Tag Archives: mathematics

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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Doing it by the numbers

Bakers' percentageThe first thing I learned – well, not the first but up there, for sure – is that volume measurements are for amateurs. Being an amateur (and expecting to be there for some time yet), I took it on the chin when asking typical neophyte questions about recipes and ingredients.

Might as well have hung a sign around my posts shouting “newbie!” Well, they were gentle with me, but strict. Tough love among bakers.

Good bakers use weights, not volume, they told me in no uncertain terms. No more cups of flour: grams of flour, instead. Good thing I bought a kitchen scale a while back.

Pro bakers throw percentages into the mix and talk offhand about hydration levels and quote recipes like 60-2 bread, or 80-2-2.5. Ouch. That sound is my head exploding.

This makes baking like an exercise in advanced math, you know that class that caused your head to ache in high school? Yeah, like that. Not convinced? Watch this video (I have, a few times):

Got that? Good, there’ll be a test later… (here’s some more study material and part two is here…). And that’s what the real bakers use.

But, you argue, my mother (or father) always used volume and her (his) bread always turned out okay. Well, it’s still okay to use them, but it’s a by-guess-and-by-golly method and you can never be quite sure what you baked with that recipe last time will turn out the same the next.

Like imperial measurements lack the crispness of metric, volume lacks the precision of weight. The pros use weight. And percentages. And if I want to talk with the big kids, I need to be able to speak their language. My baker’s textbook is, by the way, on a UPS truck as I write this.

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