In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
Film buffs will know the Italian modernist writer Cesare Pavese (1908–50) because his novel Among Women (Tra donne sole) was the source for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Le Amiche. But I came across his work in the unlikely location of a cookbook, English food writer Diana Henry’s How to Eat a Peach. Pavese, Henry writes in a chapter entitled, “The Moon and the Bonfires (and the Hazelnuts),” was born in Piedmont in Northern Italy, and his native landscape was “almost a character” in his work. She quotes him as saying that, if you live there, you “have the place in your bones like the wine and polenta.” How to Eat a Peach is formatted as menus drawn from Henry’s travels and interests, and her Pavese-Piedmont menu, inspired by the 1949 novel The Moon and the Bonfires, offers an ox cheek stew, white truffle pasta, and a hazelnut-strewn chocolate cake. She suggests an accompaniment of the local Barolo or Dolcetto wine.
This was intriguing to me, and more so because Henry’s book had already been something of a journey. It falls into a category that’s strangely frequent in my life: cookbooks that at first I don’t use, but then I do. The book is beautiful, broody, and atmospheric. I certainly imagined myself cooking from it, but in practice the menus felt obscure and the titles too specific and unalluring—“Darkness and Light: the Soul of Spain” or “I Can Never Resist Pumpkins.” Is that really what I want for dinner? Do I have to cook the whole menu? How to Eat a Peach ended up on the shelf where it remained, mocked occasionally by my children for having a stupid title, until months later I did what I should have done in the first place and read the introductory essays. Henry’s writing is vivid, personal, and seductive, and contains gems like the introduction to Pavese. Now that I know the backstory, I do want “the Moon and the Bonfires (and the Hazlenuts)” for dinner. And now that I’ve read Pavese, I’m delighted by Henry’s idiosyncrasy in choosing him as inspiration for a meal. She acknowledges that his writing is “not cheerful”—and this turned out to be an understatement.
Cesare Pavese was born in the village of Santo Stefano Belbo, in Piedmont, and grew up in in Turin, a northern Italian manufacturing city. He became a translator of American authors like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, and an important writer in his own right, as well as an inspiration to a young Italo Calvino. For people of Pavese’s generation, Italian life was defined by Mussolini who came to power in 1922, before any other fascist leader in Europe. Pavese, like many Italian intellectuals, ran afoul of the state and briefly served time in an internal penal colony in the thirties. The Italian version of the penal colony was almost humorously fair weather and civilized compared to its Russian counterpart, but nonetheless the period was one of arrests and exiles, tides of violence and repressions, war, German military occupation, communist partisan resistance, and social disruption. Neighbor turned against neighbor with disastrous results.
In The Moon and the Bonfires, a nameless narrator who grew up as an orphan and indentured farm laborer in Piedmont has returned after the war, after a time in exile in America, where he’d fled one step ahead of the fascist authorities. He’s seeking a homecoming: “…what I wanted was only to see something I’d seen before … to see carts, to see haylofts, to see a wine tub, an iron fence, a chicory flower … the more things were the same … the more I liked them.” His quest proves impossible. The hills are there, the vineyards, the place names, the Mora, the Belbo. Nothing has changed. And the narrator clearly has an attachment to the land. He writes, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a well-hoed, well-tended vineyard, with the right leaves and that smell of the earth baked by an August sun. A well-worked vineyard is like a healthy body.” Yet the homecoming project is a loss. If we think of Piedmont as rich, stylish, and wine-producing, in Pavese it is dour and savage and unrecognizable.
The aura is of ruin. A different character explains that “the life still lived on these hills was animal-like, inhuman, because the war had accomplished nothing, because everything was the same, except the dead.”
It is the dead, then, who define the landscape, and the hills are full of them. It’s a powerful, profoundly sad book, and upon finishing it I saw its publication date of 1949 in a new light.
This could not be further from the viva Italia impulse experienced users of a travel-inspired cookbook. And yet Henry’s menu had wine and polenta, a truffle funk, a rich braise, and a neat chocolate cream dessert topped with jewel-box hazelnuts that seemed to capture the beauty and darkness and simplicity of the foods and ingredients mentioned in the novel. Pavese writes with such simplicity about his memories: “These peach and apple trees whose summer leaves are red or yellow make my mouth water even now, because the leaf looks like ripe fruit and it makes you happy just to stand underneath them. I wish all plants bore fruit; it’s like that in a vineyard.” I decided to cook from Henry’s menu, without deviation, as a nod to the old-fashioned world where cooking was determined by tradition.
The “without deviation” approach immediately ran into problems and reminded me of the real reason the book sat on the shelf for so long: Henry’s recipes are challenging, and while they work if you follow them correctly, every little gap or change can cause trouble. I did try a few when the book came in, without perfect success, and then gave it up. The Pavese menu called for homemade pasta with white truffles, but I had no pasta machine, as the book breezily directed me to use, and truffles were out of season. I ended up making the pasta by hand—actually, accounting for mistakes, I made the pasta by hand three times—and can report that I approve of Henry’s usage of only eggs and flour in her pasta (some recipes, like the one I tried on the second batch, also call for oil and salt). Hopefully, what I learned, relayed below, will allow the reader to make theirs only once. Also, instead of white truffles I used black truffle oil, which I’d skip in the future. With such simple dishes, the quality of each ingredient matters.
