By the Book - Week One

12/28/2015 08:48:00 pm

In the 1990s my mother's go-to for dinner parties was pasta carbonara, from the Women's Weekly Italian Cooking Class Cookbook. Unfortunately the book doesn't have a publication date printed inside, but I can only assume from the food styling, that it is a product of the late 1980s-early 1990s.

I think it was pretty difficult to get hold of pancetta in country NSW at the time, plus all the faffing about with cream and egg yolks made it seem so complicated, hence the carbonara's status as a special occasion dish.

If we were really going all out to impress the neighbours, this would be followed by lemon gelato and Torta di Mamma (Mamma's Cake), a thick custard-filled sponge, soaked in coffee, liqueur and brandy. I have my doubts about the authenticity of any Italian recipe that includes in its list of ingredients "1 packet sponge cake mix", but it was extremely tasty nonetheless. The custard, thick enough to stand a spoon in, would combine with the cake crumb and stick to the roof of your mouth. Mmmn, yes, it was good stuff, particularly the morning after when the liquid had soaked into the cake more thoroughly. Eaten straight from the fridge with a spoon.

The cookbook was also the host of a recipe for siena cake that she would make at Christmas time. Taking it to school for the teachers I was always so embarrassed: why couldn't we just bring fererro rochers like everyone else?!

A little something extra eh? Would that be the "mozzarella cheese" on the stuffed veal...
Highly questionable recipes aside (canned tuna and mushroom sauce, tripe Venetian style, and soooo many scallopini), nostalgia got the better of me when I found a copy of the book in the excellent used bookstore at The Spot in Randwick, Booked Out, for the princely sum of $7.70. That must have been about 7 or 8 years ago, and It has sat on the shelf, untouched, ever since. Well, it is basically a family heirloom...

I believe those are traditional spaghettiola noodles in the minestrone, bottom right. I can't make any claims about what's in the bowl above it though. 
As a side note, oh, how I loved living in that part of town, especially since a wonderful friend of mine lived around the corner, and had an apartment mostly to herself. Throughout the years I lived in Randwick, Coogee and Kensington, she was my escape from dysfunctional sharehouse life. And it was so good to actually have someone nearby, and not be constantly lonely. I miss her now that she's done a bunk to Italy. I miss that bookstore, too.


Have you ever noticed that pasta from an Italian restaurant (or even better, a restaurant in Italy) tastes so much more delicious than anything you cook at home? Is it like a sandwich that always taste better when made by someone else?

I've never quite nailed simple pasta, the type with only three ingredients, that seems so basic that it can't possibly be the most delicious thing you'll eat in a week. Mine is always too chunky, the passata acidic, the herbs over-cooked so they disappear in the sauce and loose their flavour, the sautéed onions overdone. Nice enough, but not amazing.

So I decided to go basic. Really, really basic. With a mostly empty cupboard following Christmas travel I luckily, and most unusually, already had a bunch of parsley and some garlic. And that's pretty much all that's required for spaghetti aglio et olio (spaghetti with garlic and oil).

I'll admit that I could have easily found a recipe online. I'm sure it was a chowhound thread that first put this dish in my mind, but luckily for me and my By the Book challenge, there is a recipe in the Women's Weekly Italian cookbook. There's also a Jamie Oliver version which includes 'spring greens' (wtf are they?), one on Food Network (8 cloves of garlic...gulp), and one from every food blogger in existence; in fact, there must be literally thousands of variations, even for something so simple. That's probably what defines a classic!

By the Book - Week one - Women's Weekly Italian Cooking Class Cookbook

Spaghetti aglio et olio (et peperoncino)

1/3 cup of oil (the WW cookbook doesn't specify type, but let's assume olive!)
3 cloves garlic
2 tbs chopped parsley
Salt, pepper

Heat oil in pan, add peeled, crushed garlic, cook gently until golden brown. Add parsley, salt and pepper. Eat.

I also sautéed half a leftover red onion and threw in about one tablespoon on chilli flakes. And some grilled halloumi on top as an afterthought, because...hunger...

I assure you that even with mods it was delicious, even if not strictly by the book.

What will you cook this week? Perhaps you could try the Mamma's Cake (with updated styling). I'm pretty sure you can make it with a store-bought sponge. I won't tell.

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