Cooking a meal at times can be challenging for all cooks and Chefs.
You plan your meal, shop for the ingredients and even tools at times to ensure your meal is a hit,
Then suddenly, someone that has been invited, or better yet that another guest has invited, says that they can’t eat your Main dish because it contains an ingredient they are allergic or sensitive to.
You can stand there with the urge to pull your hair out or slap the person through the phone, or adapt.
I usually adapt. Yes, I am a Chef and you may think that is easy for me. And sometimes it is. Sometimes, not so much. But my goal, as with most cooks, is you want every guest, whether you invited them or someone else did, to enjoy every dish you prepare or at least have foods they can enjoy and feel fed after they leave the party. What is even worst is when you go that extra mile adding more foods and dishes to accommodate and the guest either doesn’t touch any of the extra dishes, or better yet, doesn’t show up to the party resulting at either more hair pulling or leaving you shaking your head and use it as another learning experience in cooking something without an ingredient. I usually have chosen the latter and pat myself on the back for attempting the challenge, especially if it turned out really good and was a game changer.
Which brings me to the point of Pasta. Who doesn’t love it? Not many don't. And my experience has been that it is usually that the person doesn’t Love Pasta, they just can’t eat eggs or sometimes gluten. They Love pasta but most pasta makes them ill.
Well today we are going to concentrate on the egg reason, we will leave gluten for another time, another blog.
Most Fresh Pasta is made with eggs. Eggs were scarce and a luxury food in Italy in times past. And these days with a pandemic going on, eggs can be a luxury again even in the USA, or not available in stores. We are also in the Autumn, soon to be winter months when chickens molt their feathers and if allowed to naturally and organically happen results in chickens not laying eggs. This natural process allows the chickens to grow feathers and allow them to survive the cold but also build their strength and produce better stronger chickens and eggs in the coming year. Another example of how Nature takes care of our planet and its inhabitants. My Cousin Tanya from Swallowtail Farms in the Savannah Georgia area reminded me of this. Something I had cataloged in my brain.
So with that said you may find yourself craving a great dish of Fresh Pasta, but either don’t have eggs, or for whatever reason can’t eat them.
Don’t let that stop you. Whatever the reason may be, you have no eggs, or that person you will be cooking for can’t have eggs, Making great Fresh Pasta can still be achieved. That didn’t stop Italians, nothing usually does, but especially when it comes to food.
I feel that is why Italian food is considered to be one of the best in the culinary world. They take the scraps, the left overs, the things that are thrown away and make them taste like they were prepared for a King. During World War II, flour was scarce and food was almost nonexistent did that stop Italians from flours? No they took the Hazelnuts from the trees that were abundant in Italy, ground the nuts and fed the masses. They survived and did it with delicious foods that are still loved to this day.
In Northern Italy, eggs and chickens were more obtainable. But in Southern Italy, as I stated before, eggs were a luxury. If your family of 6 was starving and you had 1 chicken which produced 1 egg a day, will the family Survive on 1 egg split 6 ways or cook the chicken and feed the family for two or three meals? Not having the chicken anymore was not resulting in no more eggs I might add.
Because of this, They learned how to cook without eggs. But with that, they also learned which flour was the best to produce a pasta with the most protein and best texture and taste.
Italians take their flours seriously. In the USA, we grade our flour by gluten and protein content. Higher gluten results in doughs that can stretch and roll easier. So for bread it results in better rising and that wonderful elastic sponginess great bread gets, not only from the air holes, but from the gluten. We get a soft bread rather than a brick. Doughs roll easier especially when making laminated doughs like for croissants.
Wheat is the most used product used for flour and although we can get flours from rice, hazelnuts, soy, almond, coconut, they do not produce gluten. For those that can have gluten, it is a wonderful thing.
Wheat is cultivated, washed, separated, and produced into different products. Whole Wheat has most of the Wheat, the outer shells and layers are included in the milling and grinding. In other flours such as All Purpose or Bread Flours, the inner part within the layers, the kernel, is removed and processed and ground. When water or liquid Is added, it develops the gluten.
