Saturday, January 18, 2014

Danny Kaye’s Lemon Pasta from ‘Comfort Me with Apples’

I found an old autographed copy of Ruth Reichl’s food memoir ‘Comfort Me with Apples’ at Bell’s bookstore in downtown Palo Alto. Ruth is an exquisite food writer, an excellent storyteller with a gourmet palate. Her description of a meal at actor Danny Kaye’s house is my favorite section of the book, and her recipe for his lemon pasta, a fragrant take on fettucine alfredo, is rich and refreshing.

Even though it’s against the rules to copy verbatim in a blog, there really isn’t any excuse not to here, both for Ruth’s description of the meal (pp. 244-246) and for her recipe (p. 255). Enjoy.

I stood in the doorway, staring at the scene. The table had been set with bowls of clear, golden broth that sat steaming at each place. The fragrance drifted intoxicatingly through the room. “Lemongrass!” I said.

“Sit down!” Danny shouted irritably from his post at the stove. We stopped milling and each of us rushed for the nearest seat, as if this were a game of musical chairs. We threw ourselves down as he commanded, “Eat!” We obediently picked up our spoons.

With the first bite I knew that no lies would be necessary. Danny’s soup was extraordinary, with that resonance that goes on and on, like a bell still humming, long after the last note has been struck.

Danny did not sit down. As we ate he stood at the stove like a mad scientist, enveloped in the steam that billowed about him from a huge cauldron. I heard the sizzle of butter hitting a hot surface and sensed the high, clean note of lemon juice being added to the pan. Now there was a richer scent--cream, I guessed--and then the aromas began to mingle, so that lemon and cream and butter were dancing through the air.

Water drained; wet pasta hit a skillet with a hiss, and a cover went crashing down. Then Danny was rushing to the table with a plate in his hand and setting it in front of me. “Eat it now,” he insisted, “don’t wait for the others. This is a dish that can only be served to people eating in the kitchen. In a few minutes it won’t be any good. I made the noodles myself.”

I twirled the pasta around my fork and took a bite. And then, in spite of myself, I gasped. The pasta was so thin that it seemed to have vanished, leaving only a memory behind. What was left was simply the subtlety of the sauce, pure and light, as if the liquid had somehow taken solid form. It wasn’t food; it was magic on a plate, and for a moment I disappeared into the flavor. When I returned Danny was standing over me, watching me so intently and with such pleasure that I knew I didn’t have to say a single word.

I didn’t listen to the conversation after that, or think about much of anything at all. I just ate, conscious of my luck at being there, trusting that each dish would be extraordinary. The liver was like little pillows of velvet between satin slivers of onion, and so sweet it was as if it had been dusted with sugar. “It’s the onions,” he said, answering my unspoken question. “They’re grown in special soil. And, of course, the way they’re cut.”

The conversation flowed around us, background music, but I didn’t try to join it. I understood that in his kitchen Danny was desperate for an audience; cooking for people who didn’t pay attention ruined it for him. He was a creator, not a consumer, and the only thing he required was appreciation. And so I said nothing as he snatched the lemon souffle from the oven and rushed it to the table. High, light, rich, and eggy, it fell, slightly, as it was cut, collapsing onto itself with a fragrant sigh. I ate it slowly, savoring the way it disappeared in my mouth, and drank the espresso he served me at the end without sugar, liking the bitterness against the sweetness of the souffle.

“I think it’s the best meal I’ve ever eaten,” I said as I left. Danny nodded. “You have to come back,” he said. I understood that this had been a test, and I had passed.

Danny’s Lemon Pasta

I never asked Danny Kaye for the recipe for his lemon pasta--or for any of the other dishes that he cooked for me. But I loved the pasta so much that one day I simply tried to make it myself.

It took me a long time to perfect the recipe. It isn’t as good as Danny’s--nothing could be--but it’s the closest I’ve been able to come.

½ stick unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
3 T fresh lemon juice
1 pound fresh egg fettuccine
2 t finely grated fresh lemon zest
freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Melt the butter in a deep, heavy 12-inch skillet and stir in the cream and lemon juice. Remove the skillet from the heat and keep it warm and covered.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente, 2 to 3 minutes. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta cooking liquid and drain the pasta in a colander. Add the pasta to the skillet with the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking liquid and toss well. (Add more pasta cooking liquid 1 tablespoon at a time, if necessary, to thin the sauce.)

Season the pasta with salt and pepper and serve with Parmesan cheese. Serves 4.