Pasta Books Reviewed, Part 2

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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.

Pasta, the Beginner's GuidePasta: The Beginner’s Guide, by Carlo Lai, Imagine Publishing, Massachusetts, 2015.
Fully illustrated in colour, large type, lots of photographs of technique and results. Starts with the basics of tools, ingredients and sauces. Uses a food processor to initially mix dough and basic dough recipe has only eggs, semolina and olive oil. Has step-by-step instructions, all illustrated, for making other types of dough but none use other flours and all use olive oil. No instructions on extruded pastas, but does show techniques for making tortellini, gnocchi and ravioli. Measurements by volume only. And unlike other books, has a recipe for eggplant ‘noodles’ instead of pasta for lasagna.
Conclusion: Good for beginners looking for technique and tips, but short on both recipes and pasta variations. Would be better with weight measurements included and some alternate flours. 128 pages, hardcover, with index.
Rating: T – C; R – C; I – C; P -A; D – C; O – B.

Pasta BasicsMy Cooking Class: Pasta Basics (82 Recipes Step By Step), by Laura Zavan, Firefly Books, Canada, 2010.
Beautifully illustrated with colour photographs on every page. A great inspiration for chefs who want to make great meals, albeit rather thin on showing techniques for actually making and stuffing pasta. Seems to be only roller-style homemade pastas are used, but other dried pastas are also included in recipes. The recipes are well illustrated and broken into logical steps with photographs for each stage. A few of them could benefit from either extra steps or images showing a cook’s hands actually creating the dish or doing the preparation. Measurements are in weight (imperial and metric). The recipes lack introductions to explain why the dish was chosen and what makes it special. Perhaps the book’s most annoying feature is the lack of actual page numbers: pages are numbered according to the recipe or section  (at least two pages each), making it clumsy to find a reference from the index.
Conclusion: Good for intermediate to advanced cooks who already know the basics. Numerous intriguing and exciting recipes, but could use more content on making pasta showing detailled techniques. Gorgeous production. The odd numbering system is a minor inconvenience. 256 pages, softcover, with semi-index.
Rating: T – D; R – A; I – C; P – B; D – C; O – B.

Pasta By Hand: A Collection of Italy’s Regional Hand-Shaped Pasta, by Jenn Louis, Chronicle Books, California, 2015.
A great introduction to the regional pastas of Italy that may not be familiar to North American readers. Illustrated with many colour photographs, but not every dish is illustrated, and because the photographs are not accompanied by any caption or text, it isn’t always clear what they represent. Measurements are in weight and volume. She begins with dumplings, and progresses to other dishes but comes back to gnocchi (although the name is not always appropriate.). In an interview, author Jenn Louis said,

There is no real word for “dumpling” in Italian; they say gnocchi, but this is a misnomer because while all gnocchi are dumplings, not all dumplings are gnocchi. In my research, I called them “comforting little bits of dough, varying in size, shape, and texture.” Many of the shapes I love most are so simple, yet obscure and rarely seen…

Most of the 70 recipes are for stuffed pasta. Very little is offered on pasta making technique, so this is clearly an advanced book. The strength lies in taking the adventurous chef outside the basic and popular styles. However, many recipes are labour-intensive, and the recipe instructions themselves are somewhat terse, so read them carefully first. I really enjoyed the personal notes introducing each recipe, as well as the tiny maps indicating where the dish came from.

What really makes this book stand out is that you can make all of these recipes without special equipment: just your hands (and maybe a rolling pin). That might seem daunting for novices, but it’s not as challenging in practice as it seems in print.
Conclusion; Not for the novice because it offers little on the basics of making pasta. But for anyone wanting to explore the culinary realm, especially relatively uncommon regional foods, it offers challenges worth accepting. Would benefit from more photographs and captions. 200 pages, hardcover, with index.
Rating; T – C; R – A; I – A; P – C; D – B; O – B.

Making Artisan PastaMaking Artisan Pasta, by Aliza Green, Quarry Books, Massachusetts, 2012.
Fully illustrated with colour photographs. Opens with a detailled discussion of ingredients, which I found useful and fascinating. Lots of images to help with technique and a wide variety of pastas including stuffed pastas and dumplings, but all based on roller machines, not extruders (which she dismisses rather curtly in a sidebar). Covers some specialty tools and implements like a ravioli plaque in more depth than most books. Lots of useful information, especially on hand-made methods; well-explained, with a lot of things to try beyond basic pastas. One reviewer commented:

The flavoured pastas are brilliant, and the utterly-gorgeous laminated parsley sheets are a show-stopper. I adjust amounts of semolina vs. Caputo “00” flour to give exactly the texture I want. Hand-formed udon in miso soup is … ambrosial.