Then there is Semolina. Although Semolina is the final product that can be produced from Hard Durum Wheat, it comes from ONLY the inner part of the Kernel. It is not bleached. It does not have any of the layers that have been removed and ground into it. It is the smallest little nut within the Embryo of the Wheat. Think of Wheat as an egg, I know of all things, an egg. The Wheat has an outer shell, the inside of that shell has the Kernel, the White inside or Albumin of the egg, and then we have the Yolk, Or in this case the Semolina. Semolina is high in Gluten and produces a great outcome when making Pasta or even bread. (Check out my recipe for Sicilian Semolina Bread when you get a chance.)
So when you shop for Semolina, you will find it costs a little more depending on where it is produced. It is the inner most part of wheat. A lot of cleaning, separating goes into getting millions of little tiny nuts inside a nut that inside a nut. It makes a person think, How did anyone ever discover this before commercial machines? Who knows. It has been around Since the beginning of time, before Christ. It is used around the world and has been for centuries.
In Europe, Flours are graded by the amount they are ground, not in Gluten content resulting in flours that are course to fine. With Semolina being high in gluten eggs aren’t always needed to give doughs the ability to stretch. So when you make pasta with eggs, a great result can be attained by using white flours or All Purpose Flour or 00 Flour. In Europe 00 Flour is best for making egg pasta resulting in a smoother pasta. You can see and taste the difference. When water or liquid is added to Semolina, The gluten is what develops and eggs are not needed. The taste is still rich, but somewhat different. Like Rice noodles to egg pasta. Eggs give flavor as well as protein. Semolina is high in protein and gluten. But also High in Flavor!
So why use eggs at all? It’s a matter of preference and structure. Egg Pasta dough is traditionally used for Spaghetti, Fettuccini, Lasagna Noodles, Ravioli, Tortellini. Pasta that is extruded by a machine and Made with Semolina Dough results in a firmer pasta that keeps its shape. It is a little dryer than egg pasta. It is what is shaped Pastas or Macaroni is made from like Cavatelli, Orecchiette, Rigatoni, Penne. It holds the shape better.
Does that mean you can’t make Ravioli or Spaghetti from Semolina and Water dough? Heck, NO! It is a preference. It is what you like or can have. Semolina and Water dough produces a great Pasta dough with high gluten but structure. It is a matter of taste. It is still delicious. It is what you were brought up on with most boxed, store bought pastas.
I love both. And it is just a matter of what I have on hand and what I am making. I love egg Pastas. But I also Love Orecchiette like the woman from Bari Italy are famous for, with Broccoli Rabbe and Sausage with lots of Olive oil and Garlic. And I love a ravioli with fresh Ricotta and Pecorino Romano Cheese or Pumpkin with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg in a Brown Butter sauce with Sage and Pecorino Romano Cheese. And Lets not forget a good Lasagna Bolognese with Béchamel and the rich Bolognese sauce.
The bottom line is any of the above dishes can be made with either type of dough. Don’t let not having eggs stop you from making Fresh Pasta. Yes store bought boxed is ok. It is just ok. However, Fresh is best. And in the past year, in some places in the USA, boxed pasta was not existent on store shelves or limited on how much you could purchase.
Semolina is also the preferred flour to use to keep pasta from sticking together whether you use Egg or Water dough and also in Pizza Making to help the pizza come off the Pizza Peel, the long big spatulas used to take the unbaked pizza to the oven and slide off easily and remove the pizza from the oven.
So look for Semolina Flour. You can find it in most grocery stores these days, and if you can’t, speak to the manager of customer service manager and ask them to order it and stock it. You can also find it is a lot of Asian Markets and at a fraction of the cost. It may not be the extreme quality as the Southern Italian Semolina’s, they are considered the best, but they are great too especially when you can’t find what you want. It’s like the song says “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find, you get what you need."