Friday, September 15, 2017

Cleaning Torchio Pasta Dies

My Bottene Model B torchio pasta press arrived with two bronze dies to make bigoli (here) and gargarti (here), Venetian variations of spaghettoni and sedani, respectively. Although the torchio originated in the Veneto, the press accommodates a myriad of bronze dies allowing you to extrude classic pasta shapes from across Italy, such as gramigna (here) from Emilia-Romagna or tonnarelli from Lazio.

Search the WWW (or explore this site) and you will find plenty of recipes to make dough suitable for a hand-cranked torchio. You will not, however, find much information on the Internet on how to clean the torchio’s pasta dies. Pasta shops and restaurants that keep pasta machine dies in regular production often store their dies in plain water or water spiked with vinegar (approximately 15 ml per liter of water). Whether you use plain or acidic water, every pastaio I queried recommends changing the soaking water every day.

Although soaking dies makes sense when one keeps a die in constant use, this practice does not work for me and probably not many other home cooks. Here’s my die cleaning routine (which I do not represent as the standard of care). First, after extruding pasta with my torchio, I remove the die and pick out as much of the dough left in the die that I can using a toothpick or other similar small wooden skewer. I can entirely clean certain simple dies, such as my bigoli and gargarti dies, by using a toothpick.

Survey a range of pasta dies and you will notice that many dies have inserts (i.e., bronze plugs that seat into holes bored into the die blank). These inserts, some with open backs while other partially enclosed, do the work of manipulating the dough into the pasta’s shape using surfaces, ridges and/or pins. Certain dies, depending upon their insert’s configuration, take a lot of work to clean. Again, I usually start with a toothpick or small wooden skewer to remove as much dough as possible. I then soak the die in lukewarm soapy water for a couple of hours or overnight. I might again try to pick out more dough by hand and soak the die again. I next use a Waterpik that I purchased to clean dies. I find cleaning dies with a Waterpik yields good results, but also makes quite a damp mess. Spray goes everywhere.

Some dies are so difficult to clean that they need multiple soaks and take a couple of passes with the Waterpik to dislodge all the small pieces of dough that become trapped in their inserts. Nevertheless, the soak and Waterpik method remains the best way that I have found to clean certain complex dies (e.g., lumache, perciatelli and 23mm rigatoni).

Personally, I find cleaning bronze pasta dies A Total Bore. I’ll admit it: I may not buy a die if the die looks like it will be too difficult to clean. Call me lazy, but if a die involves too much work to clean, I am simply less likely to use it. I’m looking at you, perciatelli.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Armenian Tava

I grew up eating Armenian food that ranged from complex, time intensive dishes, such as my paternal grandmother’s Izmir Kufta, to simple country food, like Tava. What is Tava? This depends upon who you ask. According to my mother, Tava consists of lamb shoulder chops baked on top of layered vegetables. My dad will tell you that Tava’s lamb chops rest on cubed—and not layered—vegetables. You’ll find Armenian families that top the vegetables with seasoned ground beef or ground lamb instead of chops and call the dish Tava or Duzmeh. A Book of Favorite Recipes (1968) compiled by the Los Angeles Daughters of Vartan includes a recipe for Tava that layers vegetables on top of seasoned meatballs. Vegetarians, don’t worry: Many Armenians entirely skip the meat and they still call the resulting dish TavaPresent this meatless version to a Frenchman or Frenchwoman and he or she will tell you that you have made Ratatouille.

The vegetables in Tava come from every corner of a summer garden, but mainstays include eggplant, tomato, squash, onion and potato. Expect to find recipes that add bell peppers, green beans and even okra. My mother claims that Tava just isn’t Tava without carrots (layered—and this is important—on top of the potatoes). Most, but not all, recipes pour a little water or tomato sauce over the vegetables. Some recipes call for mint or parsley as seasonings, but most versions call for nothing more than salt and pepper.

With countless Tava recipes, why do I post my version? Because I believe it important to memorialize how a family—in this case my family—makes a loved food. My grandmother and great-aunt frequently made Tava. My mother only occasionally. Unless a family’s recipe boards a food ark, children (or grandchildren) might never eat a dish that comforted their great-grandparents.

Armenian Tava

Pre-heat oven to 375°F. Butter a baking dish. The size and depth of the dish depends upon how much meat and how many vegetables you wish to accommodate. This recipe, which makes 2 to 4 servings, uses 2 large lamb shoulder chops, so I suggest a deep 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish. A deep, 10-inch diameter pie plate also works nicely.

