The recipe for this unctuous, salty, creamy nutty sauce that lifts a bowl of tagliatelle heavenward is not at all complicated on paper. As with pesto, though, the similarly simple, but expensive ingredients have the knack of producing frustratingly inconsistent results and when they do, for better or worse, it's not readily apparent what one got right, or not.
This extravagant and calorific dish is best served as a starter, with creamy chardonnays and similarly rich whites or velvety Tuscan reds.
Serves 8 as a starter
The proper seasonal choice here is freshly harvested 'wet' walnuts which are naturally soft, white and milky and quite delicate in taste. Once they dry out, they are stronger and harder in texture. What really matters is that whichever you use, they should be absolutely fresh from the shell or (in-date) vac-pac because they deteriorate fast. Some recipes advocate skinning them to remove any bitterness, and to give a pale and interesting sauce, but I don't bother. The skins are nutritious and if the nuts are really fresh, the end doesn't justify the fiddly means. However, it is worth toasting them, to bring out their flavour.
If you want to skin them either pour boiling water over them, drain and get peeling, or wait until you have toasted them and rub them hard in a clean teacloth. You'll then need to sieve them do get rid of the little flecks. See what I mean?
- 45g day-old ciabatta or baguette, crusts removed
- 175g fresh walnuts (shelled weight)
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
- a good pinch of salt
- a small bunch of parsley, leaves only, washed and dried
- 3-4 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin Tuscan olive oil
- 1 tablespoon walnut oil and a little extra for garnishing
- 200ml double cream
- 400g tagliatelle or pappardelle
- aged Pecorino or Parmesan cheese and black pepper to serve
Cut the bread into small cubes and soak for about 10 minutes in just enough cold water to cover them. When it's completely softened, squeeze out as much liquid as you can and dry briefly on kitchen paper.
Toast the nuts in a dry pan for a few minutes until you can just smell them starting to char, but don't let them burn.
In a mortar or blender, crush the garlic with the salt. Next, add the bread and half the nuts and whizz until everything is combined. If you used the mechanical option, it's worth doing the next stage by hand. Put the rest of the nuts in a plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin or wooden meat-hammer until quite fine but not pulverised. Now add the parsley leaves and pound again to release the oils. The leaves should look roughed up rather than pureed.
Finally, stir in as much olive oil as it takes to turn your dry ingredients into a paste. Check the seasoning - you may need a little more salt, especially if you have used proper Tuscan bread, which seems to contain very little. I find that sauces that turn out well often taste a bit too salty at this stage.
Cook the pasta as directed and while doing so, heat the cream just to bubbling point and let it thicken a bit before taking it off the heat. Stir in the nut mixture and keep warm without cooking it.
When the pasta is done ladle out and reserve a cupful of the cooking water before draining. This magic bullet loosens up any firm pasta sauce, while the starch content in it ultimately thickens it again, reducing the need for vast quantities of butter and extra cream. Don't add too much though or it will dilute the sauce.
While the pasta is draining, add a tablespoon or so of the reserved cooking water to the nut sauce to make it encouragingly runny and creamy-looking. Add the pasta and mix well until glossy and well-coated.
Serve in red-hot bowls and finish with a little extra drizzle of walnut oil. Pass around the cheese, and pepper-grinder, advising your guests politely that too much of either may bludgeon the sauce.
Janet Wynne Evans
Serve with a full-bodied white like vermentino, or a fruity red, such as The Society's Chianti Rufina.