Several years ago, Dan Pashman, host of the James Beard and Webby Award-winning “Sporkful” podcast, decided to create a new pasta form. And not just any pasta. Pashman wanted to make ideal pasta form. It needed to have the perfect bite, an appealing texture and keep the right amount of sauce. Sounds easy, right?
Well, Pashman’s new series of five “Sporkful” episodes, titled “Mission: ImPASTAble” tells a different, very funny and very informative story. Throughout the series, Pashman takes a trip to the Pasta Lab at North Dakota State University; has a number of heated debates with food professionals, including “The Splendid Table’s” Francis Lam, about existing pasta forms; and has a conversation with Giovanni Cannata, the only pasta door manufacturer working in America today.
“There were so many emotional ups and downs,”
In the end, it seems like the trip was worth it. Pashman’s new form is called “cascatelli”, which means “waterfalls” in Italian, and it has made a big splash in the food world since it was released earlier this month. Distributed for $ 4.99 per pound by cult favorite American pasta maker Sfoglini, it is currently sold out.
“We are so grateful for the incredible response to our new pasta mold!” Sfoglini’s website said. “Due to overwhelming demand, orders placed now at Cascatelli will be shipped in about ten weeks. We greatly appreciate your patience. We promise it will be worth the wait!”
Meanwhile, Pashman spoke with Salon about the process of making a better pasta form, the three qualities with which he judges existing noodles, and his trip to the Pasta Lab.
This interview has been edited easily for clarity and length.
I guess we should start from the beginning. When did you wake up and decide, “OK, we need a better pasta form?”
Well, I listened to some of the groundbreaking mid-2010 podcast series, especially the “Planet Money” T-shirt series and Alex Blumberg’s “StartUp” series. Such things with several episodes that were as groundbreaking at the time as “Serial”. And I thought, “One day I will make my version of this.”
You know, as a creative person, you hear other people doing cool things in your field, and you know you will try to do it one day. The obvious thought was, “I should cook,” but what should the food be? I had a couple of criteria: I wanted it to be a simple, basic food that everyone knows, loves and has opinions about. I did not want to do anything that was like a fancy specialty ingredient. The next thing: I wanted a food that was cheap and shelf-stable that could be sent all over the country, if not the world, because I wanted as many “Sporkful” listeners as possible to participate in the end product and be a part of the.
So pasta – even a slightly expensive pasta – is an affordable luxury for a large number of people, and it met these criteria. And pasta forms just felt like something that not many people think about, and I felt it was ripe for innovation. And one of my favorite parts of hosting the “Sporkful” podcast is that when I kind of nerd out in ridiculous details about the finer points of a particular food, one of the reactions I felt I loved that someone would say: knew that I had such strong opinions about it. ”
I love that reaction, because it’s like you had an insight into yourself and an insight into food. Like, “Oh, this food I’ve been eating all along, I actually care a lot about it.” And I felt like pasta molds would be that kind of thing.
I also think a big part of it is developing a language to talk about what we like or dislike about something. For example, there are three qualities you use to talk about pasta forms. Can you talk a little about them?
Yes. So there is “forkability”, which is how easy it is to get a paste form on the fork and keep it there. It is “sauceability”, which is how well a sauce sticks to it. And then there is “tooth sinkability”, which is so satisfying as to sink your teeth in. I mean, basically I made up these pseudo-scientific words, but I think they capture a lot of what makes some paste forms better than others.
I think there are many forms that are very good at some of these things, but very few nail all three. I think one of the fun parts of this series – if you listen to all five of the podcast episodes, you have these recurring characters who start using these words more and more without me having to tell them. It gets into the vocabulary of the people around me, and it’s really fun for me.
Can you tell us about your trip to Pasta Lab at North Dakota State University?
I mean, it was a lot of fun. I knew early on that I wanted to go there. I loved the idea of starting the journey in North Dakota, because it does not feel like the most obvious place to start a pasta story. But that place is a walk. I mean, they know all about durum wheat. They could talk about durum wheat for years before running out of things to say.
