While staging in a Piedmontese restaurant in Torino years ago, I was startled by the reminiscent flavor of spaghetti al pomodoro we were eating at family meal one night. The tomato purée, canned earlier in the year when the fruit was at its peak, was as sweet as candy. Finished with a large spoon of butter, a technique Italian chefs call montecare al burro, the sauce had a pleasing richness. The combination of flavors was resonant with my childhood memories of a favorite family dish we called Jewish Spaghetti.
Jewish Spaghetti? What on earth? It was staple side dish in my mother’s repertoire, a dish that her grandmother Eva had apparently conceived, and that each of Eva’s four daughters passed on down to their families. (I suppose her four sons, though likely fans of the dish, probably didn’t know how to make it.) My grandmother made it. My mother made it. I make it. I recently learned on one of my radio shows that my cousin Madeline Poley, the celebrated chef/owner of the Soho Charcuterie and creator of other New York city food faves, hated her mother’s Jewish Spaghetti. We loved ours so much that I assumed it was a known pasta variant, like spaghetti bolgonese and fettuccine alfredo. So, imagine my surprise at the reaction of my classmates when I referred to Jewish Spaghetti in elementary school.
I wrote home from the restaurant in Turin to tell my family I had found an Italian antecedent to our family’s Jewish Spaghetti.
The recipe is simple. Elbow macaroni—not spaghetti, you’ll note—is tossed in a mild tomato sauce enriched with an embarrassing amount of butter and sweetened with sugar. The excessive butter might have been my mother’s innovation. This wouldn’t have been the first family dish she improved with a heavy hand for her favorite lipid (see The Cheese Thing). It may also account for our family’s true love of the dish. My mother made a large pot of Jewish Spaghetti in the morning and let it sit at room temperature in the pot on the stove. As they sat, the noodles absorbed the sauce and all of that butter. When reheated at dinner time, the elbows were swollen and soft.
My mother usually served Jewish Spaghetti alongside fillets of sole that she had breaded in matzo meal and fried in more butter. My mother made most of our dinners in advance so she wouldn’t have to run home at the end of the day to cook. This required her to make more than we’d need for the meal itself, as throughout the day we’d pick at whatever sat on the counter. This may be the reason I still have a fondness for eating food at room temperature. She’d have to double the recipe of Jewish Spaghetti to ensure we had enough to eat by the time my father came home and we sat down to dinner.
Last night I made Nate his first Jewish Spaghetti. He couldn’t believe I’d been holding out on a family recipe for the more than five years we’ve been together. (Wait until I make him his first Polynesian Chicken or Sardine Cream Cheese Spread Pinwheels.) Given our elevated level of caloric intake these days, I reduced the butter and paired it with a salad instead of fried fish. Honestly, I was a little embarrassed to serve it, not because I thought Nate wouldn’t like it, but because he would see how much I, an internationally trusted food authority, love this canned-tomato-sauce concoction. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from eating it. To be help set a limit, I made only half a recipe. I licked the pot clean.
Give it a try. It’s hard not to like. As our mother lay dying in the palliative care ward of Baycrest hospital in Toronto more than a dozen years ago, my siblings and I reheated small portions of Jewish Spaghetti in the nurses’ microwave to feed her. Jewish Spaghetti and vanilla ice cream were the only things she wanted to eat. Comfort food in the truest sense.
Adapted from The Mensch Chef
1 pound elbow macaroni or similar, small pasta
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups (1 15-ounce can plus 1 8-ounce can) Hunt’s Tomato Sauce—not Italian style, not salt free, just the regular one
4 to 6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste, plus more for the cooking water
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water (about 4 quarts water with 1 1/2 tablespoons salt) to a boil. Add the pasta, stir, and cook until just past al dente, about 9 minutes. Drain, but do not rinse.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the tomato sauce, 4 tablespoons of sugar, salt and pepper. The amount of sugar necessary will depend on the sweetness of the tomato sauce. Use just enough sugar to remove any bitter flavor and give a sweet tomato taste. It should not be candy sweet. Add the drained noodles and stir to coat. Turn off the heat, cover, and if you have time, let sit several hours at room temperature so the noodles absorb the sauce. If you don’t have the time to let it sit, keep the heat on low and cook the pasta, stirring frequently, for 4 or 5 minutes until there’s no liquid sauce evident.
To reheat after the dish has sat, there are two options: 1) transfer the pasta to a 2-quart baking dish. Dot the top with a tablespoon or so of butter, cover with foil and bake in a preheated 350°F. oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the cover and bake a few more minutes until crisp on top. Or 2), just reheat on top of the stove over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning.