We really wanted a cookbook from Gabrielle Hamilton, so when she signed a book deal, we were ecstatic. But then she published Blood, Bones, and Butter. Now that was a great book, but it was a memoir -- without recipes. So needless to say, we were bummed. When we found out her second book would, indeed, be a cookbook, Prune, it made our wish list, immediately.
When it arrived, it came out of the box pristine, encased in shrink wrap. That was a problem. you see, we couldn't bear to open it. It was so lovely, and new, and wrapped in shrink wrap. So it sat on the table for weeks until we could stand it no more and tore into it.
Since pink is our signature color, we loved it right away and we do love any book with that elastic band on the side to keep it closed. (Full disclosure, as much as we love those things, they almost always break, come loose, rip, or stretch out of shape, so really we should have kept the whole thing shrink wrapped!)
The book has all of Hamilton's "don't screw with me" style. The book is printed to look like it has been bounced around a kitchen for years. The pages are smudged, their are written notations, and portion conversion on what are supposed to look like torn post-its.
The recipes are written as though you are in the Prune kitchen and she is telling you how to do the dish. So it is chatty while being "chefy," as though you are part of "in" joke -- Prune is a restaurant book for a home cook, but we are pretending that you are one of us and here with us at Prune. Some people might not get the joke. But if you have read a lot of precious restaurant cookbook and thought to yourself, "What does this mean?" you will love this book.
The best way to illustrate this is to look at this recipe. It has been printed several places with directions that are rather straightforward and boring. But take a look at how Hamilton explains the dish.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
2 1/2 ounces pancetta, in neat 1-inch cubes
4 ounces dried spaghetti, (dried weight)
1-2 egg yolks
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Evenly scatter cubed raw pancetta into a cold large cast-iron skillet. Set over medium-low flame and render slowly, stirring occasionally until crisp and golden brown on all sides and sitting in significant amount of its own rendered fat, and cubes reduced in size by half.
Transfer to metal 1/6 pan, including fat, and leave in warm area of your station.
Cook spaghetti in a big stockpot of boiling salted water -- stir during cooking to be sure the strands are separated.
When pasta bends without snapping but is still significantly undercooked, drain immediately in a large colander and hose down thoroughly with cold water, running your hands through each strand and making sure you have stopped the cooking process. Pasta needs to be cool to the touch throughout. Drain very well; store in your reach-in.For the pick up:Drop para cooked pasta into boiling water. Move swiftly from here to finish--pasta only needs 90 seconds--2 minutes at most-- in the reheat.In clean stainless bowl, put 2 yolks and a hearty spoonful of rendered pancetta and some of its fat.Sprinkle black pepper over egg and fatty pancetta until light dusting obscures the yolks.Pull hot pasta, drain briefly over pot, turn out onto the yolk/pancetta, letting some of the cooking water drip in, too.
Stir rapidly and vigorously to cook the yolks with the residual heat of the pasta and to coat each strand with egg and fat.
Season with salt and generous/liberal sprinkle of grated parm and continue stirring to evenly distribute cheese and salt.
Make neat spiral in center of pasta bowl as best you can when plating. Plate quickly.
Don't let this sit in the pass.
Given that this is already a bastardy version of real Spaghetti alla Carbonara, pulled together to accommodate the realities of busy brunch and the confines of a sauté station, please take care not to compromise the dish any further than we've already had to make it work in the restaurant setting.
Pay attention to the toothsome was of the pasta – don't get lost in your timing and let this just boil away in the pickup until it is flabby and bloated and disgusting.
Don't "creamy up" the yolk and parm with extra hot pasta water or extra cheese or by adding the cheese early so that it melts – sometimes I have been dismayed to see it go out looking like creamy white pasta Alfredo.
Ideally, we want the strands slick with yellow, eggy egg yolk and smoky, salty, uriney pancetta fat, with all the granules of sweet, nutty, grated parm clinging to the strands. You want to see the black pepper, taste the floralness of it, and feel the warm heat of it in the dish – but don't obliterate.
Ask yourself what other chef you know that would describe pancetta as "uriney." We do love Hamilton.