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August 01, 2007

The undisputed king of noodles: el Bulli's two metre parmesan spaghetto

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Sometimes molecular gastronomy can be a real pain in the ass.  Even the simplest of recipes -- and a two metre parmesan spaghetto is, believe it or not, relatively straightforward -- can be sabotaged by seemingly benign requirements, requirements like "1-1 L ISI siphon with the emptying attachment spaghetti."  Emptying attachment spaghetti?

Mangled English aside, I have no idea what that might look like, nor have I found a retailer that sells it.  The likely reason is simple: the spaghetti attachment is actually a customized piece of equipment designed specifically for (and likely by) el Bulli itself.

Unfortunately, the attachment points to a larger problem with pursuing molecular gastronomy at home generally, and cooking from the el Bulli cookbooks specifically: both require a constant stream of specialized equipment -- equipment that is often difficult, if not impossible to get.  The el Bulli cookbooks compound the problem by offering no indication of where, or even if, the necessary equipment can be purchased.

And the list of obscure items is extensive, even considering just the one cookbook in which this recipe appears, el Bulli 2003-2004.  If it's not a spaghetti attachment for the parmesan noodle, it's a spherical balloon attachment, Pacojet, Thermomix, candy floss maker, Roner, dehydrator, or a slew of other creations.  Keep in mind, however, that's only the equipment that's either difficult or expensive to source.

Mercifully, every so often the requirements, though odd, are at least easy to find.  For example, anyone hoping to make the parmesan noodle would be better served visiting a medical supply store or pharmacy than Williams-Sonoma, as the noodle attachment is but one weapon in the necessary arsenal for this dish.  Without two metre-long (that's six feet, for the metrically challenged) PVC tubes and a syringe, there wouldn't be a need for the attachment in the first place.

Unless, of course, there's no need for the attachment at all. Equipment can sometimes be replaced by adapting more conventional appliances to the task at hand.  No Thermomix?  No problem (most of the time, at least).  For some tasks, a blender or food processor will do the job.  Likewise, I substituted simple cheese cloth for a Superbag -- a heat resistant, reusable mesh bag filter made from inert material that functions as the ultimate chinoise -- while making the parmesan noodle.

A solution to the spaghetti attachment had eluded me, however.  Then I found JoCooking, the fascinating blog of a Portuguese woman with a wealth of molecular gastronomy experience and knowledge.  While browsing her photo album, I stumbled upon these three noodle photos.  She had clearly solved the problem.

The solution is so simple I wanted to kick myself when I heard it: instead of using the spaghetti attachment to extrude the noodle from the PVC tube, she uses the syringe itself.  Pumping the syringe requires a little elbow grease -- one noodle glided out of the PVC tube with minimal pumping, the other took so long the friction was making the syringe hot to the touch -- but it gets the job done.

Technical requirements aside, this is actually a very easy dish to make.  It's just parmesan whey set using a little agar.  The whey is extracted by mixing grated parmesan with boiling water, then passing the mixture through a Superbag or, as mentioned, cheese cloth.

To serve, the noodle is dressed with lemon zest, balsamic vinegar, and black pepper.  On its own, the parmesan flavour is overpowering -- and I love parmesan, "the undisputed king of cheese" -- but the combination of flavours is wonderful. The burn of pepper, and the bite of lemon mixed with the acid-sweetness of balsamic balance the powerful salty notes of a spaghetto that is, essentially, distilled parmesan.

There is a flicker of hope for those of us trapped in the equipment conundrum.  When I first started experimenting with spheres, I had trouble sourcing the sodium alginate and calcium chloride I needed. Now, less than eighteen months later, those and other ingredients are readily available through a variety of online retailers.  I sense -- and I certainly hope -- that a revolution in equipment is underway, too.  Last month, Harold McGee revealed that he, Michael Ruhlman, and Thomas Keller are working on a sous vide cookbook to be published when PolyScience releases the first immersion heater designed specifically for home use.  And, just today, while researching this post, I found an online store selling Superbags.  Finally, a little light at the end of the tunnel.