Measurements by imperial and metric weight. Her basic dough is an equal mix of unbleached, durum and semolina flours, with egg but no oil. Also includes techniques for using mixers, food processors and a pasta machine (Atlas, the model I use, is mentioned). This is the ony book I have that refers to a pasta roller as a “sheeter.” Only drawback: recipes sometimes refer back to other recipes for instructions, so read them thoroughly before starting.
Conclusion: A good, solid book with lots of things to explore and learn to make, including noodles, with methods well illustrated and explained. Beginner to intermediate or even advanced. Somewhat pricey for its size at $28 CDN. 176 pages, softcover, with index.
Rating: T – A; R – B; I – B; P – A; D – C; O – B+.

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Which brings me to the two top titles in my collection, both by internationally-renowned professional chefs. These two books should be in your library if you are making pasta because they explore pasta in depth and explain making it in detail. They also offer personal experience none of the other books equal. The combined knowledge here is astounding and exhilarating. Both authors have experience learning and cooking in Italy. In that, they are a combination cook and travel book. If you’re at all serious about making pasta, you need these books.

Both books offer a rich selection of recipes that stand outside the usual popular dishes, mostly Italian, but neither extend into Asian noodles or similar exotic dishes.

Both books are stunningly beautiful, with colour photographs  throughout, including many showing technique  and method. However, in neither are the photographs captioned. This isn’t terribly confusing, but captions would really help to explain methods. McNaughton has 50 meal recipes; Vetri has 76 (but also includes risotto and gnocchi).

Both books are rated intermediate to advanced, although they have some of the best, most detailled information on making pasta by hand. However, both require considerable reading to appreciate their methods. Techniques are scattered throughout with the appropriate recipes, but worth reading on their own to understand what methods are available.

Both have recipes in quantity for four, although Vetri has several for six or eight. Both recommend a resting period for dough of at least 30 minutes. Neither use egg whites in their egg doughs, except for ravioli, where McNaughton includes them for a stronger dough. Neither offer an all-white dough. Personally, I find their insistence on the yolk alone (and the quantity of yolks) a bit extravagant (I use two yolks plus one whole egg per 140g of flour).

Both are very Italian-centric and regionally sensitive; neither extend to noodles or Asian cuisine (the making is similar, if not the recipes). Both offer alternate suggestions for pasta in their recipes (which McNaughton identifies as ‘store-bought’).

If these books suffer any drawbacks, it is that the authors aim too high. They offer superb dishes, but very few if any of the basic pasta meals many other cookbooks have. I doubt whether a home cook can produce similar results on a small roller or inexpensive, plastic extruder, but it is tempting – albeit a little intimidating for novices – to try. I also wish they came with glossaries and some photographs of the different types of pasta ( I refer back to the photographs in The Pasta Bible when either author mentions something with which I am unfamiliar).

Flour + Water: PastaFlour + Water: Pasta, by Thomas McNaughton, Ten Speed Press, California, 2014.
This is somewhat chattier than the Vetri book. Recipes in both volume and  weight. Basic dough is tipo 00 flour plus eggs and olive oil. For extruded pastas, he uses semolina flour and water only, but an equal mix of semolina and tipo 00 for hand-rolled pastas.

McNaughton’s process for making dough is a little finicky – discarding the rough bits seems unnecessary when making small batches; I have found the dough hydrates well enough if properly rested. He also doesn’t flour his dough before or while rolling, writing his dough is already “purposely very dry.” Reviewer Paula Forbes wrote:

…the doughs in Flour + Water are phenomenally easy to work with, and they don’t make a giant mess, either. That probably wasn’t McNaughton’s intention when developing the doughs for the restaurant, but it is the home cook’s happy accident. Testing recipes for this cookbook, I made fresh pasta for dinner on weeknights. In fact, all of the recipes in this book are far easier to make and take less time than most other restaurant cookbooks I’ve ever used…

He has a separate section on cooking the pasta in which he recommends adding a little semolina to the pasta water when cooking, to help emulsify the sauce (first time I’ve encountered that).

262 pages, hardcover, with index.

Rating: T – B; R – B; I – A P – A; D – B; O – A.

Mastering PastaMastering Pasta by Marc Vetri, Ten Speed Press, California, 2015.
Recipes in weight only. His basic pasta dough is tipo 00 flour plus durum flour, olive oil, and eggs. His extruded pasta is semolina and water, and his hand-rolled doughs are five different mixes. He also has ten variations on egg yolk dough, plus  others like parsley, chestnut and chive doughs. Vetri doesn’t add salt to most of his doughs, where McNaughton does.

Vetri recommends getting an electric roller, and haughtily pooh-poohs a manual crank machine (p.24). However, he doesn’t consider costs: hand machines can be bought for $50-$100 (mine was $80). The electric model is $170-$225. It’s hard to justify the extra cost to save a few minutes of time, especially if you’re only making pasta for two to four each time.

Vetri opens with more technical information about wheat and throughout the book leans to the scientific side of food manufacturing; this really helped me understand the chemistry.  Chef and author Mario Batali described it as

…nothing short of the single most important book on handmade pasta I have ever read and I am maybe just a little jealous about it… In any case, you will be a better cook and live a much happier life just by holding this book in your hands, let alone learning these simple and delicious recipes.

262 pages, hardcover, with index.

Rating: T – A; R – B; I – A; P – A; D – B; O – A.

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