The second dish, an ox cheek stew with polenta, allowed me to follow the recipe more closely. The finished meat was exquisitely melted and savory, with notes of cinnamon and juniper, and the polenta was the best I’ve ever made. Henry’s recipe directs that we make it with milk and cream instead of water, which is a splendid idea. My adaptions on that recipe below mostly offer more explanation on techniques like browning meat (it takes a long time, and needs to happen in batches, and is improved by aggressively seasoning the meat first) and some pacing suggestions. One wonderful tip from Henry was to add the polenta to the milk by picking it up in handfuls and drizzling it through your fingers. Anyone who has tried to slowly and steadily pour a clumpy ingredient like polenta into the steam cloud above a pot of boiling milk while whisking will appreciate this.
The last dish, a bonet, a traditional Piedmontese dessert since the thirteenth century, is a kind of baked chocolate custard, topped in Henry’s version with spectacularly pretty hazelnut caramel. This recipe worked well for me, but I’ve made caramel before. I know not to stir it, not to walk away at the end, and to pay attention to the direction that tells you to place a buttered cookie sheet next to the stove; also not to stick your finger in for a taste, and what shade of “amber” means it’s done. Know all that and it works like a charm. I made two small ingredient substitutions for the baked custard, one by using golden syrup instead of “golden caster sugar,” which was not readily available to me, and the other using strong brewed espresso instead of the instant kind, also on the premise that in simple dishes the ingredients that convey flavor should be of the highest quality.
My attempts to really follow the recipes showed just how hard that is to do. We are always adapting, or at least I am, as a rootless American, despite my best intentions. But it was a successful and thrilling encounter with Italian culinary traditions. I made pasta by hand and dressed it correctly, using the pasta water. I braised an old-fashioned cut of meat. I made superb polenta, and a bonet and caramel.
Henry’s wine recommendation was Barolo, the top-of-the-line Piedmontese wine, which is made from the Nebbiolo grape, “the noble grape” of Piedmont (meaning the one that grows most perfectly there). According to my spirits collaborator Hank Zona, Barolos can be “spectacular, elegant” wines, which taste of “tar, roses and red fruit.” They can be challenging to drink because they’re very tannic (chalky, mouth-puckering) and it wasn’t ideal to run out and buy one, both price-wise and because, Zona explained, these are usually collector wines that will benefit from aging before they’re ready to drink. “Most off-the-shelf offerings need some cellar time before really being optimal,” he said. Zona recommended a more affordable Nebbiolo from the Langhe, the subregion of Piedmont that Pavese was from and where Barolo is made. A bottle of 2018 Langhe Nebbiolo from G.D. Vajra, an acclaimed Barolo producer, “uses Nebbiolo grapes grown in the same vineyards as the grapes used for their Barolos,” and tasted of tar and straw and cranberries—and, I thought, had a whiff of smoke as well. It was a beautiful wine for the meal, the moon, and the bonfires.
Homemade Tagliatelle with White Truffles
Inspired by Diana Henry’s How to Eat a Peach.
2 cups Italian-type 00 flour, plus 2 tbs (white flour also works)
4 large eggs
3 tbs unsalted butter
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan
a white Alba truffle, smaller than a table tennis ball (or 1/2 tsp truffle oil)
Place two cups of flour on a work surface, and make a well in the center. Break the eggs into the well, and stir with a fork until combined, slowly allowing the flour at the rim of the well to fall into the eggs and be stirred in. Continue to stir, in a circular motion, slowly incorporating the flour into the egg mixture and shoring up the sides of the “bowl” as need be. When the mixture is no longer wet, push the rest of the flour on top, and mix with your hands to combine.
If the dough is still wet, add flour a tablespoon at a time until you can form a sticky ball for kneading. If the mixture is too dry, add water by the tablespoon. The dough should be soft but cohesive. Transfer it to a clean, lightly floured surface, and knead for eight minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. Add more flour to the work surface as need be to prevent sticking. Wrap the dough loosely in saran wrap, and let rest for an hour to allow the gluten to relax and make rolling out possible.
At this point, people with pasta machines will want to use one. The following instructions are to roll out dough by hand: Lightly flour a large work surface. Roll out the dough as thin as possible using a rolling pin, to about a millimeter thinness. It may be a little thicker in spots but should never be thinner than a millimeter. One test of thickness is that you should be able to see your hand through the dough. (I had to use a combination of a rolling pin and my hands and forearms to stretch the dough to the desired thinness.) Redust the work surface with flour, and set the sheet of pasta out to dry for an hour, flipping and reflouring after thirty minutes.
Fold the sheet of pasta like an accordion, and cut in six-millimeter strips. When you’re done cutting the entire accordion, immediately open out the strips to prevent sticking. If they’re too long, cut them to the desired length. Leave to dry on your floured work surface until you’re ready to cook. After sufficient drying, they’ll also survive overnight in the refrigerator, gently piled in Tupperware.
Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta, return to a boil, and cook for two minutes, until the pasta is chewy and al dente. Remove and reserve about a cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the pasta and return it to the pan with a splash of the reserved cooking liquid. Add the butter, cut into pieces, and shake the pan to emulsify. Use a fork to turn the noodles until they’re well coated, adding more liquid if need be.
Season with salt and pepper. Gently stir in the parmesan. Shave more than half the truffle (or add the truffle oil). Serve in warmed bowl, topping with more shaved truffle and offering more parmesan on the side.
Ox Cheeks in Red Wine with Polenta
Adapted from Diana Henry’s How to Eat a Peach.
For the polenta:
1 1/4 cup whole milk
2 cups water
3/4 cup coarse cornmeal
4 tbs unsalted butter
scant 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
For the ox cheeks:
2 tbs olive oil
3 lbs ox cheeks
freshly ground pepper
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 large carrots, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
3 tbs marsala
3/4 cup red wine
4 cups beef stock
a cinnamon stick
6 juniper berries, bruised
6 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
To make the ox cheeks:
This dish is most convenient and tastes best when made a day ahead of serving.
Preheat the oven to 300.
Heat the olive oil in a medium Dutch oven on medium-high. Pat the ox cheeks dry, salt and pepper them aggressively, and brown them in several batches, making sure to get a nice crispy crust on both sides. This is where you develop your flavor, and it can take a while.
Remove the ox cheeks to a plate, and reserve. Turn down the heat to medium-low, add the onions to the pan, and sauté until limp and golden. Then add the carrots and celery and give it 5 minutes more, until the vegetables are soft. Turn the heat back up, add the marsala and red wine, and cook until reduced by half.
Return the ox cheeks to the pot, along with any accumulated juices, the cinnamon stick, the juniper berries, the thyme, the bay leaves, and the beef stock. Bring to a simmer. Cover and place in the oven. Let cook for four hours, until the meat is melting apart.
Remove the ox cheeks from the broth. Strain the vegetables and spices out and discard them, reserving the broth. At this point, it’s convenient if you’re making the dish the day before, as you can set the meat and the broth separately in the refrigerator to chill overnight. If chilled, it will be easy to remove the hardened fat from the top of the liquid the next day. But if not, just do your best to remove the fat with a spoon. If you want the liquid to be thicker, put it back in the pan and boil until it reduces to the desired consistency. Halve each ox cheek, and return to the cooking juices. Serve on top of a smear of polenta.
To make the polenta:
Put the milk in a large, heavy-based pan with the water and 3/4 tsp sea salt flakes and bring to a boil. Add the polenta, letting it run in thin streams through your fingers, whisking continuously. Stir for 2 minutes until it thickens.
Reduce the heat to your lowest setting and cook, mostly covered, for 40 minutes, stirring every 4–5 minutes to prevent the polenta from sticking. When it’s done, it should be coming away from the sides of the pan. You might need to add more water, it shouldn’t get dry and stiff, but should be thick and unctuous. Stir in the butter and Parmesan, taste for seasoning, then serve in a warmed bowl with the reheated beef.
Adapted from Diana Henry’s How to Eat a Peach.
unsalted butter, for the tin
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup blanched hazelnuts
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup strong brewed espresso
1 1/2 tbs cocoa powder
1/3 cup 70% cacao chocolate, chopped
3 tbs golden syrup
5 1/2 oz amaretti, crushed
This dish is most convenient if made a day ahead of serving.
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a loaf pan, and a baking sheet and set aside. Measure out the hazelnuts and set them next to the stove.
Make a caramel: Heat the sugar and water gently in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. You must not stir it, but you can tilt the pan a little to ensure it’s heating evenly. Now turn up the heat and boil until the sugar turns toffee colored and caramelizes. You will know when it’s ready by the color and the smell; be careful not to burn it. As soon as it reaches this point, quickly pour half into the base of the loaf tin. Add the hazelnuts to the other half and pour that onto the oiled baking sheet. Tilt the loaf tin so that all of the base and some of the sides are covered. Leave this to set. Leave the caramel on the sheet to set, too, then coarsely break it up and set it aside (you’ll use this for decoration later).
Put the milk and cream into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the cocoa and chopped chocolate and stir until the chocolate is melted, then immediately remove from the heat.
Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs and the golden syrup together until they form soft peaks. Slowly add the warm milk and chocolate mixture, pouring it from a height to cool it as it pours, then add the rum and crushed amaretti and mix well. Pour this into the loaf tin and stand it in a roasting tin. Add enough just-boiled water to come one-third to halfway up the sides of the loaf tin.
Bake for 1 hour. (It may need as much as 1 1/4 hours.) The top should feel set when you touch the center, but will tremble slightly. Remove from the water bath, cover with saran wrap, and chill for six hours to firm up. Alternatively, if you are like me and didn’t read about the six-hour chill time until it was too late, you can fill another roasting pan with very icy ice water and set the cake inside to chill, uncovered, for an hour or so.
When ready to serve, run a knife between the bonet and the tin, then carefully turn it out on to a serving plate. The caramel should run down the sides. Top with the shards of hazelnut-caramel.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.