This excerpt is from the new Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine. In the book, Cowin shares the cooking lessons she’s learned from 62 of the world’s greatest chefs. Below, Mario Batali’s tips apply specifically to his Baked Ziti Arrabbiata, but they’re good to keep in mind when baking any pasta dish.
Photo credit: John Kernick
ON HOW MUCH WATER TO USE FOR COOKING PASTA
As much as possible. Imagine that you’re dancing and want to be expressive, you need room. The pasta needs room to dance, too. If you’re cooking less than 2 pounds of pasta, 8 quarts of water is fine. But you don’t need to measure—just use your biggest pot.
ON PRECOOKING PASTA BEFORE BAKING
The package tells you exactly how long to cook. For baked pasta, cook it 3 minutes less than what’s called for; it’ll be super al dente. Drain it; don’t ever rinse it.
ON THE BENEFITS OF BÉCHAMEL
When you bake stuff with béchamel, it stays moist and rich. You might ask, “Why not just add cheese?” Cheese breaks! Ricotta in the right hands tends to look wrong. Béchamel, even in the wrong hands, looks right.
ON BÉCHAMEL RATIOS
For a light béchamel use a ratio of 1 tablespoon butter to 1 tablespoon flour to 1 cup milk.
ON MAKING BÉCHAMEL
Your béchamel will go faster if your milk is warm (you can use the microwave), but don’t worry if it’s cold. Just take your time! If you add too much milk, just mix some cold butter with flour (this is called beurre manié) and whisk it in pinch by pinch until the béchamel thickens. If it starts to boil over, whisk it.
ON OTHER USES FOR BÉCHAMEL
Allow it to cool so it gets firmer, then add carbonara ingredients (pancetta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, eggs, black pepper), to make a ravioli filling. Cook the ravioli and toss with butter.
All of your pasta fillings will be twice as good if there’s some béchamel in them—they will ooze. Béchamel is also great for a croque madame.
Nutmeg adds exotic flavor to the béchamel; it takes it to another level.
ON USING CANNED TOMATOES
Always use whole tomatoes because then you are in control of the product and know exactly what quality you’re getting. Usually canned diced tomatoes are parts of broken whole tomatoes and crushed ones are a mix of all of the leftovers. Crush the tomatoes for the sauce with your hands. The pieces should be the size of your thumb— pieces that are too big don’t let you get a bite along with other stuff. Everything should be in harmony.
ON SAUCING BAKED PASTA
The most important thing about a pasta dish is the pasta. Dress it like a salad. You don’t want to lose the noodles—don’t blanket them with cheese.
ON BREAD CRUMBS
Cut slices of day-old bread and pulse them in a food processor. For this, I like what we call “fat boy” crumbs. Save finer ones for something like a Milanese.
Sprinkle the Parmesan on top first, before the bread crumbs, so the cheese won’t burn. A drizzle of olive oil will help make the crumbs nice and brown. And sprinkle crushed red pepper only on half so if some friends don’t want it spicy, they won’t go hungry.
ON OVERCOOKED BAKED PASTA
If it’s overdone, just cut the whole thing into pieces, bread them and fry them!
Copyright 2014 Dana Cowin. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.