Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making Fresh Pasta

What distinguishes good from great when judging cookbooks? The factors will vary based upon personal preferences. One gauge that I use is whether the book sets a standard of excellence or scholarship in its subject area. Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta [2009] more than measures up. It has quickly become an essential volume in my cooking library. Over the coming months this book will help to guide us as we explore a range of different pasta shapes and the different techniques and dough used to make each shape.

Encyclopedia of Pasta documents “the traditional shapes of Italian pasta—the long, the short, the layered, the rolled, the stretched, and the stuffed.” Zanini De Vita is thoughtful and thorough. Each pasta is categorized and examined: what are its ingredients; how is it made; what are its alternative names; how is it traditionally served; and where is it made. She concludes each entry with additional remarks about the shape.

The book presents 310 different shapes of pasta. Some of these are familiar: fettuccine, lasagna, ravioli and spaghetti. Many other are less common: agnolotti, corzetti, garganelli and tajarin. Most of the pastas are exotic: blutnudeln (a thin flat noodle made with rye flour, wheat flour, eggs and pig’s blood) and zizziridd’ (a small cubed pasta added to bean soup).

Although Zanini De Vita overviews each pasta’s ingredients, she does not give measured amounts. For example, we learn that Fregnacce, a lozenge shaped pasta found in Northern Lazio, Abruzzo and Le Marche, is made with “durum-wheat and eggs or water”. At first it might seem that this lack of detail is a shortcoming. Not so. Encyclopedia of Pasta does not pretend to be a “recipe book”—it is a reference book. (I only wish a photograph of each pasta accompanied each entry.) But happily you can use Zanini De Vita’s book as a guide and inspiration when making fresh pasta. With a handful of dough recipes and practice, many of the pastas in the book are easily achievable.

Here are the shapes I plan to feature in upcoming posts: pappardelle, toppe, cavatelli, maccarones inferrettati and agnolotti. Each of these pastas presents the opportunity to explore a different dough and techniques. Do not be surprised if this list changes over time. (Additions are more likely than deletions.) Each time I dive into Zanini De Vita’s excellent work, I come away wanting to master another shape of pasta.