Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Best Cookbooks of 2014

‘Tis the season to share my Best Of list for this year’s cookbooks.  I wanted to publish this list back in November, but one sluggardly publisher kept pushing back its release of a sure-to-contend cookbook. But now, with this excellent book finally released, I offer up, in alphabetical order, my choices for the top five cookbooks of the year.

Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns. Chronicle Books.

A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus: Menus and Stories by Renee Erickson with Jess Thomson. Sasquatch Books.

Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding: Sweet and Savoury Recipes from Britain’s Best Baker by Justin Gellatly. Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Heritage by Sean Brock. Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Company.

The Pizza Bible: The World's Favorite Pizza Styles, from Neapolitan, Deep-Dish, Wood-Fired, Sicilian, Calzones and Focaccia to New York, New Haven, Detroit, and More by Tony Gemignani with Susie Heller and Steve Siegelman. Ten Speed Press.

So why, you ask, did I pick these books? I’ll tell you why.

As its title suggests, Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes divides its content into two main parts: how to make ingredients like dried powders, cheeses, vinegars, pickles, pastes and stocks (Part One of the book), and how to employ these ingredients in (mostly) simple recipes (Part Two). The techniques used to make the ingredients include drying, fermenting, sprouting & soaking, and preserving. In the Recipes section, the salads really stand out as outstanding. Here’s a partial list: Chicory Salad with Anchovy Dressing; Wedge Salad with Buttermilk, Barley and Sprouts; Kale Salad with Rye Bread, Seeds and Yogurt; Tomato & Pickled Green Bean Salad with Whipped Feta; Beet and Blue Cheese Salad; and Cauliflower Salad with Yogurt & Chickpeas. Bar Tartine will appeal to an audience that wants to make ingredients from scratch and that enjoys straightforward, flavorful food. Highly recommended.

A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus offers sophisticated yet simple and comforting dishes rooted in the Pacific Northwest, but with a French sensibility. Organized by season, you’ll find a lot of lovely seafood recipes for oysters, mussels, Dungeness crab, Pacific octopus, salmon, spot prawns, and scallops. I find the salad and dessert recipes particularly tempting.

Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding highlights the ample talents of Justin Gellatly, who spent 13 years at Fergus Henderson’s St. John’s restaurant.  If you already own the Nose to Tail books and Margot Henderson’s You’re All Invited, you’ll note a lot of overlap among these works and Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding. No matter. Gellatly has penned an outstanding British cookbook in its own right. You’ll find recipes for Steamed Marmalade Sponge and Whisky Custard; Apple and Rhubarb Suet Pudding; Treacle and Walnut Tart; and Doughnuts stuffed with Carmel Custard and Salted Honeycomb Sprinkle. Although published in the UK, this great British cookbook deserves a large audience on this side of the Atlantic.

Sean Brock’s Heritage takes the prize for the best cookbook of 2014. Brock includes recipes for simple dishes (Cornmeal Hoecakes; Lowcountry Hoppin’ John; Fried Chicken and Gravy) and for fancy chef fare (Grilled Lamb Hearts with Butter Bean Puree, Vadouvan, and Corn and Sweet Potato Leaves; Crispy Sweetbreads with Spicy Red Pepper Glaze, Egg, Broccoli, and Puffed Rice). Really! This book should sate both home cooks and the food professionals. Brock clearly loves the Southern table and garden. Heritage celebrates the traditional and the new with a focus on the ingredients of the region. And you get Brock’s recipe for Pimento Cheese! What a great cookbook!

In 2007, Tony Gemignani traveled to Naples, Italy and became the first American to win the World Pizza Cup in the Neapolitan pizza category. His San Francisco restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Nepoletana, ranks among the best pizza venues in the United States. The Pizza Bible takes Gemignani’s great pizza-making talent, knowledge and experience and packs them into a 300-plus-page book. He’s a great and generous teacher and I cannot imagine a better manual for anyone interested in making different styles of pizza.

So, will 2015’s cookbooks offer us the same riches as 2014’s? Let’s hope so. Happy New Year everybody!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Spelt Pasta

I have friends and family that, for various health reasons, avoid eating wheat. No one in this group has Celiac disease, but all try to avoid gluten with different levels of vigor. Some found that they reasonably tolerate spelt, a subspecies of common wheat, even though spelt contains gluten. So in order to share a plate of homemade pasta with these loved ones, I began experimenting with white spelt flour that I ordered from Keith Giusto’s Central Milling (here). I found that this flour makes excellent fresh pasta.

I started my inquiry by making spelt spaghetti for 2 extruded from my torchio pasta press. I used a standing mixer fitted with a paddle to create a dough made of 150 grams of white spelt flour, 72 grams of an egg mixture consisting of a large whole egg and a large egg yolk, and a pinch of salt. The spelt flour seemed to need less liquid to achieve the texture that I look for in an extruded dough for a torchio. I formed the dough into a log and wrapped it in plastic to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. After popping the dough into the torchio, I set the piston and turned the handle. I needed a significant amount of force to extrude the pasta, but the finished spelt spaghetti looked beautiful and felt dry, dense and heavy. I read that spelt pasta cooks more quickly than conventional wheat pasta, but this wasn’t my experience in this instance. I added the pasta to 2.5 liters of salted, boiling water and cooked the noodles for 3 minutes after the water returned to a boil. After draining, I finished the pasta by cooking it in a sauce for 2 minutes or so. Even then, the pasta had a very firm bite and fine flavor that surpassed the store-bought spelt pasta that I sampled.

