March 4, 2013
spaghetti au pesto
(spaghetti with pesto)
Most recipes don’t work! At least, that’s been my experience with recipes from the “molecular gastronomy” genre. Even in their most prescriptive form, recipes are only an approximation of the true cooking process. It is the cook’s good fortune that most preparations have a generous portion of leeway. One cup of flour is never ever exact, and an approximation is usually good enough. Molecular gastronomy often requires much more precision, but it’s practitioners, whether through ignorance or design, often fail to describe their methods and ingredients sufficiently precise to allow others to reliably replicate their results. That was certainly the case when I first tried to make some parmesan foam.
The recipe seemed simple enough. I followed it to the tee. It didn’t work. I suspect that the water and or fat content of the cheese I used was different from that that the recipe author had used. The process involved cooking some parmesan cheese in water. The water was then used to create the foam. There was no mention of what to do with the leftover solids, so I decided to play.
I put the remaining solid mass in my microwave to soften it into a wade that I could manipulate like putty. I tasted a small piece and was surprised by its intense flavor. I decided to see if I could roll out the cheese into a thin sheet with my pasta machine. It worked fairly well, but by now, the cheese was cold and no longer malleable. Since the pasta machine was already set up, why not go all the way. I microwaved the cheese again, and finished rolling it thin. I then slit the cheese sheet into parmesan “spaghetti.” I mixed a little finely minced, fresh basil, olive oil, and garlic into the “pasta” and topped it with a couple of pine nuts. Not bad. Not bad at all.
About the same time, I was assigned to teach a class called Homemade Cheese and Dairy Workshop at a local cooking school. I was given a set of recipes prepared by someone at another location of the school. The recipes needed a lot of work, and I had never made any of the items before.
One of the recipes was called Easy Homemade Mozzarella. It was painful to read. Like many of the recipes provided by the school, it made the process much more complicated than it needed to be. So, with some rennet provided by the school, a gallon of milk from Trader Joe’s, knowledge from reading about homemade mozzarella on the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company website, and my red pencil, I gave the recipe a try. It worked mostly as written, once I crossed out all the extra, unnecessary steps. The class came off without a hitch.
I took the mozzarella that I had made with my test and divided it into 30 g (1 oz) portions. I heated each separately in my microwave until it was soft enough to roll into a sheet that would be thin enough to fit through my hand‑crank pasta machine. After a thorough chilling, the sheets were slit into “spaghetti,” and served similar to the dish described above for the parmesan.
I originally served a larger portion of the mozzarella pasta as part of a cheese course in a full meal, but I always thought it would make a good amuse‑bouche. Since my original version, I have modified the “pesto” portion of the recipe to deconstruct it a bit more. To produce the finished dish, you’ll need to produce a couple of mozzarella sheets, the basil oil, and some garlic chips. First the mozzarella…
1 ml
liquid rennet
10 ml (23 t) + 30 ml (2 T)
cool, filtered water
2 g (13 t)
citric acid powder
950 ml (1 qt)
whole milk (not ultra‑pasteurized)
13 t
powdered salt, or to taste, see note
1. In a small bowl, mix liquid rennet into 10 ml (23 t) of cool water, and set aside. In another small bowl, mix citric acid into 30 ml (2 T) of cool water, stirring well to dissolve the citric acid, and set aside.
2. Place milk in a heavy, non‑reactive saucepan. Pour in the citric acid solution and stir. Place the saucepan over high heat, and continuously stir while heating the milk to 32 °C (90 °F). When the milk reaches temperature, remove the saucepan from the burner and slowly stir in the rennet solution. Cover the saucepan, and leave it undisturbed for 5 minutes.
3. There should be a clear separation between the curd and the whey around the edges of the saucepan. Using a long knife, roughly cut the curd into squares.
4. Place the saucepan back on the heat. Heat the mixture to 43 °C (110 °F) while slowly and gently stirring the curds in one direction. When the mixture reaches temperature, remove the saucepan from the heat and continue slowly stirring for 2 minutes. Gently pour the curds into a colander or sieve lined with butter muslin.
5. Drain the curds thoroughly. Gather the ends of the muslin into a “bag,” and squeeze the curds firmly until no more water is released.
6. Lay out two long pieces of plastic wrap on your counter. Have a rolling pin at hand. Free up shelf space in your refrigerator for cooling the cheese.
7. Transfer the drained cheese curds to a wide‑bottomed bowl or plate. Level the curds into a flat disc. Place the curds in your microwave. Cook on high for 20 seconds. If the curds feels pliable, close to melting, and a little bit stretchy, it’s ready. If not, microwave them a bit more.
8. Remove the curds, and fold and knead them until they become smooth, elastic, and begin to stretch. While stretching, knead in the salt. Only knead the curds until they are smooth. Shape the mozzarella into two long, flat rectangles. Place each in the middle of one half of the previously prepared plastic wrap. Fold the free half of the wrap over the cheese. Roll each cheese piece into a flat sheet suitable for inserting into a pasta machine.
9. As soon as they are rolled out, place the sheets in your refrigerator to chill them completely before slitting.
Note: Make powdered salt by grinding plain salt in a spice grinder or mortar.
Yield: About 8 portions.
The basil oil is prepared by stuffing the jar of a high‑speed blender with fresh basil. Add about a cup of decent quality olive oil to the blender jar. Blend at high speed for 5 minutes or longer. Strain the mixture through a fine strainer. Then strain the resulting green liquid through a coffee filter, which can take a couple of days.
Preparation of the garlic chips was described in my 2007 article on French garlic preparations. When I fix the chips now, I don’t bother to measure the oil temperature. I just keep the oil at a medium‑low temperature. I also cut the garlic thinner than the 1 mm (125 in) called for in the recipe.
To assemble the final dish, start by passing the cheese sheets through the slitter on a pasta machine or cut them by hand into thin strips. Do this just before serving. Arrange the “spaghetti” on individual serving dishes. Drizzle some of the basil oil over the cheese. Follow this with a few garlic chips and a couple of pine nut kernels.

© 2013 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.