So, North Dakota is where most of the durum wheat that ends up in pasta is grown. And they said they’re always developing new varieties of durum wheat at the Pasta Lab at North Dakota State University. So I had to meet the whole research team that works there and see what they cook in the laboratory.
They literally make pasta in beakers – you know, they’re test tubes, and they’s wearing lab coats. If you were to write a sketch called “Pasta Lab”, it would look like that, but it’s actually real. The most incredible thing they have is something called a texture analyzer, which measures bite force, or the exact amount of pressure required to bite through, for example, five strands of spaghetti and what pasta you put in it.
I was just really excited to see it in person. And I was like, “Oh my God, will you test my pasta in this machine when I have some?” And they were very happy – they are like pasta nerds.
So this is a two-part question. Going back to the three qualities – ‘forkability’, ‘sauceability’ and ‘toothsinkability’ – what was an existing pasta form that you thought was close to ideal in terms of these? And what was the process of building on that?
So early I sat up to eat every paste form to get my teeth on. I walked around the New York subway area to specialty stores, and I got as many obscure shapes as I could. I ate and ate and ate all different forms. I had some of them before, but I wanted to get them all in some sort of quick order and really catalog the attributes. Do I like ruffles? Do I like straight edges? Do I like backs? Tube? Long? Card? Curls? Spinning? All these different things.
Through all the shapes, one that I landed on that I really, really loved, was one called mafaldine. If you envision a fettuccine noodle with ruffles down the edges, or like a lasagna, but narrow enough to wrap around a fork. So we liked it as a base canvas. So another form that I like was bucatini – and I used to be kind of anti-bucatini, but people go crazy for it. Then I had the understanding that it was actually very good, so my first idea was to combine the best of mafaldin with bucatini and a couple more flowers – then ruffles and a pipe component and a couple of other things. So that’s how I went about it.
Not true, so the resulting paste – how is it?
The shape is called cascatelli, which means waterfalls. I want to acknowledge the Italian speakers out there that I know the correct majority will be “cascatelle”, ending with “e”, but I decided to take a little poetic license, because “I” sounded more like a classic pasta form name.
I would describe the shape in general as a curved comma or a half heart. On one side there are ruffles, and in the space in between you have a dugout, a kind of half pipe that just catches sauce in there. It is fantastic.
So, a potentially controversial question, but which paste do you think is overrated?
Well, as I say in the podcast, spaghetti right off the bat. I know it’s iconic. I know that it is historically important, and that it is the original pasta form. But it also means that it is a bit primitive. It’s just a tube that does nothing, so it does not hold sauce very well. It has a very low surface area in relation to volume. It’s not very tactile, and you can not really sink your teeth into it. You can turn it on your fork, and that’s fine. But you get danglers to squirt, and that’s just not good. I feel the same way with linguini.
As if I’m going to have long forms, fettuccine is so much better than spaghetti or linguine. The most well-known forms are often those that have existed the longest and have been mass-produced the longest. So I think there is room for new ideas and new perspectives. That said, I’m not here to ruin the classic pasta molds. I love pasta. I eat pasta you give me, and there is room in the world for many forms of pasta to coexist.
If people are curious about the whole story behind “Mission: ImPASTAble” and want to dig deeper into this process, where can they find it?
Wherever you get podcasts! The series from “Sporkful” is up now, and I really hope people will check it out. For while it is of course exciting to see this enormous response to our form, the story behind the creation of the form is even more incredible. There were so many emotional ups and downs. You will hear my wife run out of patience with this whole mission. My kids are a part of it. I literally cry on more than one occasion. You will learn a lot about how pasta is made, why this project took almost three years, and you will laugh hysterically because many things go wrong in very, very funny ways.
You can listen to all five episodes of “Mission: ImPASTAble” here.