An Italian restaurant that makes fresh pasta is a common sight in many cities these days. But when chef-owner Brandon Kirksey set out to build Great Gold, a modern American Italian restaurant in San Francisco, he prioritized getting fresh, house made gluten-free pasta on the menu. “There is extreme demand for gluten-free,” Kirksey says. “People still want to eat pasta.”
As everything is handcrafted daily in-house, the chef refused to use pre-packaged gluten-free pasta. He purchased a pasta extruder, a kitchen appliance that mixes raw ingredients and, with a flip of a switch, presses the dough through a die-cut brass plate. Add the casarecce plate and short, curled noodles emerge. Add the spaghetti plate and long strands materialize, springing forth from the machine in shape and appearance that is nearly identical to wheat-based pasta noodles.
The recipe is no secret. Kirksey works with Cup4Cup, a flour blend developed in the kitchen of Napa’s French Laundry restaurant to precisely replicate the taste experience of wheat flour. “I like it as it really mimics regular wheat flour,” Kirksey confirms. Though there is xanthan gum as a binder in Cup4Cup, Kirksey adds even more, amping up the binding quality. Eggs, salt, and water are the only other ingredients.
Like any recipe, Kirksey’s dough recipe is a template, a guideline for working with the unique requirements of that day: gluten-free flours, the size of the eggs in-hand, the humidity in the air that day, the temperature of the water. After a thorough cleaning of the extruder (Great Gold does not have an extruder dedicated to gluten-free pasta making, alternating production with wheat flour pasta), Kirksey first adds the dry ingredients, then the wet, occasionally testing the dough for a just-right dampness, adding a bit more water during the mix.
Unlike wheat flour dough, gluten-free dough in the extruder needs to be drier, more like pebbles, before pressing. The force of the extruder compresses it enough so that a small amount of liquid binds the dough. In his many tests, Kirksey tried damper versions, learning quickly that a wet dough not only won’t fall into the channel that leads to the die-cut plate, the dough comes out too wet and falls apart when cooked.
Once Kirksey found a recipe that worked for shorter shapes like rigatoni and orecchiette, he set out to make strands. “The elasticity of a longer noodle is an issue,” he noted; The noodle turned brittle when lengthened into strands. Fresh wheat flour pasta is often twisted for compact storage–not an option for gluten-free. It breaks. So Kirksey and his team learned to hold the spaghetti as it emerges from the extruder, lifting it out straight and flat before placing it on a perforated tray to air-dry for a few hours before use. Chef suggests using it within a few hours but no more than two days out. “The longer it sits, the more dried out it gets,” he says.
The Great Gold kitchen serves dozens of plates of gluten-free pasta each night. As with wheaten pasta, these noodles need just a minute or two in their boiled water bath before they are sauced. Kirksey plans a sauce based on that day’s noodle shape. In Italy, the noodle a blank canvas for the sauce, its shape designed to hold on tight to the sauce. “Spaghettis are usually slippery when they come out of the water. They are paired with a thick sauce because those stick to the noodle. Thin sauce calls for a pasta in a cup shape so sauce hangs in there,” chef says. Rigatoni’s hollow interior and ridged exterior “grabs” the sauce.
Kirksey works each day to match the pasta shape with its sauce ideal, cooking sauces down to achieve a similar binding consistency on gluten-free noodles as on their glutenfull bretheren. It is a detail that is helping the chef gain notice in the passionate gluten-free community and the equally passionate pasta-eating community. These pastas, precisely paired with sauce, are a complete expression of pasta.