I next made spelt fettuccini using my Imperia R220 pasta machine. I followed the same dough recipe as above, except that I added 75 instead of 72 grams of my egg mixture. Again, the dough worked great—dry but not too much so—but it was on the hard side; I had to use a rolling pin to flatten the dough before feeding the dough through the first few settings of my Imperia. I rolled the pasta out to the R220’s number 2 setting, which makes a 1mm thick sheet. The finished fettuccini noodle, like the spaghetti, had a firm bite and excellent flavor.

I tried one last experiment with the spelt flour: I increased the amount of the egg mixture to 80 grams and made another batch of fettuccini. The dough felt softer, but not sticky. The pasta easily traveled through the R220. The finished noodle tasted fine, but I missed the firm bite of the noodle made with 75 grams of my egg mixture.

Overall, I highly recommend Central Milling’s Organic White Spelt Flour for making fresh pasta. The next step in my spelt experiments: create a whole-grain spelt/white spelt flour blend. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Flour + Water Pasta

In the summer of 2011, I attended a series of pasta making classes taught by Thomas McNaughton at his San Francisco restaurant, Flour + Water. The first class covered how to make flat noodles and a simple shape (garganelli). The second and third classes introduced stuffed pasta (cappelletti and agnolotti dal plin) and more complex shapes (cappellacci dei briganti and scarpinocc). McNaughton taught the sessions in his Dough Room, a pasta workshop adjacent to the restaurant. After each class, we cleared the large butcher-block worktables and McNaughton cooked a delicious dinner for the group. It was a pretty sweet deal, and I picked up a number of great pasta making tips. I also learned that McNaughton had a cookbook in the works. And now, three years later, the book has arrived: Flour + Water Pasta by Thomas McNaughton with Paolo Lucchesi and photographs by Eric Wolfinger. If you want to hone and expand your pasta making skills, buy this book.

McNaughton and Lucchesi divide Flour + Water Pasta into two parts. Part One, entitled The Dough, covers how to make different types of pasta dough, how to cook pasta, and how to use the recipes in the book. The authors divide Part Two, entitled The Recipes, by season: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. These recipes reflect McNaughton and his restaurant’s mission: “to explore the complexity of pasta and use it to showcase the bounty of Northern California ingredients.” McNaughton masterfully combines traditional shapes and techniques with a regional and modern approach to ingredients. Under Summer, you’ll find recipes for Corn and Crescenza Cappelletti with Bitter Honey and for Bigoli with Fresh Shelling Beans, Tomato, and Pancetta. Under Autumn, McNaughton shares his recipe for Spaghetti with Black Trumpet, Poached Egg, and Cured Yolk. Scattered among contemporary dishes such as Cocoa Tajarin with Brown Butter-Braised Giblets, Butternut Squash, and Sage, you find classic, traditional dishes like Tortellini in Brodo, Agnolotti dal Plin, and Tagliatelle Bolognese.

As much as I enjoy and appreciate how McNaughton pairs the old and new, to my mind Flour + Water Pasta shines when it shares what McNaughton knows about making fresh pasta. McNaughton has impressive credentials, including working under Chef Michael Tusk at San Francisco’s Quince and making pasta at a laboratorio in Bologna. Flour + Water Pasta works as a primer for those who want to learn the basics of how to make fresh pasta, but in my opinion, the book better suits the more experienced pasta maker interested in different pasta dough recipes and complex shaping techniques. McNaughton’s standard egg dough, which makes 644 grams of dough, calls for 360 grams 00 flour, 1¼ teaspoons kosher salt, 18 to 20 egg yolks—he wants 300 grams of yolks—and 1½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil: a tricky dough to cut one’s teeth on as a beginner.

But for the cook interested in expanding his or her pasta making repertoire, Flour + Water Pasta is the book for you. McNaughton teaches you how to make pasta shapes both common and obscure: spaghetti and caramelle; farfalle and casonsei; pappardelle and stradette. McNaughton and Lucchesi also cover topics like making pasta by hand with a rolling pin, and the importance of pork in Emillia-Romagna cuisine.  I particularly enjoyed McNaughton’s and Lucchesi’s shout out to Emilio Mitidieri. If you want to explore the world of making fresh pasta here in the states, you need to know about Emilio and his company (here).

When I enrolled in McNaughton’s pasta classes, I wanted to learn the finer points of making fresh pasta from a working chef and, with luck, score a dough recipe for my relatively new torchio pasta press. (I accomplished the former, but, sadly, not the latter.) Now with the debut of Flour + Water Pasta, readers have the benefit of McNaughton’s vast pasta-making knowledge without having to travel to Flour + Water’s Dough Room in San Francisco.