In these chilly days that just get chillier, I am dreaming of a warm beach in Sicily, the scent of lemons in the air and pasta on my plate. The tour season doesn’t start for a few more months, so in the winter I tend to stay home, wear yoga pants, forget to brush my hair, knit and cook. While doing these things, I often dream of my favorite places.
As I spend months in Italy every year, I eat lots and lots of pasta. When I’m home, I like to recreate some of my favorite dishes in my own kitchen to bring a bit of my other world to my family and friends. Occasionally there is a recipe that is so good, so creative and unusual that I must learn how to make it. Generally, when I ask the chef for the recipe, the answer is always the same….a little of this and a little of that. I hate that answer, but it’s also a challenge! I will crack the code! I will make that sauce!
I learned to cook in Italy when I studied there in college, so I get the Italian way of thinking about food preparation. My years of observations lead me to one conclusion- don’t make it complicated and use good ingredients. Over thinking anything in Italian cuisine will take you down the wrong path. My go-to Italian cookbook, The Silver Spoon, has recipes that are so simple, you’d think they were badly written or omitting something. This cookbook is the real deal though, this is the classic cookbook on kitchen shelves in Italy, like Joy of Cooking is for us. Everything I’ve made from it turns out just right. It gets to the truth of how to cook Italian: keep it simple.
The Sicily is the home of real, fresh and healthy cuisine. The food can be strange, a fusion of Italian, Arab, French, Moroccan and Spanish traditions, leading to delicious results. We visit a farmhouse on the Rick Steves Sicily tour that serves an elegant lemon cream pasta, a unique and delicious dish. I get requests for this recipe often, but when I’ve asked the cook, she’s only told me “Limone, panna, burro, sale, basta”. Maybe that simplicity works with the magic of Sicily, but in my own kitchen, these ingredients put together only made me sad.
Acid breaks cream. Adding lemon to milk separates curds and whey, making cheese. My experiments with her instructions didn’t work, the sauce just curdled once it hit the pasta. It’s possible to correct a curdled sauce by adding milk or cream, but that doesn’t really work once the pasta is in the pan.
I did a little sleuthing. The sauce in the farmhouse was silky, creamy, fragrant. I needed something to stabilize the sauce. Some internet research turned up a ton of variations, including adding heaps of cheese or adding egg to the sauce. Ideally, sticking to the original instructions as close as possible was the goal, but these recipes were not how to do it.
Then it occurred to me, cooking the cream less and thickening it quicker might help. I tried adding cornstarch, then the lemon and POOF (it was really like a poof), the sauce took on the perfect consistency, silky and fine. No breaking! No curdles!
The only other modification was garlic. The sauce lacked depth of flavor, so I sautéed a clove of garlic that I smashed with the side of a knife. I removed the clove just before I added the lemon. These modifications gave me a sauce with depth, fragrance and good texture. How lemony you want it to be is up to you. Add more or less juice as your taste requires.
So here, after much trial and error, I give you the lemon cream sauce. This is great with chicken, I bet it would be a fun side dish at Thanksgiving too. This is a great thing to make if you have no time and few ingredients in the house.
4 Tbsp butter
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp corn starch
1 large lemon, zested, about 1 Tbsp
1-2 Tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 lb fettucini
Add pasta to boiling water, cook until al dente (or slightly undercooked). Meanwhile, melt butter in a saute pan. Add crushed garlic, saute over medium heat, careful not to brown the butter. Add salt and cream, turn heat to low. Simmer until cream starts to thicken, then remove the garlic. Add corn starch and whisk until well combined. Add lemon zest. While continuing to whisk, slowly add lemon juice. Taste and adjust the amount of lemon you prefer. Drain the pasta, reserve 1/4 cup pasta water. Toss the pasta with the sauce and cook together for a few minutes. If the sauce needs to be thinned, add the pasta water. Serve topped with fresh grated Parmigiano cheese, not the kind in the green can!
Total cooking time: 15 minutes. Buon appetito!