Peel 2 medium-sized yellow potatoes (e.g., Yukon Golds) and slice into ¼-inch rounds. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a single, overlapping layer of potatoes. As you arrange the slices in the dish, season the potatoes with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. You will add salt and pepper to each following vegetable layer, so season judiciously. Peel a medium eggplant and slice it into ¼-inch rounds. Place a single layer of eggplant slices on top of the potatoes and season. Slice a medium zucchini into rounds—again ¼-inch thick—and layer on top of the eggplant, seasoning the squash layer to taste. Next, peel a large yellow (or white or red or sweet) onion and make ¼-inch thick slices and lay these into the dish in a single layer, seasoning as you go. Finally, slice enough ripe tomatoes to cover the onions and lightly season this final vegetable layer.

Pour about ¼ cup water or tomato sauce over the vegetables.

Place seasoned lamb shoulder chops on top of the tomatoes and cover the baking dish with foil. Place the package in the oven and bake for approximately 1 hour. Remove the foil and flip the lamb chops over and return to the oven to bake for another 15 minutes. Flip the lamb chops again and increase the oven temperature to 400°F and bake for 15 more minutes until the chop look browned.

As I mentioned, countless versions of Tava exist, so feel free to add or subtract vegetables to satisfy your family’s palate. As a general rule, vegetables that give up their liquid sit on top of vegetables that absorb liquid.

Personally, I like to salt the lamb shoulder chops the night before I make Tava. I put a rack into a baking sheet and dust the lamb with kosher salt and refrigerate the lamb, uncovered, overnight. I also like to use mild red pepper flakes—think Aleppo or Marash or Piment d’ville—when seasoning the vegetables and lamb. Sometimes I substitute a splash of dashi (here) in place of water or tomato sauce. I think this completely and utterly nontraditional ingredient adds a lovely smoky flavor to this simple dish.

If you want to have a true Armenian experience, serve Tava with an authentic Armenian Pilaf (here). The lamb and vegetables and pilaf marry beautifully.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Blackberry Whisky

A number of years ago I purchased Booze by John Wright (2013, Bloomsbury). Booze, the twelfth installment in a series of River Cottage Handbooks, guides the reader on how to make infusions, wine, cider and beer. Other handbooks in River Cottage series explore subjects such as Chicken & Eggs; Curing & Smoking; Edible Seashore; Hedgerow; Pigs & Pork; Sea Fishing; and Veg Patch.

I bought Booze to learn more about British infusions. Wright marries his knowledge as a “dedicated forager” with his enthusiasm for infusing. He writes that “few items of vegetable matter have escaped my infuser’s hand.” Case in point, Booze sports a recipe for Oak moss gin.

Booze covers four types of infusions: fruit, nut, floral and plant. Wright instructs the reader on the making of Sloe gin; Sea buckthorn vodka; Haw gin; Gorse flower white rum; Sweet vernal grass vodka, and even Absinthe. But perhaps the Best In Show infusion in Booze goes to Blackberry whisky. Wright writes: “[it] is one of the finest of all infusions, a rival to even sloe gin.” To make Blackberry whisky you need only sugar in addition to the drink’s titular ingredients. Wright’s instructions follow.

Two-thirds fill a Kilner jar with blackberries, then sprinkle sugar over them until it covers the bottom half of the fruit. The blackberries should be dry for this operation otherwise the sugar will not flow. Top the jar with whisky, close the lid and shake gently. Store in a dark cupboard and shake once a day until the sugar has dissolved.

After 6 months, decant the infused whisky into a bottle and store for at least a year to mature.

Since buying Booze I’ve made three batches of Blackberry whisky. I call my 2015 batch The Inferno because I completely disregarded Wright’s counsel on whisky selection: “Do use cheap whisky for this recipe as there is a special pit in hell for those who drink good whisky in any way other than on its own.” I dipped into a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask (so, I guess, I’m going to hell). Save your soul and don’t make the same mistake (and furthermore, to my taste, the Laphroaig’s intense peatiness makes it a questionable base solvent).

