Ptitim, little, spherical pasta, are a quintessential Israeli kid food. Stateside, they've been branded Israeli couscous, ubiquitous enough that you can pick some up at Target. I never liked them much, though I occasionally make for the nostalgia factor. I once encountered Israeli couscous, of all places, in a restaurant in the American South, soaking up the flavors of a tagine, which is still, I think, their finest application. And then, it occurred to me that plenty of lackluster (to me, that is) foods are flat-out amazing when made at home. You know where this is going. Eventually, I'd come round to homemade ptitim.
About Ptitim / Israeli Couscous
Ptitim have a legit place in Israeli history, having been invented by the early-on-the-scene Israeli food giant Osem, now a subsidiary of Nestle, at the special request of Ben Gurion. Those were the days of miracles, wonders, and tzena---austerity---and rice was a luxury item. The first Prime Minister was after a way to fill up the people, and the answer was ptitim (from the Hebrew root for "crumble").
The old-school Israeli way of preparing petitim is to sauté a little chopped onion in a pot, which you are at liberty to skip if you just can't with the onion chopping and/or have picky eaters in the house. Next, add in and toast the petitim for a few seconds, then cover them with water. Throw some soup powder in there, natch. Toss 'em in a little tomato sauce concentrate before serving, and you've got a ready accompaniment for your schnitzel.
In Search of the Origins of Ptitim
Though ptitim were, clearly, engineered flatly in the era of industrial food, I had this suspicion that they were related to a more ancestral food. My theory: farfel.
Farfel is one of those foods I'd never heard of until I moved to the Jersey 'burbs, along with Entemann's, knishes, and bagels. (Unless you count bagel toast, which you shouldn't, because it in no way, shape, or form resembles a bagel bagel. It is completely lovely in its own way.) Matzah farfel was a thing people in the tri-state area complained about having at Passover. To the untrained eye it looks like coarsely-crumbled matzah, which is to say, superfluous, and I never paid much attention to it.
As it turns out, like many Passover foods, farfel is an approximation of a non-Passover food otherwise made with chametz (flour leavened with water). And that wheaty homemade pasta, I submit, is the missing link, the common ancestor of both high-suburban matzah farfel and petitim, that most Israeli of comfort sides.
Regular farfel used to be a staple food in Eastern Europe, made from a dough of whatever flour(s) were available---wheat, barley, and/or bean flours---and eggs. It was dried in a ball and then grated, or rolled out and hacked into pieces (Gil Marks notes in Encylopedia of Jewish Food that this was a rather aggressive process). Farfel can also, quite authentically and simply, be crumbled into soup or boiling water. Which I obviously recommend. To see what the traditional process would have looked like, I found this Hungarian video that shows exactly what Gil Marks describes (complete with peasant embroidery and an enormous cross in the background).
DIY Petitim, or rather, farfel
As it turns out, like the food of the people that it is, making farfel is dead simple. You combine flour(s), whole eggs (roughly one per cup of flour), a bit of salt and a drizzle of water. You can mix the dough in the food processor, or by hand. The only tricky bit is getting the dough to be the right degree of crumbly. You're going for coarse, moistened crumbs, not floury and dry, but also not sticking together. Less so than other pasta doughs, it's not a crucial distinction.
I added a bit of buckwheat flour to the dough, because that's all historical. Plus, I keep some in the pantry because around here we like buckwheat blini and Britanny crêpes and, as you now know, shtetl food. I think it gives the farfel a nice, earthy toothiness, and the kids didn't reject them. But it's not a necessity, so don't let a little lack of buckwheat stop you.
Will your kids complain because it's not machine-made, perfectly spherical little globules? No doubt. Should you make it anyway, because sometimes your inner grow-up needs a moment in the sun? You got it.
How to eat your DIY farfel
Farfel is nice in soup, sort of like mini matzah balls. Also like matzah balls, it'll soak up the soup, so separate any leftovers in their own storage container and they'll keep in the fridge for a few days. You can freeze farfel cooked or uncooked, then reheat or cook them without defrosting in a small pot of boiling water, or directly in soup. Although farfel was traditionally dried, like fresh Italian pasta might be, I tried it and the results were not nearly as good as freezing.
If you want to know the truth, you should throw some schmaltz in a frying pan, fry up some chopped onion and maybe mushrooms if you've got them, and put that farfel directly in the frying pan when it's good and boiled.
Egg Farfel (parve)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour - 125 g
- ¼ cup buckwheat flour* - 30 g
- 1 egg (whole)
- ½ tsp salt - 5 ml
- 2-4 tsp water
Preparing the dough:
- Add all ingredients to your food processor work bowl and pulse until processed into coarse crumbs. (This can, of course, like all premodern foods and pasta doughs, be made by hand as well.)
- If too dry and crumbly, add water a few drops at a time. If too sticky or doughy, add more flour, about 1 tsp at a time. You want the dough to look like large, moistened crumbs.
Cooking the dough:
- Like all fresh pasta, these will cook much faster fresh than dried. Cook in boiling soup or water for several minutes, until they float.
- If not serving in soup, drain gently using a spider or slotted spoon and use immediately in a recipe.