Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance isn’t really about motorcycle maintenance. Cooking cascatelli is about so much more than cascatelli.
Its result is a ruffled, tentacle-like shape named for the Italian word for waterfall. (“If you want to save us both some hate mail,” Pashman tells me, “you can say that technically the correct plural would be ‘cascatelle,’ ending in ‘e,’ but that I chose to end it in an ‘i’ because I thought it would sound more like a pasta shape to the average American.”)
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Other chefs and writers have already analyzed and reviewed cascatelli, dissecting the minutiae of its angles and ridges and sauce-grabbing properties. I will spare us another 1,000 words repeating what the majority of them have already written: It’s a great pasta shape! Its ruffles trap sauce like a vacuum; its curled shape is satisfying to bite into; its surface texture is ever-so-slightly rough and sauce grabbing.
But this isn’t a review of cascatelli, because the particulars of this shape aren’t its most important achievement. Cascatelli’s true culinary contribution is that it has spurred home cooks—myself included—to think differently, and more deeply, about pasta. Here’s what I mean.
Basics are worth thinking about
Despite pasta’s ubiquity, most of us don’t think critically about which shapes we like best and why.
“When we talk on The Sporkful about a food in great detail, one of my favorite reactions that I'll get is people will say, ‘I never knew I had such strong opinions about that,’” Pashman says. “When cascatelli came out, it caused people to interrogate their own opinions and experiences with pasta shapes and to start to realize like, ‘Oh my God, yes, spaghetti does suck.’”
Pashman’s opposition to spaghetti comes from its slipperiness, the difficulty of saucing it well and getting it onto your fork—he thinks most people would agree spaghetti is a suboptimal shape, if only we thought about it.
This is the most important thing cascatelli did for me: It made me into a pasta meta-thinker. Why do I like pasta? Is texture more important than flavor? What shapes really are my favorite, and for which sauces? Mission accomplished, Dan.
This led me to texture. Pashman explains that pasta can be extruded through two types of dies: bronze dies and Teflon dies. The former produces a pasta that’s usually cream-like in color, with a slightly rougher surface texture—like the fancy imported Italian pastas at the gourmet market. The latter produces a yellow-hued, smoother pasta—the less-expensive kind you’ll find at your average grocery store.
Considering each forkful of cascatelli, I tasted and felt the difference of a bronze die-extruded pasta: That little bit of sandpaper-esque friction does make sauce stick better, and produces a more interesting texture with each bite. I vowed to spend the extra couple bucks at the store for the bronze-extruded stuff, at least as an occasional treat.
Frills can be necessary
Pashman agrees with Garfield the cat: Lasagna is a top-notch pasta shape.
“The shape that I’d had before and loved was mafalda, or mafaldina. It’s like fettuccine with ruffles down the edges, or a lasagna but narrow enough to wrap around your fork,” Pashman says. “What I learned from that is I really, really wanted ruffles. Ruffles hold sauce really well and they have a totally unique texture component that no other attribute provides.”
I paid attention to how my bowl of cascatelli trapped its sauce (I used Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe for creamy tomato sauce). The inner-facing ruffles acted like little jaws, clamping the smooth sauce as well as its chunkier tomato and onion bits inside. It locked that sauce inside each bite; when I finished eating, there was no remnant pool of sauce at the bottom of my bowl.
Salt—then taste, taste, taste
Pashman says people make two big mistakes when cooking pasta: They boil it for too long, and they don’t salt the water enough. Cascatelli cooking instructions suggest “generously salted” water, so go ahead, pour another half tablespoon in.
But how long to boil? Cascatelli’s directions suggest 13-17 minutes, a rather wide range. I began tasting at 13 minutes, and ate a piece of pasta every 30 seconds—you know, for science. Fourteen and a half minutes was the ideal al dente for my taste. But again, I learned more than just how to cook cascatelli: I learned that I should be applying this rigorous tasting method to all my pasta cooking. I was struck by how significant 30 seconds could be in pasta-boiling land. It was the difference between an unpleasant interior crunch and a perfectly al dente bite.
Fresh Pasta is a Simple Luxury
Kraft shapes > elbows
With half an hour to talk to one of the world’s leading pasta experts, naturally I wasted five minutes unloading my opinions of Kraft Mac and Cheese. Why, I wanted to know, do I prefer the boxes that include shapes (such as SpongeBob, Scooby-Doo, and characters from Frozen) to the boxes full of elbow noodles? To my relief, Pashman did not find this an odd question.
“I agree with you. Shapes are better,” Pashman says. “Not only because they have more crevices to hold sauce, but also because they're usually composed of vertical lines. So when you bite into them, they're like I-beams, they provide more resistance to your teeth than a small tube.”
Vindicated. And this is a principle I could taste for myself in cascatelli: There’s a right angle (that I-beam) where the ruffles attach to a vertical plane, providing more resistance to the bite. Whether you’re buying the blue box mac and cheese or a box of bronze-extruded cascatelli, look for the vertical lines.