In 2016 I made two different version of Blackberry whisky: one using a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey and the other with Buffalo Trace Kentucky Bourdon Whiskey. Both batches taste promising. I used foraged Evergreen blackberries in the bourdon version and a mixture of Evergreen and Himalayan blackberries with the Jameson. Aside: One day I hope to make Blackberry whisky with a local native blackberry variety called the Pacific blackberry or Northwest dewberry. These small berries taste outstanding, but I rarely find even a handful per season. Between the ubiquitous Himalayan and Evergreen blackberries, I prefer the latter, but pick according to your personal taste.

And speaking of taste: How does Blackberry whisky taste? Wright encourages his readers to make this infusion with these words: “For those few who do not like blackberries and the many more who do not like whisky I have some good news. Given time—about a year, but two is better—the flavour mellows into something quite its own, not dissimilar from port, and with never a hint of peat bogs and barely a trace of blackberry crumble.” No hint of peat…unless, of course, you use Laphroaig. Did I mention that I have a special pit in hell?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Santa Rosa Plum Galette

Back in 2000, I clipped out a recipe for a Santa Rosa Plum galette that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The recipe came from a Chez Panisse pastry chef, Mary Jo Thoresen, who learned the dessert’s dough from the great Jacques Pépin when he spent a week cooking at Chez Panisse. Thoresen claimed that “[i]f I was stranded on an island with only one dessert, this [galette] would be the one.” Mighty high praise indeed, especially from a Chez Panisse chef! I tried the recipe and, no surprise, it’s brilliant. With different local fruits coming into season across the country, there’s no better time to try this recipe. The galette serves 8.

The Dough

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 to 6 ounces cold unsalted butter (see note)
Ice water

The Filling

8 to 10 firm-ripe Santa Rosa plums
2 to 3 tablespoons flour
5 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

To Finish

Melted butter for brushing
Sugar for sprinkling on crust
French vanilla ice cream

To make the dough: Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the flour. Work in the butter with a mixer or by hand until the pieces are the size of tiny peas. Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing and mixing gently by hand until the dough is moist but not sticky.

Wrap the dough in plastic and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight.

Roll out the dough to a 12-inch diameter circle on a floured surface. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly round; the tart is beautiful no matter what shape it is. Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined pizza pan or baking sheet. Cover with plastic and refrigerate.

To finish the galette: Preheat oven to 400°F. Halve and pit the plums. Cut each into 5 or 6 slices.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Leaving a 2-inch border, sprinkle the surface of the dough with 2 to 3 tablespoons flour and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Place the plums slices on the dough. You can arrange them artfully or place them helter-skelter; either way, it will look lovely.

Carefully draw up the dough from the sides and fold it over to form the rim. Make sure there are no cracks where juices can run out during baking. Brush the rim of the dough with melted butter and sprinkle generously with sugar. Sprinkle the plums with the remaining 4 tablespoons sugar, or more, depending upon sweetness of plums.

Bake until well-browned and bubbly, about 40 minutes, rotating as needed so the tart browns evenly.

Transfer to a cooling rack so the bottom of the crust doesn’t get soggy. Use a pastry brush to dab the plums with plum juice to glaze them while still hot.

Serve the galette warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The recipe’s note comes from the Chronicle’s testers. It reads: When we tested this recipe, we used 6 ounces of butter to make the pastry. Although the finished crust was rich, flaky, buttery and totally delicious, it was difficult to roll out. Using 4 ounces of butter produces dough that is easier to work with, although it is not quite as rich.

Let me conclude with a few recommendations, observations and notes of my own. Don't forgo this galette if you cannot find Santa Rosa plums; the recipe works equally well with peaches, nectarines, cherries, apples, all sorts of berries, rhubarb, figs, apricots, quince and…well, you name it. Feel free to pair favorite fruits: peach and raspberry; rhubarb and strawberry; or nectarine and blackberry. I particularly love an apple and quince galette. I have made hundreds of different fruit galettes using the above recipe; the only tricky part is dosing the sugar relative to the sweetness of one’s chosen fruit(s). More often than not I follow the Chronicle’s note and use 4 ounces of butter. The finished galette turns out rich enough for my taste. On average I use about 3 to 4 tablespoons of ice water to bring the dough together. And if I don’t have any vanilla ice cream in the freeze, I top off my slice of galette with either whipped cream or crème fraîche.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Torchio Pasta Die Dimensions

Yesterday I received an 8mm ridged macaroni die [No. 171] from Emiliomiti. This die fits La Monferrina’s Dolly pasta extruder. From past experience (here), I discovered that Dolly dies also work in Bottene’s Model B torchio pasta press.