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Comments

papin

I have also found that the equipment needed in molecular gastronomy can be an impediment. Over time, I imagine home cooks like myself, will discover that some things have many uses and are worth their cost and shelf space. One gadget I found useful is a Crock Pot with a reptile tank thermostat for sous-vide recipes. I can imagine a more versatile (and hopefully compact) PolyScience machine replacing my current contraption. But should I get (build) an array of syringes for making sodium alginate caviar?

The time for adoption of new kitchen techniques can be long. The pressure cooker, invented in the late 1600s, started being used in the 1800s for canning and was finally adopted in homes in the US by the mid 1940s. Rice cookers, popular in South East Asia and Japan, have yet to see wide adoption in the States.

The shopping pointers are great. Thanks for the post.

Steamy Kitchen

Thats exactly why my husband has banned that book from my Amazon shopping cart. No expensive gadget that I can't pronounce and cost more than a car!

Martin

Yes - pursuing molecular gastronomy at home can be difficult. But I like to point out that the single most important tool (apart from obivous cooking utensils) is a thermometer ;) And I would say that you can do a lot of molecular gastronomy without expensive equipment.

Regarding sous-vide I've described a DIY version that doesn't call for an immersion circulator or a vacuum sealing machine in my blog (http://blog.khymos.org/2007/03/30/first-experiments-with-sodium-alginate). Having said that - I certainly am eager to see what PolyScience will come up with, not to mention the sous-vide book! I've also pointed out earlier that there is no need to buy the expensive "Eines" tools from Texturas/El Bulli. These tools can be obtained in an ordinary hardware store. Plastic syringes are available at almost no cost from drug stores/pharmacies (at least in my country). Also, competition is bringing down the prices of the more exotic hydrocolloids, which is very good.

BTW, thanks for the link to Jocooking - I was not aware of the site!

Adam

My sous vide answer was a plain stock pot on an electric griddle. You set it to basically 10 degrees higher than you want and it won't sway more than a couple of degrees, if that. I've done Chicken breast right at 143 and left stock at 190 for four hours and never adjusted it.

Ben

excellent resource for hard to find and high-end items (including superbags)

http://www.le-sanctuaire.com/

Stephen

Very cool. Just looking at el Bulli cookbooks perplexes me. He'a an evil genius! ;)

rob

Papin, I'm not sure I'd want to spend the sort of money people are asking for the caviar devices. That said, it's hard to make more than just a couple of servings of caviar with just one or two syringes.

Steamy, there are so many extraordinary recipes in these books, that not buying them because of equipment worries seems like a false economy. Of course, my wife would probably agree with your husband....

Martin, I avoid the texturas site, not because of quality but because of price. I couldn't agree more with you about the thermometer, though I'm tempted to add that a good digital scale is just as important.

Adam, thanks for the tip. I'm toying with the idea of trying some home sous vide with a thermometer and some ice cubes. What do you do for the vacuum seal?

Ben, I included a link to Le Sanctuaire in the post.

Stephen, the books are supposed to be thought provoking. Sometimes I read them as food porn, sometimes I read them as a cookbook. Whichever way I look at it, I always come away amazed.

Ms. Glaze

Jo's a good friend of mine! We went to cooking school together. Let me know if you ever want to get in touch with her personally for questions. Her English is very good...

sygyzy

I would love it if you could explain the solution to the spaghetti problem more in-depth. I don't understand the description in the post.

Dimas

Please kindly if somebody willing to explain to me more detail the procedure to make the el bulli parmesan spaghetto.. please. thanx soo much.

swaminandan

hi i saw the parmesan noodle. it was awasome. i tried making it with agar gar but somehow i am nothing getting it. actually i used coconut water and boil it with agar agar. cooled it and filled in isi shiffon. but somehow i am not geting the noodle texture. Can someone help me. Thanks.

Drac

Anyone know where to get the gnocci attachment? I need it badly.

sally Hartzell

Seems to me you could use a cheap aquarium pump.

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