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
penne

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.

Continue reading “The Geometry and Topology of Pasta”

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.

Continue reading “More Pasta Making”

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.

Continue reading “Resting, Relaxing and Rising”

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.

The Paleo-Fantasy

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PaleofantasyPerhaps the best – and certainly the funniest – description of what happens to your life when you pursue pseudoscience fads like the “paleo” diet is here on Popsugar. It’s laugh-aloud funny and too good not to be shared. I loved so many lines it’s hard to pick one or two, but from the description of making inedible “paleo” cookies:

The cookies look exactly the same before they are digested as after. They are eternal and unchanging. As time passes, they don’t decline in quality or taste because they can’t. They’ve already started out at theoretical zero on that scale.
I weep as I take a bite. These cookies will outlive me unless I destroy them.

For a more serious critique of the “paleofantasy” diet, read this piece on Scientific American:

The Paleo diet not only misunderstands how our own species, the organisms inside our bodies and the animals and plants we eat have evolved over the last 10,000 years, it also ignores much of the evidence about our ancestors’ health during their—often brief—individual life spans (even if a minority of our Paleo ancestors made it into their 40s or beyond, many children likely died before age 15).

Not to mention the main issue raised by nutritionists and anthropologists: the “paleo” diet is mainly based on mean, but our ancestors ate a lot – some say mostly – vegetables:

A paper out just this month suggests even Neanderthals–our north country cousins and mates– may have eaten much more plant material than previously suspected. Still, the more macho camps paint a picture of our ancestors as big, bad, hunters, who supplemented meaty diets with the occasional berry “chaser.” Others suggest we spent much of our recent past scavenging what the lions left behind, running in to snag a half-rotten wildebeest leg when the fates allowed. Although “Paleolithic” diets in diet books tend to be very meaty, reasonable minds disagree as to whether ancient, Paleolithic diets actually were. Fortunately, new research suggests a clear answer to the question of what our ancestors ate.

And what about the insects? Paleolithic humans ate them, probably a lot of them:

If you’re really going to follow a paleo diet, you ought to be eating bugs, “lots and lots of bugs,” Daniella Martin argues in “Edible.” The diet, after all, suggests we should eat more like early hunter-gatherers did, and what could be easier to hunt and gather than bugs? (Martin uses the term “bugs” interchangeably with “insects” to refer to “terrestrial invertebrates.”) The creatures are packed with protein and other nutrients. In some non-Western cultures they are considered a staple; in others, a delicacy.

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Watch the TED Talks, above, for a brilliant explanation why the “paleo” diet fad is just a paleo fantasy.