I made dough to test the new die. When I tried to insert the new No. 171 die into my torchio, the die didn’t fit into the Model B’s removable bronze die holder. I compared the No. 171 die to another Dolly-compatible die I own and discovered that the shoulder on the new die measured 4mm compared to the 10mm shoulder on my rigatoni die [No. 98]. Although the No. 171 and 98 share the same back diameter, the No. 171 has a wider face diameter preventing it from dropping into the Model B’s die holder.

Emiliomiti will exchange the new die with one that fits the Model B torchio. This die experience constitutes an anomaly. I only share my story as a heads-up: verify that any die intended for the Model B torchio has the correct face diameter and shoulder dimension.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Home-Milled Flour for Pasta

Since buying a Komo Fidibus Classic grain mill last summer, I have purchased bags of different types of wheat berries and milled quite a bit of flour to make fresh pasta. In Cooking by Hand (2003), Paul Bertolli discusses the importance of making pasta with quality flour. He writes: “Pasta in its simplest form is grain moistened with water. Water, added directly or contributed by eggs, has little effect on the flavor of flour other than to help convey it, and eggs, which are themselves composed of water, play an understated if noticeable role in the taste of pasta made from them. Flour is the essence of pasta, all the more reason to consider its selection seriously.” (Emphasis added.) Bertolli continues and, to my mind, puts forth the best reason why a pasta maker should consider purchasing a grain mill to make flour: “Flour used very soon after milling produces the best, most fragrant pasta.”

Marc Vetri puts “very soon” into context in his 2015 cookbook entitled Mastering Pasta: “As soon as you crack a wheat berry, its flavor and aroma begin to dissipate. Within two days of grinding wheat berries into flour, nearly half of the flavorful oils—as well as many of the healthful nutrients—will oxidize. Within three days, 90 percent of the volatile flavor compounds in the flour will have been simply lost to the air.” Grinding grain at home assures fragrant, fresh flour. Home milling also opens up a world of possibilities by allowing the pasta maker to completely control a noodle’s flavor and texture.

Wheat varieties have different qualities that lend themselves to certain uses. The amount and quality of protein in a wheat berry determines if its flour better suits a soft biscuit or an extruded, dried pasta. When buying wheat, you will often find berry varieties described by color, hardness and season. You can select white or red; soft or hard; and spring or winter wheat. A pasta maker can create excellent fresh pasta with a broad range of modern and heritage wheat varieties. Ancient grains, such as spelt, farro and Khorasan wheat, also make excellent pasta flour. Buying a grain mill allows you to experiment with these berries and make different tasting pasta.

This post will briefly examine the how and why one might blend whole-grain flour (i.e., flour without any bran or germ removed) with refined flour (i.e. flour with its bran or germ removed). In coming posts, I will discuss bolting (or sifting) whole-grain flour to remove different percentages of bran and germ when making fresh pasta.

Blending Flour

Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand contains 14 different pasta dough recipes. In a number of these recipes, Bertolli recommends blending freshly milled whole-grain flour with a refined flour. He writes: “Because whole-grain flour contains bran, which ruptures the gluten fabric, it must be ‘cut’ with white flour to improve the integrity of the dough.” When describing the characteristics of hard red winter wheat, Bertolli explains that although “it makes a very fragrant, course flour…[it]…must be blended with at least an equal amount of white flour in order to make pasta that does not fracture when extended and then cooked.”

The careful reader recognizes that Bertolli states “whole-grain flour…must be “cut” with white flour to improve the integrity of the dough.” (Emphasis added.) One can certainly use whole-grain flour straight from the mill to make fresh pasta without adding white flour. However, depending on your grain selection and mill grind, the pasta made with whole-grain flour will likely lack elasticity and plasticity (i.e., the ability to take and hold a shape). These qualities may not matter if you want to create a rustic, flat noodle. If so, 100 percent whole-grain flour may suit your needs. However, if you want to make a less rough and/or shaped pasta, then you will need to consider how to mitigate the impact of the grain’s bran (and, to a lesser extent, its germ) in your milled whole-grain flour.

