Updated: Jan 21
Three weeks ago, I finished my first semester of culinary school. It was a whirlwind six months of chopping, cleaning, and standing over stoves, but I wasn't ready for a break just yet.
I couldn't wait to get back in the kitchen — this time over winter vacation, which I spent with my family in Dallas.
I'd finally have the time to cook the recipes I'd bookmarked over the semester — and the American delicacies needed to pull them off, like Cheez-Its and out-of-season blueberries. (Italy may have some of the best food in the world, but they don't have nearly the same caliber of processed cheese snacks.) Of my 16 nights at home, I cooked for 14, usually with the help of my Mom and/or grandmother, Gammie.
Of course, of all the meals we cooked, the one we made the biggest deal out of was the least fun to put together. I should have seen this coming.
It has become a tradition for my mom, Gammie, and me to cook something challenging and highly involved for Christmas Eve dinner. Last year we labored for three days over the slow-cooked, bean-filled, quadruple-meat French dish known as cassoulet, and the year before we oohed and aahed as we cut into our steaming timpano, which is a mountain of pasta, meatballs, and cheese wrapped in more pasta (though we used pastry dough) and baked. Those are tough acts to follow.
We knew we wanted this year's production to be Italian, but we were having trouble finding a long recipe that actually sounded appealing. We also knew that we wanted a meaty main course with a simple pasta or risotto on the side, that we weren't in the mood for chicken or cod or giblets (as in these traditional recipes), and that an Italian-American Feast of the Seven Fishes would appeal to everyone in our family except for most of them. During our deliberations, we kept on going back to osso buco with risotto alla Milanese, which is not particularly challenging but is definitely worthy of a special occasion.
Our work began on December 23 at the incredibly busy Jimmy's Italian Food Store, where I waited in a lively half-hour-long line for the veal shanks, plus stocking stuffers for my family and snacks for Dad: in his words, "mortadell'" (mortadella), "prosciutt'" (prosciutto), and "taralls" (crackers called taralli). Gammie got in that afternoon.
The sun rose on the 24th, and we had a full day ahead. We needed to make a jillion different things for our dessert project (a buche de Noel, or Yule log), we had to get the osso buco in the oven before we left for church at 5:30, and we generally just wanted to spend the day together in the kitchen, even if most of the time was spent drinking prosecco rather than cooking.
Well, I messed that up from the beginning because I got home later than promised from an annual get-together with my high-school dance team friends. (Discussing important topics like boyfriends, our favorite memes from 2013, and the fates of former teachers takes time.) When I got home, Mom was annoyed with me, and the meringue mushrooms for the buche de Noel, understandably, were already in the oven. Darn.
Tensions were high as I prepped the veal shanks that evening for a number of reasons. First of all, I had abandoned my family that morning, so they didn't love me as much as usual. Second, my mom always gets stressed and cranky when we have guests over (see this video for reference). And most importantly, for the first time, there was another head cook in the kitchen: Me. I had been appointed to make us a special Italian meal because I'm "experienced" and "in culinary school in Italy." Yet Mom and Gammie both wanted to be involved — and highly vocal, might I add — in every step of the process.
That's a lot of testy ladies around one stove.
"Sara, what are you DOING?!" Gammie asked with far too much exasperation as I got ready to pour the contents of our Dutch oven into the sink. I had browned the first round of veal shanks to a lovely golden crispiness, but the floury bits left inside the pot had gotten a little too black for my liking, so I decided to get rid of them.
"I really think you should save those bits!!!" she said desperately. "That's what will make it good!"
"GAMMIE, if I leave those in the pan, they'll burn and make the whole dish taste bitter," I spat back with an intensity I hadn't used around my dear grandmother since I was 12 and pubescent and a major witch.
"If we were making chicken breasts maybe I'd take the risk, but this is a freaking $75 load of meat for Christmas Eve dinner. But here, I'll save the deglazing liquid just in case."
"OK, you're the chef...," she said with an audible dot dot dot, trudging back to Dad's recliner like a rejected pup. So much for holiday gaiety!
Gammie and I did manage to smother the shanks in mirepoix, tomatoes, and wine, shove them in the oven, and hug and make up before church, but things weren't quite right even as we sat in the pews, listening to a sermon about accepting each other's differences. I figured things would be fine once we got closer to Feeding Time.
Back in the kitchen, Mom hovered over me as I felt the rising pressure of making the best risotto the world had ever seen.
"Oh, I'd put a lot more salt than that," she said as I stirred a pinch into the toasting rice.
"Yeah, I know, I'm not done yet," I responded more harshly than I meant to, wounding the well-intentioned woman. What was up with my defensiveness???
I stirred in beef stock as Mom continued making off-the-recipe (from The New Basics, that is) suggestions. I wanted to use white wine, she wanted to use mushroom stock. She wanted to add a mountain of cheese, I thought we didn't need any.
I started to feel like a fraud, like she should have been the one cooking. She had been the boss of her kitchen for decades, and I'd only been in culinary school for a few months.
"Can you just tell me how you want me to make this so I don't do it wrong?" I asked defeatedly.
