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Kitchen Apprentice: Getting the Hang of Cavatelli
Editor's note: Each week "Chris P. Beycon" shares tales from behind the kitchen door, where she works as an apprentice at a popular restaurant. Read her column here each Wednesday! —The Mgmt.
I wouldn't say that I have come a long way from the clumsy, stuttering individual that I was when I first started at The Restaurant, but I am fairly confident that I've improved a bit since then. I still spill things all over myself (ricotta water, lunch, etc.) and look stupid when I have to hop to reach for things in high places (bowls, boxes of pasta, etc.), but with Jeff helping out the kitchen on Sunday mornings, I have been left to my own devices in the pasta closet for a couple hours each week for the past few weeks.
I understand that my being unsupervised is just a sort of collateral damage that Jeff must accept since he is needed out in the kitchen, and not indicative of my skills as a pasta cook, but I like to think that I've evolved into a somewhat competent person since October.
Usually, Jeff will have the day's doughs mixed and resting before he leaves for the kitchen, so all I am responsible for during his absence is some harmless portioning or prep work. But even so, I would never have been left to putz around for a couple hours on my own when I first started.
This past Sunday, Jeff had a particularly full day of production scheduled: We were low on cavatelli, and with some changes on the menu, we had to make two other pastas in addition to the eight batches of cavatelli. Unlike most of the other pasta doughs, each batch of cavatelli is mixed by hand. While Jeff mixed the other doughs in the Hobart, I was tasked with cavatelli production.
It's a little difficult knowing what a dough needs sometimes, especially when it's getting mixed in the Hobart—a couple grams water or egg yolk goes a long way, and once you add a liquid, you cannot remove it—but with cavatelli, the only variable ingredient is flour. While kneading each batch, flour gets sprinkled over the ball until it won't accept any more, which, according to Jeff, renders the process "virtually idiot-proof." The dough is ready when it's lost its stickiness and taken on a springy, elastic texture.
If cooking on the line is fire and brimstone, pasta production is zen. It's why I like production so much: I'm in the kitchen, but not quite in the thick of it. I love being able to feel the dough change in my hands, knowing when it's ready for resting by its texture and color.
Even though my triceps and forearms were ready to fall off after coaxing flour into eight batches of cavatelli, it's still one of my favorite things to do in the pasta station. Kneading each batch took me longer than I liked—by the time I wrapped up the last batch for resting, the first was ready to get rolled out—about two hours.
Production is usually a two-man job: For most pastas, one person rolls out the dough and another cuts and forms the pieces or portions the noodles. Filled pastas go by a different order of operations entirely. Cavatelli is manageable with one person, but more to the point, it was my first time producing any pasta from start to finish by myself. I sliced the dough and rolled out the pieces like I'd watched Jeff do, remembering to flour the ropes of dough before feeding them into the cavatelli crank. The dough wasn't as firm as I liked but the end product looked alright. I heaped the floured cavatelli on trays and slid them into the freezer, fingers crossed.
I fell into a rhythm: cut, roll, flour, crank, flour, freeze. The dough-ropes became more consistently shaped as I went along, and I mustered the strength to crank out the pieces faster. Before I knew it, Jeff was back. I was disappointed: I wanted to have finished rolling out at least four batches by the time he returned, but I was still in the middle of my third. I hadn't been able to portion any dry pastas in between mixing and rolling out the dough either. Jeff scooped up a couple of pieces of cavatelli from the table.
"Which batch is this?"
"This is number three."
He popped a piece in his mouth.
(I'll take it.)