Bertolli’s recipe for Farro Flour Pasta evidences his approach of blending to maintain the taste and aroma of whole-grain pasta without suffering some of its structural drawbacks. When he wrote Cooking by Hand in 2003, the market for specialty grain flours differed from what consumers can purchase today in 2017. In his Farro Flour Pasta recipe, Bertolli writes: “If you own your own grain mill, you may wish to grind your own farro flour, which presently is available only in whole form.” Now one can buy milled-to-order organic farro flour online. Bluebird Grain Farm in Washington State currently sells two different varieties of farro flour: einkorn (also known as farro piccolo) and emmer (aka farro medio). However, if you own a grain mill, farro pasta benefits from the taste and aroma of just milled flour. Here’s Bertolli’s recipe for Farro Flour Pasta for 4.

5 ounces whole farro, freshly milled
5 ounces Extra Fancy semolina
4 ounces cool water

Place the farro and semolina flour in a bread bowl and make a well in the center. Add water to the well and stir with a fork to combine. When the dough begins to form a shaggy mass, reach into the bowl with your stronger hand and alternately squeeze and push down the dough with your palm. Press any loose bits of flour into the mass. When the dough feels tacky and fully incorporated, transfer it to a clean, lightly floured surface and knead it for 4 to 5 minutes, or until it loses its surface moisture, is a uniform color, and springs back when depressed. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to hydrate for at least 1 hour before rolling.

Bertolli writes that “farro makes pasta the color of caffè latte with a subtle wheat taste.” This pasta also boasts a pleasant chewiness. And, for the record, freshly milled farro flour smells intoxicating.

A few notes. I like to work with grams so I convert ounces to grams when I make this dough. Five ounces equals approximately 142 grams; four ounces equals about 114 grams.

Some experts recommend freezing grain before milling because they believe the resulting flour smells and tastes better, and further, provides health benefits. In Mastering Pasta, Marc Vetri quotes Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills on this subject: “Milling temperature determines how flavor develops in flour. If viable grain is milled cold, the resultant flour retains fresh milled flavors and is considered ‘live’ flour because the biostructure of the viable grain is retained in cold milling.” I have also read that freezing grain may cause the grain’s bran to shatter which, in turn, can further impact a dough’s gluten fabric. In truth, I remain reluctant to go too far down this particular rabbit hole (at this point in time) because so many variables affect one’s analysis (type of grain; grain temperature; mill-type/technology; mill speed; grain feed rate; impact upon bolted vs whole-grain flour; etc.). If I come across milling information that materially informs my pasta making process, I will report back.  

So, to prepare for milling, I first weigh out my grain. I have made Bertolli’s Farro Flour Pasta with both whole-grain einkorn from Bluebird Grain Farm and with farro piccolo from Anson Mills. I adjust the grind on my Komo Fidibus Classic grain mill to fein (fine) with the round grind marker 4 clicks to the left of the unit’s top left miter joint. From my experience, 142 grams of farro grain produces 142 grams of whole-wheat farro flour.

Although Bertolli’s recipe calls for hand mixing the dough, I have also made this dough in a Kitchen Aid standing mixer using a paddle attachment. If you opt for this method—which I prefer because I can gradually add water and gauge how the dough develops—add the farro and semolina flour to the mixer’s bowl, turn the machine to stir and very slowly add the water to create the dough. When making this dough, I found that I need to add just a bit more water—maybe a gram or two—than Bertolli recommends. In general, freshly milled whole-grain flour absorbs more liquid than store-bought flour because of its bran. When adding additional water to finish a dough, I suggest using a spray bottle filled with water so as to spritz just enough liquid to bring the dough together. This farro dough softens considerably during its one hour hydration, so use a light hand when adding additional moisture.

Finally, note that Bertolli blends freshly milled farro flour with Extra Fancy semolina (aka Extra Fancy durum). Farro’s low gluten benefits from a partnership with a wheat flour that contains high gluten levels. (The same holds true for other low gluten grains such as rye and buckwheat.) The pasta maker quickly learns that she needs to consider the quality of gluten in the grain milled when making pasta dough. For example, if you want to use a whole-grain soft white wheat, your dough may benefit by adding Extra Fancy durum or some other high gluten wheat flour. However, if you decide to bolt your soft white flour, adding a high gluten flour may not be as critical (because the dough will become more workable after removing bran and germ from the milled flour).

In summary, one approach to making fresh pasta with freshly milled whole-grain flour is to blend the whole-grain flour with a refined flour. Consider using a high-gluten refined flour to blend when using whole-grain flour milled from a grain with low gluten levels, such as farro, rye or buckwheat. Start by experimenting with a 50/50 blend of whole-grain and refined flour.