pp. 134 – 138 of Révélations Gastronomiques by Hervé This, published by Éditions Belin, 1995. Translation my own.
Let us reserve the marrow of our heart to slather on tartines,
The intimate jus of passions to put in a bottle,
Let’s make of all our self a sublime residue with which to nourish posterity.
Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Madame X.
This Italian recipe is remarkable in its finesse. It has the merit of teaching us the useful procedure of extracting aromas. I like these examples in which the principle of the thing appears in all its purity, ready to be taken up again on other occasions.
What’s more, the recipe gives us the occasion to evoke an essential component of the alimentation of those who have remained a bit infantile: pasta.
Ingredients for 6 large ravioli
(one per person will suffice)
- 500 grams of flour
- 4 eggs (for the dough)
- 6 eggs
- 200 grams of aged parmesan
- Sage (in abundance)
- A dollop of olive oil
- Make a ravioli dough by putting 500 grams of wheat flour (durum flour if possible) on a board, making a well in the center, and cracking in four whole eggs, a spoonful of olive oil, salt and a few drops of water. Work the dough just until it no longer sticks to your hands, then form a ball, which you will cover with a kitchen towel and let rest for a half-hour.
A dough forms because the water in eggs, and any water that you might add, form a starch solution: the grains of starch absorb the water, puff up and seal themselves. The dough must be well-worked so that the water is evenly distributed, and all the grains are equally stiff, and so that the water which formed the solution, along the edges of the grains, assures an efficient seal. Then, as the dough rests, the water migrates from the places where it is abundant (the edges of the grains) towards the zones where it is not as yet present: the edges of the grains dry out a bit, which seals the grains even more strongly, while the center of the grains becomes humid. The dough becomes homogenous.
Working the dough serves simultaneously to form a gluten network ; this is one of the reasons why we use durum flour, which has many proteins that can build a gluten network. Don’t forget that this gluten network only forms after being worked assiduously for a fairly long time: the proteins must first be unwound before they can bind. To accomplish this, disulfurous bridges, chemical bonds between two atoms of sulfur which keep the proteins folded up, must be broken. An energy must be provided (and air). Don’t neglect this network: it’s this which will allow the pasta to keep its shape, solidifying the grains of starch in the boiling cooking water.
- Flatten the ball of dough with a pastry roller on a smooth, floured surface, then pass your sheet of dough through the pasta machine, if you have one (if you don’t have a machine you’ll have to tire yourself out rolling it out thinly with the pastry roller) . With the help of a 5-inch cookie cutter (or a bowl, or even a little individual tart mold), cut discs out of the dough that you will put on a floured surface as you go. On each disc, put a little bit of grated parmesan, pepper, a pinch of salt, an egg yok, and fine-cut basil. Cover each thusly prepared disc with another disc of the same diameter and seal the edges of the two dough discs by pressing them together.
What to do with the remaining egg whites? Nothing is more annoying, in a household, than leaving egg whites in the refrigerator, in the hopes of a use which rarely arises : after several days of waiting, one ends up throwing them out and the household economy doesn’t gain anything. Why not have, in the kitchen, a collection of recipes that utilize egg whites? Here are some ideas:
-Meringues : you beat the whites into peaks, incorporate granulated sugar and cook in a very low oven for a long time ; think of the cake which is called “gateau succès,” for example, put together from discs of meringue with praline, separated layers of various cremes.
-Tuiles : you mix 30 grams of melted butter, 200 grams of praline et three egg whites: then you add 30 grams of flour, you let it rest for at least an hour, and you put thin discs of it onto a baking sheet covered with greased parchment paper; bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until it just begins to color. Look at the tuiles and, as soon as they’re out of the oven, drape them over a bottle on its side, a pastry roller, or any other object that can give them a pleasant shape.
-A salmon mousseline : mix the salmon meat with sherry that you have already heated up and into which you will have dissolved gelatin, lemon juice, a bit of melted butter ; then add whipped cream and egg whites that are beaten to soft peaks. Bake at 300 degrees for an amount of time which will depend on the mass (about 20 minutes).
- Prepare the sage sauce by simply heating chopped sage leaves in butter.
Here lies the cooks’ genius, the heritage of chefs of yesteryear, the substance of their work : empiricism and culinary inventiveness have discovered that numerous molecules are not water-soluble, but are very fat-soluble. By heating the sage leaves in butter, one breaks down the vegetable cells, which liberates the aromatic molecules, which dissolve in the melted butter. The principle can be reapplied for other preparations: why not, even, extract in oil or in melted butter the aromas of thyme, bay leaves, of powdered spices? Why not orchestrate the succession of two complementary extractions: first in water, cold or hot ; next in a body of fat, oil or butter?
- As soon as the sage butter is ready, cook the ravioli in the boiling, salted water for 3 minutes. Then put them onto heated plates and pour a spoonful of sage-infused butter over each. Serve immediately.
A century ago, everyone made their own pasta. The Alsatians preserved that tradition with spätzle and fried noodles, which are a delight. Preparing pasta is a child’s game, as we have seen: flour, eggs, water, which you work, then let rest, then cut according to the desired form, and then cook in boiling, salted water.
Pasta is better “al-dente”, when it doesn’t stick. Why would it stick? Because it is made up of starch, which forms a sticky paste, and of proteins: those of gluten, the network which surrounds the grains of starch, and those of the eggs, which have been placed in the dough. When the cooking is brief, it coagulates the gluten (at about 140 degrees) and finishes stiffening the pasta, which inflates : it is above all the long strands of starch molecules (the amylose) which dissolve in water: the others, in branched strands (the amylopectine) are hardly soluble. When the cooking is prolonged, the starch dissolves excessively in the water (the water becomes milky) and so does a portion of the proteins, and the pasta becomes sticky. Inversely, the cook time is insufficient if the starch paste has not coagulated, so the pasta is not inflated. The coagulation of proteins maintains that paste in a homogenous block and avoids the dissolution of the flour which would come about if one put only flour in the boiling water.
Note that you could cook the pasta in bouillon : this last idea would be a bit wasteful, but what gastronomic pleasure would be such pasta, imbibed in a succulent meat jus! (Asians understand this: their guests plunge just-cooked noodles into bouillon placed in the center of the table, in the style of a fondue).
Often, to drain pasta, on puts them in a colander, but the starch freed in the cooking water is poured back over the pasta and makes it sticky. An intelligent sleight of hand is to seize the pasta with a strainer and put them directly onto the serving plates.
Don’t forget to salt the cooking water: in order to obtain well-salted pasta, if you forget to salt the cooking water, you can put a much larger quantity of salt onto the pasta on the plate. In effect, the salt places in the cooking water goes with the water into the pasta as it inflates, in such a way that they are salted to the center. On the contrary, when the pasta is cooked and taken out of the water, the salt can no longer penetrate it: solid put on top of solid, it can no longer enter into the starch gel which makes up cooked pasta.
Why must the cooking water be boiling? Because this makes the proteins coagulate before the amylose has time to dissolve excessively.
Finally, it is sometimes advised to put the pasta into a large quantity of water: this is good advice, because the pasta put cold into hot water will not noticeably cool down the latter: in a few instants it is back to a boil, which is, as we have just seen, the guarantee that the amylase is not too dissolved; what’s more, the amidon freed during the cooking is dispersed throughout the mass of water and doesn’t come back and stick to the pasta, which would later render them sticky.
It is also advised to put four spoonfuls of oil per liter of cooking water so that the pasta does not stick. Views are divided on this, the instruction has not yet been rigorously verified.”