Pasta for Future Chef's: More than Tortellini, Linguine and Sauce!

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Pasta for Future Chef’s, a four hour workshop held at Manhattan’s International Culinary Center, teaches even the most culinary challenged the fine art of pasta making.

Taught by Chef Jessica Botta, the master pasta chef at ICC, the course introduction began with an overview of the origins of pasta, the Italian region and other historical references.  The course, Pasta For Future Chefs, is designed to instill the knowledge of and create ease and comfort with the process of pasta making.  Her extensive experience and dedication to the traditions of pasta making were skillfully exhibited in her teaching style.

The hands-on instruction method utilized by Chef Jessica included a walk through process that had the class of eight, circled the “bench” watching as she prepared three dough’s that  would soon be attempted by each group of two; including a simple egg pasta, spinach pasta and a potato gnocchi.

The culinary industry terms become very important as one progresses through the class. The bench becomes the home to the necessary utensils for preparing the dough and extra flour always identified as “bench flour.” This is very important as it is not a special brand of flour and one does not need to look around or ask where the “bench flour” is kept.

Chef Jessica’s lecture on the art of pasta making was conducted simultaneously as she prepared the dough. She explained tricks and tips of trade including using various egg sizes and the most unusual was adding the liquid ingredients into the dry opposite of every recipe ever followed.  She explained the use of semolina flour as a coloring agent in the pasta and as reference for most New Yorker’s it’s the yellow crunchy grains on the bottom of some New York style pizza.

Kneading the Perfect Touch

With all our advancements in technology and instant gratification some things still need time to create perfection; kneading the dough is one of them.

After the gloppy mixture of half liquid ingredients are in the mixing bowl the process turns to creating a smooth, glossy, rounded mound. That process is done on the bench and the bench flour is kneaded into the mixture until it becomes workable and the glop of dough batter doesn’t stick to either hands or bench top. This is about twenty minutes of upper bicep work and the proper kneading method isn’t simply fold the dough over and press down; the proper kneading technique is fold over, push down and forward with the heel of the hand, pushing the dough, elongating it with each repetition. This is done to create elasticity in the dough as we are creating ribbons of pasta.

After about twenty minutes of real effort utilizing serious upper body work the dough is rounded and is smooth like a fine round smooth stone, no ridges or pockets, bumps or graining texture. At this point the dough is glossed with olive oil and covered with saran wrap for a setting period of about one hour.

After the simple egg dough was completed Chef Jessica moved onto fresh spinach dough. She is an efficient time manager and her methods can easily be incorporated into home preparing to allow for these culinary masterpieces to be prepared in minimal time.  The ingredients for both the egg and the spinach dough are the same. Spinach, of course, is the difference and she had it blanching, the process of draining and lightening the heaviness of the spinach texture, taste and smell through a soaking process, as she prepared the first dough. Adding the spinach into the ingredients and working it into the dough until it becomes the identical texture as the fine smooth, round mound. The dough had a saturated green color throughout and ended with the same non grainy texture. It was then glossed and covered.  

It is Chemistry

In making any dough it is important that the preparer control the ingredients always keeping in mind what food element combinations, like chemistry, create what reactions in the ingredients. In our final dough, potato gnocchi, the starch of the potato can create an additional liquid reaction in the dough.  Potatoes used to create consistent gnocchi dough are baked on salt to dry them out.

The Potatoes are peeled and pressed through a garlic press shredding them. Parmigianino cheese is shredded on a cheese grater.  The dough is created in the same manner as the others always adding the liquid to the dry and utilizing the bench as the tool to measure the need for more flour remembering one can always add more flour to a dough mixture and one can never take excess flour out.

Always cautious of time constraints Chef Jessica opted to have the sauces prepared by her assistants who provided back-of-the-house prep and hands-on assistance as the student teams prepared their dough and her silent assistant also worked back-of-the-house prep. Throughout our class they worked quietly creating Quattro Formaggi, a white cheese and a basic red tomato for saucing the cooked pasta.