"Do whatever you want, sweetie!" she said without another peep.
The next time I turned around, she had decorated the whole damn buche by herself — meringue mushrooms and all. Wearing an Emeril Lagasse "BAM!" apron over my Christmas Eve best, I could physically feel the corners of my mouth turning downward as I stirred the risotto in utter dejection. In hindsight, that is a pretty funny image. But I was disappointed. I had thought that my newfound culinary prowess would make this day of cooking more fun. Instead, it felt competitive and weird.
However, I was right about the Cagles feeling better at Feeding Time. As we de-lidded the steaming osso buco, we performed a collective, Food Network-style inhale. The meat was swimming in a thick sauce of its own fat and juices. Its bones were filled with melty marrow that we'd stir into the risotto and spread onto warm slices of bread. And the smell! Its waft alone was wonderful enough to make us stop bickering.
As for the risotto, I have no way of knowing if it was the world's best, but it was pretty darn good, al dente just like I learned in culinary school and deeply flavored from both mushrooms and wine and just enough salt.
The yule log was beautiful, chocolaty goodness from ganache to cake to mousse, even if it wasn't the team effort we'd planned for it to be.
We forgot to cook the spinach. That was OK.
Our 13 other dinners couldn't possibly be as delicious — or as dramatic! — and that was OK with us.
The Cagles' new favorite weeknight dish just might be okonomiyaki (Japanese-style vegetable pancakes topped with a ketchup-y glaze, Kewpie mayo, nori, bonito, and scallions). We moaned repeatedly with disturbing pleasure over both our renditions of Smitten Kitchen's okonomiyaki and Bon Appetit's okonomiyaki-style Brussels sprouts, which are ingeniously topped with the aforementioned fixings.
Other Bon Appetit favorites were a cornmeal-y, blueberry-flecked, no-flip skillet pancake and an addictive tray of apple crumble bars, which get their faintly orange crust and salty finish from none other than Cheez-Its. Genius! We could also talk for days about BA's smoked- salmon-draped, dill-topped everything bagel quiche. Even with our "cheats" (store-bought pie crust sprinkled with Trader Joe's Everything but the Bagel Seasoning in lieu of homemade dough), it was just so good. That was our Christmas Day breakfast — shared over sips of eggnog-spiked coffee and bites of berries with fresh mint and granulated sugar.
I'd thought that the second half of December would be a break from Italian food, but my friends and family weren't going to allow that. Lunch for friends one day was hearty and homemade pumpkin-potato gnocchi with Rachael Ray's pumpkin, sausage, and sage sauce, another Cagle family staple. Dinner for Mom and Dad on New Year's Eve was pasta con le sarde, eaten well before our 10 p.m. bedtime. We're a wild bunch.
Not everything could be amazing, of course. My Alison Roman lemon-date chicken turned out bland and watery, and I couldn't even make cacio e pepe without the cheese turning into gluey globs. Mom was a good sport about both, which reminded me that it's OK to commit kitchen fails — and that it's a lot more fun to fail with someone than by yourself.
Now it's the first day of 2020, and we're eating black-eyed peas for good luck — plus fried chicken and cornbread to round things out. I go back to Italy tomorrow for my second semester at Apicius. I won't have my family to cook for while I'm there, but I will make sure that my friends benefit from lots of cooking on my part — both the successes and failures. But ideally mostly successes.
Risotto alla carbonara
Technically I didn't make this at home, but I did make it for my family when they came to visit me in Florence last month. I'm a big fan of pasta alla carbonara, so I wasn't sure how I'd felt about it as a risotto. We all felt great about it.
--1 onion, peeled and halved
--2 celery stalks, halved
--2 carrots, halved
--1 pound or 500 grams carnaroli rice
--8 ounces or 225 grams guanciale (or pancetta if you can't find it), cut into half-inch pieces
--Salt, to taste
--6 egg yolks, whisked until homogenous
--1 cup grated pecorino Romano, plus more for garnish
--Several cranks of black pepper
1. Place onion, celery, and carrot (as well as spare herbs, such as parsley stems, if desired) into a medium-size pot and fill with cold water. Bring to a boil, then allow to simmer. This will be your risotto cooking liquid.
2. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add rice and "toast," stirring occasionally until grains are more transparent but not browned, about 5 minutes.
3. Add about a cup of stock, and stir. When the liquid has been almost completely absorbed, add another cup of stock. (Don't continuously stir the rice. Just stir in the liquid and allow the rice to cook undisturbed).
4. Meanwhile, cook the guanciale in a separate pan until crispy. Allow meat to drain on a paper towel.
5. Keep adding liquid to the risotto pan until the rice is al dente, about 12-18 minutes. Season with salt to taste. (Don't add too much salt, as the guanciale and cheese are salty.)
6. When the rice is cooked, remove the pan from heat. Stir in egg yolks, working quickly so the eggs don't scramble. When the mixture is smooth, stir in the cheese and pepper, adding stock if the mixture seems too sticky.
7. Top each serving of risotto with guanciale and more pepper and cheese. Serve immediately.