Recently, I’ve been reading two mid-century cookbooks: one by Jeanne Carola Francesconi, La Cucina Napoletana (1965), considered by many to be the bible on Neapolitan cooking; the other by Elizabeth David, Italian Food (1954), one of the first English-language books to emphasize authenticity and seasonality in its exploration of the subject.
One stylistic feature that struck me about both authors, but especially David, is their relatively casual approach to their recipe’s instructions; no numbered-list or step-by-step directions for them. For example, take a look at David’s directions for today’s recipe, Chiocciole al Mascherpone e Noce (Pasta Shells with Cream Cheese and Walnuts).
Boil 6 to 8 ounces of pasta shells. Some are very hard, and take as long as 20 minutes; and although they are small they need just as large a proportion of water for the cooking as other factory-made paste.
The sauce is prepared as follows: in a fireproof serving dish melt a lump of butter, and for 3 people 4 to 6 oz. of double-cream cheese. It must just gently heat, not boil. Into this mixture put your cooked and drained pasta. Turn it round and round, adding two or three spoonfuls of grated Parmesan. Add 2 oz. or so (shelled weight) of roughly chopped walnuts. Serve more grated cheese separately.
This is an exquisite dish when well prepared, but it is filling and rich, so a little goes a long way.
As English chef Simon Hopkinson once wrote about David: “The writing had a big impact on me; you have to really want to cook to use her, it’s not just a case of following a recipe. You have to pay attention. I loved the short ramble around, and then the perfect recipe within.”
David’s or Francesconi’s books might have limited appeal to home-cook devotees of the “quick and easy” style, as both authors’ recipes require one to read closely and exercise some culinary discretion “to find the recipe within.” But if you enjoy reading cookbooks, as I do, I highly recommend their work.
Todsay’s dish, as David remarks, is both “filling and rich.” In fact, “rich” might be an understatement. I used about five ounces of pasta for two servings, and neither of us was able to finish our portion. A rare occasion in our household. A couple of ounces per person might well serve as an inviting first course.
I used mezzi rigatoni since they seem closer to the “chiocciole,” or snail-shell-shaped pasta, in the title of David’s recipe than most shell pastas available here. I should also point out that David’s use of double-cream cheese was a substitution for Italian mascarpone, which was difficult to find in post-war England.
Finally, for those who prefer a more detailed recipe, I am providing one below by English food blogger Rebecca May Johnson, to which I’ve added photos of my preparing of it.
Chiocciole Al Mascarpone E Noce (Pasta Shells with Cream Cheese and Walnuts)
2 heaped tablespoons, chopped walnuts
2-3 tablespoons, Mascarpone
1 oz of unsalted butter (a generous knob of butter)
3 heaped tablespoons, Parmesan, plus more to serve
150g pasta (shells or rigatone or penne or orrechiette etc.) [5.3 ounces]
How to make:
Place a large pan of well-salted water on to boil. When it is boiling furiously add the pasta and cook until al dente. Be sure to reserve ½ cup of cooking water before draining.
While it is boiling, gently melt the butter and then add the mascarpone on a very low heat in a separate pan. Add the parmesan and stir until melted, add the walnuts and season with salt and pepper.
(To make a good emulsion, use a wire whisk rather than a spoon.)
When the pasta is cooked, stir a tablespoon or two of cooking water into the cheese mix, then toss well with the pasta. If it needs more lubrication, add a bit more butter. (My pasta did not require any pasta water or additional butter.)
Wine Pairing: Garganega, Chardonnay