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