Plus what I learned about truffles & are the truffles sold at the Berkeley Bowl any good?
During a very brief stay in Barcelona, my daughter fell in love with a dish of truffle ravioli in a parmesan and truffle oil cream sauce at one of the Sensi tapas restaurants. So when she asked that I include a pasta dish for our Christmas dinner, I immediately thought of that dish – and started researching recipes and truffles.
Truffles, I knew, were very expensive and rare fungi that grows naturally in Italy and France and is only available at exorbitant prices for a few months of the year. What I didn’t know is that it’s extremely hard to preserve them – because it’s their aroma which actually gives dishes the ethereal earthy flavor that we so like. Infusing them in oil doesn’t really work, but food scientists were able to isolate its most prevalent odorant – a compound called 2,4-Dithiapentane – and replicate it. This is what is mixed with olive oil, butters or salt and sold as “truffle” whatever. That is to say, this is what most of us know as truffle flavor. The little pieces of truffle we see in commercial products are apparently there mostly for show.
There seems to be a revolt against truffle oil among some top chefs, who belief its fake flavor confuses diners and stops them from being able to appreciate the subtleties of real truffles. Thinking back to the truffle dishes I’ve had, I think this is likely to be the case. I still dream of Aquerello‘s ridged pasta with foie gras, scented with black truffles, which I believe is topped with real truffle, but most other truffle dishes I recall did seem to be rather one-dimentional. Years ago, my husband gave me expensive botles of black and white truffle oil for Christmas, so I know those flavors quite well. While I didn’t care much for the white truffle oil, the black truffle oil does impart a rather tasty flavor.
I found many recipes online for pasta in a truffle sauce, and at first my decision was on whether to use truffle oil or butter. While researching what was easily available to me, I found that the Berkeley Bowl was actually carrying fresh black truffles for about $160/lb (via instacart). Given that the page offered no information about these truffles, and that French black truffles are currently selling for $95/oz (a regular truffle weighs an ounce or less), I was quite doubtful of these – but I did learn that truffles are also grown in the West Coast – indeed, as close as Napa Valley – so I imagined they were domestic. My daughter suggests, however, that they might just be expired truffles – not fresh enough to retain much of their flavor. She might have been right.
Ultimately, I decided to give them a try – and so far I’ve had mixed results. I first used them the night I got them by shaving them on a dish of plain pasta served with vegan butter. The truffle shavings completely failed to impart any flavor on the dish. It was a total failure.
For my Christmas Eve dish I decided to do something different. I took part of a truffle and chopped it very finely and infused it in good quality melted butter early in the day – so that it was solid by the time I actually made the sauce for this dish. This, by itself, didn’t give the sauce much truffle flavor, but I think it helped it build, so by the time all the ingredients were combined – the truffle ravioli, the sauce and the shaved truffle on top – the results were delicious. The dish had a very earthy flavor, truffly but not as strong as truffle oil.
I was lucky enough that I was able to follow this recipe closely, as I was able to find the called-for taleggio cheese at the Berkeley Bowl as well. The recipe writer suggests that you can substitute this cheese with Fontina, Robiola or Brie, though to me its flavor was closer to camembert. Indeed, I added a couple of ounces of camembert, as I hadn’t gotten as much taleggio as the recipe called for. I’d probably had done better using less cheese, as the sauce was a tad too salty – I’m making this recommended adjustment in the recipe below.
I wanted to make ravioli in the first place, and was happy to find porcini & truffle ravioli from the Pasta Shop at the Berkeley Bowl. These are made with “truffle essence”, that is to say, the artificial aromatic compound. They were tasty by themselves, but they were really elevated by the sauce and the shaved truffle.
To store truffles before using them, dry the surface with a paper towel and then place in a bowl filled with uncooked rice (to help draw moisture away). Store in the fridge or a cool place in your house.
Ravioli in Truffle Sauce Recipe
- 12 oz fresh or frozen mushroom ravioli
- 2-3 Tbsp truffle butter
- 8 oz taleggio cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 truffle
- Parmesan cheese to taste
Cook the ravioli according to package instructions, drain.
Meanwhile, melt the truffle butter, cheese and cream over medium heat – stirring frequently. Transfer the ravioli to the sauce and coat all over. Transfer to a serving dish or individual plates.
Shave truffle and Parmesan cheese to taste.
Based on Jacqui’s recipe at The Pasta Project.