Pasta Ribbons

Now it was our turn. Reducing the chance of fatal dough error the instructors pre-measured all the ingredients prior to class.  Together we created each of the dough’s Chef Jessica initially demonstrated.

After airing our glossed, smooth round dough’s we moved to the pasta roller.  The pasta ball is cut into quarters and rolled out into thin ribbon strips and aired till all the dough is complete.  The process of rolling the dough through a standard, hand-crank, pasta machine is not for the faint at heart. Always a competitor, or at least challenged by the ability of Chef Jessica, I felt the need to create the beautiful long pasta dough ribbons.

The procedure includes holding the dough with one hand simultaneously cranking the pasta handle, while catching the pasta as it rolls out the underside, turning the pasta handle and feeding the pasta back into the machine.  Here’s where I felt a little like Lucile Ball and the Chocolate Factory. It seemed like the pasta was rolling, folding; bunching up under the wheel until finally recognizing my need Chef Jessica explained that it was important to be standing on the right side of the pasta wheel.

She took my mashed pasta ribbon and began to reshape and fold it back through the pasta machine. It worked and soon she left me, standing on the right side of the wheel, with perfect dough to work with and then soon, like magic, a three foot pasta ribbon was created that would be shaped!

Challenged by the Chef

The next demonstration was shaping our long ribbons into the designs of our choice. Chef Jessica explained as she prepared a myriad of shapes, “It’s like cookie cutting minus the shapes,” although for the stuffed sombrero pasta, a round cutting utensil is used to create the perfect circle.

Again feeling the need to rise to the challenge and thought since she made a specific set of pasta that it was an assignment. Watching her skillfully make stuffed tortellini it seemed necessary to make the same. Shaping the dough into tortellini is a little different than it looks. Cutting the pasta short makes it impossible to fold tip-to-tip; cutting to big creates excess and unusable dough. Finally, with some work my pasta creations included a dozen stuffed tortellini’s as well as several Farfalla and a few stuffed Sombreros’.

Creating angle hair, fettuccini, or linguini can be done either by hand or through the pasta machine. I chose to cut angel hair pasta by hand and this is very simple, all it takes is folding the dough, like a piece of paper, until it is squared and layered four times, slice it finely with a knife. Fluff the cut dough out and, just like that, you have angel hair pasta noodles. 

What Should Pasta Water Taste Like?

Then it was time to cook and eat our creations! Even instructions for boiling the perfect pasta water were included. And just so it is known, “What should the pasta water taste like?” “The Sea,” as Chef Jessica explained. “Not the dead Sea but it should have a salt taste to it.” She went on to add, “Originally the Italians used water from the Mediterranean Sea for cooking which was salty.” So clearly water for pasta should be salted. And oddly enough she didn’t add olive oil. Although she did mention that olive oil can be used so the pasta won’t stick.

Cooking the pasta was a little unnerving as I expected the stuffed tortellini to explode and much to my surprise, my tortellini stayed together through the boiling process! It held up! It was amazing, and after that, the Farfalle, angle hair, gnocchi, ravioli, spinach fettuccine and linguini all cooked without concern.

In addition to the delicious sauces created by the assistants Chef Jessica also created a Pesto sauce using fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, oil and salt.  She pureed all the ingredients first and added the basil last pureeing only until the leaves were dissolved.   

What are the tools necessary for the making the perfect pasta at home?  A set of stainless steel mixing bowls and a pasta machine either the old fashioned hand-crank pasta machine or the electric. If serrated edges for ravioli or Farfalle are important then a serrated edge pasta cutter is necessary.

Always, the perfect hosts, the ICC team set a table with white linen cloths and napkins and we finished the class eating our creations topped with the perfect sauce!

We created; cooked, broke bread and enjoyed!

For more information on the IAC: http://www.internationalculinarycenter.com



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