipes are solid. My advice is: get either the original Pasta Cookbook with 350 recipes, or the Pasta Bible with 150. These contain the same core material on the types of pasta. They differ only in the number of recipes they contain, and the number of alternatives (noodles).

Recipes have both weight and volume measurements. Recipes are accompanied by two or more photographs, one for the finished dish; the others showing method. There are 20 pages about shapes and styles of pasta, with photographs, 12 pages on making pasta, 10 on ingredients, six on cooking and serving, four on tools and four on history. These 64 pages are included in all three books.

(You might recall the “other” Pasta Bible by Rizzi for the little hiccup it made in the media in 2010 when a proofreader missed a word, and copies were printed that suggested adding “freshly ground black people” to a dish. Oh, the joys of auto-correct… But that mistake ended up boosting the book’s sales! However, that was not the Jeni Wright book of the same name.)

Conclusion: Superb, encyclopedic information and the many photographs in every section make these books suitable for all levels of cook. Clear instructions and photographs make the recipes easy and accessible for all levels, too. The volumes with fewer recipes are less adventurous, but why get that when the larger editions beckon for similar prices?

Rating: Pasta Bible: T – A; R – C; I – C; P – A; D – C; O – B. The Pasta Cookbook deserves R – B and D – B for including Asian noodles and dishes, How to Make, Serve and Eat deserves R – D and D -D for its limited range of recipes.

The Pasta Machine Cookbook, by Donna Rathmell German, Nitty Gritty Cookbooks, California, 1993.
One of the earlier books, printed in a small, landscape format. Text only, no illustrations and measurements are all by volume. Offers more than 100 dough recipes, many using alternate flours alone or with semolina, and alternate volumes of ingredients are listed for machine and hand-rolled pasta. Roller machine style, no extruded pasta (although she confusingly calls the roller machine an ‘extruder’). She also includes information on calories, fat, salt and protein in each dough. No meal recipes, but she has separate sections for pesto and sauce recipes.
Conclusion: Some intriguing and exotic ideas for dough, but thin on technique and making. Lack of illustrations makes it tough for novices. It has no meal recipes. Recommended for more experienced pasta makers looking for out-of-the-box dough ideas. 172 pages, softcover; with index. May be out of print.
Rating: T – D; R – D; I – B; P – E; D – D; O – D.

pasta booksThe Ultimate Pasta Machine Cookbook, by Tom Lacalamita, Simon & Shuster, Toronto, 1994.
Anything that bills itself as an “ultimate” is bound to suffer criticism. And this book deserves it: the title is hyperbolic. Who decided on green ink for the text? Or to use hand-drawn illustrations instead of photographs? All the measurements are in volume, and none of the recipes call for semolina, but use bread, whole wheat or similar flours. There are a few colour photos of finished meals in the centre (not with the recipes they illustrate), but none showing technique. Nor are there any images (photographs or drawings) of pasta machines. In its favour, there are recipes for Asian noodles, including rice noodles.
Conclusion: For intermediate or advanced cooks, and has some interesting recipes beyond mere pasta, but is not for beginners who need more advice on technique. 192 pages, hardcover, with index. May be out of print.
Rating; T – D; R – B; I – C; P – E; D – B; O – D.

Culinary Notebooks: Pasta by Carla Bardi, McRae Publishing, London, 2014.
This is the sole book about cooking with pasta rather than about making it, although it does provide one very basic method of making a simple pasta dough with all-purpose flour. One hundred recipes, each one illustrated with a colour photograph of the finished product (none of preparation). Measurements in both weights and volume. Organized in four sections by type of pasta (penne & co., spaghetti & co., tagliatelle & co., ravioli, lasagna & co.). No notes about the food, ingredients, types of pasta, etc. Really a cookbook about sauces for pasta.
Conclusion: Good recipes for every level of cook but useless for learning to make pasta. Recipe instructions are clear, if brief. 120 pages, softcover, with index.
Rating; T – E; R – C; I – C; P – B; D – D; O – C.

Homemade Pasta Dough, by Elisabetta Parisi, self-published, USA, 2012. While I admire anyone with the gumption to self-publish, I wish they took more time learning about editing, design and layout first. This is a drab, somewhat disorganized book with only a few greyscale images, and far too few of them to illustrate technique. It really could benefit from an editor and graphic artist. Her basic doughs have either all-purpose or semolina flour, eggs and oil. Measurements are entirely by volume. There are several dough options listed, and a few recipes for meals and sauces. She briefly discusses drying and storing.
Conclusion: Despite her passion, it’s a thin book that begs for more content, and doesn’t have much more than you can find online on the many cooking sites. Basic content, suitable for beginners. 115 pages, softcover, no index.
Rating: T -D; R – D; I – D; P -E; D – E; O – D.

pasta booksWilliams-Sonoma Collection: Pasta With Sauces, by Michele Anna Jordan, Time Life Books, California, 1996.
Fifty recipes, but minimal information/technique on making your own pasta. All of the doughs call for eggs and semolina (no oil) and have both volume and weight measurements. Shows pictures and has instructions using pasta machine, but not extruder. Limited types of fresh pasta recipes (no ravioli or gnocchi) but larger section for dried pastas. Colour photos accompany each recipe. Recipes have both imperial and metric weight measurements.
Conclusion: A bit thin on making pastas and technique: beginners may find the section on making pasta too brief. However the recipes are good, and accessible for every level. 128 pages, hardcover, with index. May be out of print.
Rating: T- D; R – B; I- D; P – C; D – C; O – C.

Please see part two of this review for the remainder of the titles.

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