Saturday, February 18, 2012

Homemade Tortellini!

I'm going to wait on writing more on bread, and instead I'm going to talk about something else...tortellini! When they are made from scratch, they are simply divine. I learned how to make them last year from my friend Stefano, a Michelin Star chef, when I helped him out at his restaurant, 'Al Caminetto'. I highly recommend eating there, the food is exquisite...a somewhat modern take on traditional Northern Italian dishes, using a lot of wildcrafted herbs and local, organic ingredients.

I learned to make these tortellini using the flours we have in Italy.... if you live in another country, you can make substitutions using similar flours, or go to an Italian grocery. It helps a lot if you have a pasta roller. If you don't, well I guess you can use a rolling pin. I am giving one idea for a filling, but do whatever you want! The hard part is getting the dough right. Take note that I measure in weight and percentages, because that is how we roll in Italy, but you can probably convert it to volume pretty easily. I think part of what makes this so good is the use of manitoba flour, so find that if you can.

Kickass Tortellini Recipe
For the flour, you want to use this ratio:
40% semola (I think in the US it is called semolina)
40% 00 flour (can substitute all purpose)
20% manitoba flour (can substitute bread flour)

Recipe for 4 people (note that you need 100 g flour mixture per serving):

160 g semola
160 g 00 flour
80 g manitoba
4 eggs (1 egg per 100 g)
pinch salt

Spinach-ricotta filling:
300 g ricotta
100 g boiled and chopped spinach (or some other vegetable. My favorite is agretti.)
1 egg
salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 clove mince garlic.

To work the dough:
Some people mix the dough directly on the counter, but I do it either in a bowl or I pulse it a few times in a food processor. Mix together flours. Add salt. Add eggs. Mix together until homogenous. Knead it a few times, but not too much or it will get tough. You want to start to develop the gluten (there is a lot in the manitoba... it helps give strength to the dough), but not so much that it gets tough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Mix together the filling ingredients! Season to taste. That part is quite easy. Don't skimp on the nutmeg.

Ok, this part is the 'tricky' bit. Get a pot of salted water boiling. Take your dough out of the fridge, and we are only going to work with a smallish amount of dough at a time, so keep the dough we aren't working with covered with the plastic wrap! Otherwise it will dry out and that's no good. Put some of your filling into a piping bag, or into a plastic bag with a hole cut in a corner. Cut off a chunk of the dough (size of a large lemon), and start putting it through your pasta roller, starting on the biggest setting, and decreasing the setting gradually. When you are on one of the largest settings, each time the past comes out, fold it in half, and put it through again. This makes the dough stronger. I do this about 10 times, until the dough seems to be a bit stronger. Keep decreasing the thickness setting until you get to the SECOND to last setting. Otherwise it will be too thin and fall apart. The pasta sheet should be the same width as the pasta roller. One thing that helps to reduce stickiness is to keep your work surface sprinkled liberally with semola.

Take a pizza cutter, pastry wheel, or knife, and divide your sheet in 2, lengthwise. Then cut the other direction, cutting the pasta sheet into approximately 2 inch squares. Take your bagged filling, and squirt a small amount in the center of each of the squares, about the size of a small hazelnut. You have to work fast, or your pasta will dry out! This next part takes some practice, but maybe you'll pick up faster than me. I put the formed tortellini on a cookie sheet or plate that is liberally sprinkled with semola, and once I have 20 or I so I dump them in the boiling water. This is to pre-cook it so that they don't get soggy while you are finishing everything up. Only cook them for 1 minute! then take them out with a slotted spoon, toss in some oil, and put in a bowl. Ok, onto making the tortellini shape:

This is what each square should look like. Put it in your left hand!

Fold it in half along the diagonal, and squish the edges together really well

Squish it like this making a little 'hat'

Twist the right 'arm' to the right, keeping your left hand position the same

Put the twisted right arm over the untwisted left arm

Where the two arms cross, squish it quite well with your thumbs. You want it to hold together, and you also don't want it too thick.

Ta-da! This is what it should look like.

Ok, so you've put them on a floured plate-like-thing, and have boiled them for 1 minute, and tossed in oil. Repeat this process until they are all pre-cooked. Get your sauce ready, and when you are ready to eat, boil them again, until they are done. It should only take a couple of minutes.

Sorry for my bad photography. But they are oh so tasty, and beautiful!Except in the eye of my camera, of course.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What makes bread good?

