Not to be dramatic or anything (because, heck, life has enough drama without making food a item worthy of unpleasant excitement), but this recipe I am about to talk about? It was seriously one of the most interesting things I've ever made. The twist on homemade pasta is subtle, but it packs a culinary punch. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to try it.
I'm a pasta fanatic. All through high school, every morning at 6am, I would turn on the stove, boil some salted water, and cook up tiny alphabits, little shells, or miniature stars. Breakfast always had butter and Parmesan on it. Weird? Kinda. Delicious, filling and carbohydrate packed? Absolutely. The key was the shape of the pasta, I quickly discovered. Penne or Linguine were no good - it felt like dinner. But little alphabits? (And that's alphabits not alphabets!). It was like eating oatmeal. You may taunt me, but until you try it with the Tiny Pasta, you're not allowed to judge. Even today, I still get the craving for my pseudo Italian breakfast.
I learned a lesson from this strange high school breakfast tradition: size matters. We already know that some types of pasta are better suited than others to certain tasks. Although the basic ingredients to pasta are almost always the same (flour, egg and water), the form that the dough takes once rolled out and cooked determines the success or failure of a meal. Flat pasta forms are good for thin sauces. Pasta with interesting shapes need chunky sauces. Ridges need clingy sauces. Etc. The best analogy would be using different shapes of wine glasses to serve different kinds of wine - even though the wine is the true star of the show, the type of glass can make or break the flavor of the wine.
I found this particular pasta variation as I was flipping through the January 2007 issue of Gourmet. I was drooling over the gorgeous food, the romantic writing, and best of all, the beautiful photos, when I stumbled onto today's topic: a pasta dish called Mlinci. According to Gourmet, Mlinci is a toasted, irregularly broken flat pasta that is rehydrated in the cooking juices of braised meat. I was intrigued by the idea of toasting pasta in the oven, but of course meat is out of the question for me.
How is Mlinci traditionally cooked, I wondered? To random google search I headed. It turns out that Mlinci is not an Italian dish at all. It is actually Croatian in origin, and it technically refers to a crispy, flat breadish dough made with yeast, broken into pieces and soaked in steaming water for upwards of an hour. It is later lightly fried in cooking juices from meat or a little butter and cheese. Conveniently enough, I actually work with someone who is from Croatia. According to him, it is pronounced something like mlin-tsi (not mlin-chi) and he's had it boiled and tossed with pan drippings from braised meat and potatoes. He also said that the dish seemed more pasta-like than bread-like. Maybe Gourmet had it right and google had it wrong.
Fascinating. How did Gourmet reach this version of the recipe, and what was the best way to cook it without meat? I settled on the following three ways to try Mlinci:
- Mlinci "my way": boiled in salted water like pasta and tossed with a Broccoli, Shallot and Cream Sauce
- Mlinci "traditional": soaked in steaming water for 15 minutes, drained, and soaked for an additional hour. Served with butter and grated cheese
- Mlinici "Italian": baked dry with a spicy red sauce and peppers like Lasagna
With a food-sampler-at-hand (Greg), I proceeded. The recipe called for quite a bit of olive oil and no salt, yielding a very moist and fruity dough that was tasty all on its own. I tried rolling the dough with a pasta machine to achieve a uniform thickness, but it was too elastic and ended up tearing. I would suggest rolling by hand and adding more flour as you go along. I weighed my flour to be precise (1 cup = 120g), and still I needed at least half a cup extra.
Although the original recipe called for toasting large 11x17 sheets of dough, I wasn't that talented in my flattening abilities. Instead, I added my oddly shaped, large-"ish" pieces to hot pans in a 325 degree oven. As I rolled more dough I kept an eye on the toasting pasta, turning and flipping the sheets every few minutes. Once the dough was golden and crispy throughout, I left it on the counter to cool and proceeded with another pan. Eventually I broke the larger shapes into small pieces. I have no idea how large the broken pieces should be or how thick the original sheets are made best, but I'd say mine were about 1mm thick and a few square inches once they were broken up. After I cooked everything up, I decided thinner was better, and my several square inch size was just right to fit on a fork (smaller fell off and larger wasn't as well cooked).
Last night I tried Creation #1: Mlinci with Broccoli, Shallot and Cream Sauce. I wanted to keep the sauce as simple as possible, and I also wanted something to complement the nuttiness of the toasted pasta. Cream base it was, broccoli for mild flavor, and shallots to replace what otherwise would have been garlic. It was delicious, full of flavor and entirely satisfying. Truly, this was a fascinating take on pasta. The simple but sauce was gave subtle flavor to the toasted pasta. Greg and I loved it and together declared it one of the best recipes in memory. The salty Romano cheese that failed so dramatically in another recipe brought the flavors together perfectly in this one, since the broccoli, cream base and pasta dough all lacked salt. Best of all, even though the dough is somewhat time consuming to prepare, roll out, and toast, once the recipe is complete, the flat sheets are shelf stable for quite some time. It will be a nice substitution as we get bored of traditional Italian fare.
Next time? I think the Broccoli and Shallot sauce was sublime and simple the way we had it, but I do love cooking with wine and I'd like to try a little white wine butter sauce. I also wonder about a brown butter walnut sauce. Stay tuned for reports of the other two versions of this recipe.
Mlinci with Broccoli and Shallot Cream Sauce
*Note: I used only half of the Mlinci below, so this quantity of sauce is for two very generous servings of sauce (I figured we were getting our veggies too, so it was all right to go heavy on the sauce)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
2 large shallots, chopped
3 heads of broccoli, chopped into small florets (discard stems)
1 cup light cream
1 tbsp flour
2 tsp white pepper
Salt to taste
Romano cheese, grated
- Start a large pot of water boiling. Melt butter and olive oil together in a shallow saute pan. Add chopped shallots and cook over low heat until softened. Add broccoli and 1/2 cup water. Steam lightly until broccoli is cooked through and the water has evaporated.
- Add light cream. Reserve 1 tbsp and mix with flour, then whisk into sauce. Simmer gently over low heat until sauce has thickened and reduced to a creamy consistency (10-15 minutes). Season to taste.
- Meanwhile, stir Mlinci into the boiling water and cook until almost done - the texture will remind you of a cracker.
- Drain Mlinci and toss with broccoli sauce. Finish cooking over a low simmer in the sauce (5-10 minutes) until very tender. Dish up with grated Romano cheese.
Paraphrased from January 2007 Gourmet Magazine
*Note, with ~240g of flour, this should be 4-5 56g "servings" of pasta, but in reality this makes just enough for 4 conservative (but main course) servings. I.e., this needs a good veggie or salad on the side for a complete dinner for four.
2 cups (240g) all purpose flour
2 1/2 tbsp olive oil
4 1/2 tbsp cold water
- Add flour to a food processor and pulse to aerate. Whisk oil, water and eggs together in a small bowl. Add 1/4 of the fluids and pulse to mix. Continue adding until the dough has formed a sticky ball and gathered away from the sides of the bowl. (If too sticky, add more flour. If too dry, add more water)
- Turn onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, incorporating more flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Place in an oiled bowl and rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Divide dough into quarters and roll out one quarter at a time into thin (approximately 1mm) sheets. Place sheets on a nonstick baking pan and toast in oven, turning every few minutes and rotating pan. The pasta is finished when it is a golden color and crispy throughout.
- Allow sheets to cool and break into smaller pieces. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.