Q. Why won't my homemade pasta soften when cooked? It's always got a rubbery texture, no matter how long I cook it.
A. There are two secrets to a successful pasta dough: The first is to use the right flour -- that is, durum semolina. Semolina is the industry's name for a particularly coarse grind of flour. The semolina grind absorbs water more slowly than does regular flour. This permits even distribution of water without excess mixing or kneading. And durum is another species of wheat (Triticum durum) that has a particularly high protein content. The gluten formed by mixing durum with water is, however, very tough; it withstands boiling and holds an al dente texture longer.
The second secret to a successful pasta dough is the amount of water added. Mix pasta dough until quite stiff and dry. This limits the amount of gluten formed, as there isn't enough water to hydrate or combine with the wheat proteins. A dry pasta dough, though hard to mix and knead, cuts well, the pieces stay separate and they don't retain the rubbery texture that you find so distasteful.
Q. Why do some bread recipes use a sponge, while others do not? It seems so inconvenient, waiting eight hours for the sponge to ferment. Is there any one, general method to making a sponge?
A. The sponge method of bread baking starts by mixing flour, water, a little yeast and perhaps a little milk and sugar together in a large mixing bowl, covering and setting it in a cool spot of the kitchen for 8 to 12 hours. During this time, the yeast cells multiply and generate carbon dioxide gas, some acids and alcohol. Bacteria in the flour also grow and produce acid. The acids lower the pH of the sponge -- that is, they make it more acidic.
The sponge method makes a more acidic bread dough than does the straight-dough method, which mixes all ingredients together, proofs the dough and bakes the bread, all in a time span of three to four hours. The more acidic bread produced by the sponge method has these advantages over bread baked by the straight-dough method: One, such bread molds more slowly, as mold is temporarily inhibited. Two, bread produced by the sponge method has a whiter crumb due to the whitening effects of acid on wheat pigments. Three, bread made by the sponge method takes longer to become stale; the lower pH makes the bread's crumb moister because its wheat proteins do not bind water as efficiently. And four, bread made by the sponge method has considerably more flavor due to the greater concentration of acids, esters and other fermentation by-products.
There is really no secret to making a sponge. You can take any "straight-dough" bread recipe (one in which all ingredients are mixed together in one step), mix all the liquid, some of the yeast and half the white flour to obtain a sponge. Let this ferment, covered, for 8 to 12 hours, then add the remaining ingredients and mix into a dough.
The sponge method is only inconvenient if you want immediate results. If, however, you plan ahead, you may make a sponge the night before and mix the bread the following morning. Or, for greater flexibility, allow it to ferment eight hours, refrigerate and proceed with the recipe at a more convenient time.