I'm a snob.

A bread snob, that is.  I won't let bad bread enter my house.  I feel as if it is a food only to be eaten if it is worthy of enraptured lovers falling at its crusty feet proclaiming heartfelt sonnets.  I don't often like to slather my bread in condiments, or dip it til it is soppy in liquids.  I want to appreciate its complex flavors and textures, without ostentatious adornments.  Actually, as we speak, I am eating a bruschetta.....last night's bread toasted in a cast iron pan, rubbed with raw garlic, and drizzled with some quality olive oil.  It's my favorite food in the world.
This is what I'm eating now.  Yum!

So what makes bread good, or even great?  I've been trying to get my Italian husband to recognize good bread, so it's something I've thought about a lot. You think of Italy, and you think the bread is probably awesome, right? Unfortunately, not so much, at least here in Valle d'Aosta.  It could be that I haven't developed a taste for the local bread, but I think it's more like the bread isn't very good.  There is one stellar bakery (Bio Panetteria), but they don't have a shop, so you have to hunt them down at the random, and seasonal, markets in the region.  Aside from that, bread comes in three varieties:

1)White.  No flavor, overly crusty crust, used for sopping up sauce.
2) Whole grain.  You can break bullet-proof glass with this stuff.
3) Pane Nero.  Ok, so I do appreciate this bread.  It's very traditional, it's done in ancient wood fired ovens.  It is the reason for many incredibly fun festivals.  It is made with rye flour, and sometimes they even use a starter. However, I just don't like it, probably because it's meant to be 'good' for up to 6 months.  That translates to it being rock hard.  It could break 10 layers of bullet-proof glass!  But it gets my respect, though not my taste buds.
Pane nero.  They let it harden up on these racks!  And when it is too hard to eat without breaking teeth, they eat it soaked in red wine, and call it 'donkey soup'.

So, what makes bread good? Everyone has a different take on this, but here is mine:

1) Should be made with a starter or a poolish. I'm sure there are yeast breads out there that are perfectly good, but they aren't to my taste.  I love the rich, complex flavor of a slowly risen, fermented bread.  You can taste taste the love and energy that went into it, I'm sure of it!
This is my starter, and she does all the 'heavy lifting' of all of my breads.  I adore her.  Come visit and I'll give you some!
2)  Open crumb.  Those big, beautiful, lacy holes in the soft part of the bread.  If you go into a bakery in France, they usually have a loaf opened up for each bread type, to show off what kind of crumb it has, as that is a big indicator of bread quality.  If they don't show you their crumb before you buy, it is probably no good!  So, what does an open crumb mean?  It means that the bread is probably a fairly high hydration (percentage of water used), which means it will be moist.  It means that the gluten developed fully, which you want because it will give the bread structure, a good consistency and texture.  It means the bread rose fully, which also gives a good consistency and texture.  It means there was probably a long and slow fermentation, which helps in developing a divine flavor.   These breads usually also have a dense, chewy crust, that is just a bit crunchy.
This is what open crumb looks like! This one is fresh out of the oven.  60% white, 20% semolina, 20% whole wheat.

3) Flavor.  Ok, you can't see this when you buy it, and it is totally a matter of preference, but most people can probably agree on a few factors.  Bread should have flavor.  It depends on the type of bread obviously, as to what flavor it is, but it should be there.  Enough to make you stop and ponder the deliciousness of it.  It usually has a tiny bit of sweetness, even though there probably isn't sugar in the recipe.  The flavor should linger like a good memory.  Also, it shouldn't be overly sour.  I know, naturally risen breads are called sour dough.  But more often than not, they are so sour to the point that they leave a bitter note on your tongue all day.  I don't like when bread does that, although I think  it's preferable to no flavor at all.  I like when it is in a range from no sourness whatsoever, to just a light, almost undetectable sour note that is fleeting.

4) Shininess.  Good breads, unless seeded or something similar, are usually a bit shiny.  Not exactly shiny, but I can't think of a better word.  It means the bread is fresh, that it has been cooked in water vapor (yes! you want this!), and that the crust is probably really tasty.  Shininess is usually an indicator that it was made using a starter and that it has an open crumb, as well. Sorry, you can't know if it is sour from the shiny factor!
A shiny bread I made a while back.  See the shiny?

So, how do you go about making bread that  meets these requirements?  I'll write about it here sometime, or check out Barbara Swell's new bread book, Aunt Barb's Breads.