I grew up 6 miles from one of the most charming squares in America, a small town called Carthage, Missouri - also known as America’s Maple Leaf City - that was platted in 1842. One of my dear friends, David (Da-vēēd) in New York City, is from Tunisia. One of his favorite fun facts is in brief, that the original Carthage was in Tunisia. His little tidbit stops there, but I did a little research. The Romans invaded Africa and defeated Carthage in the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. They refounded and rebuilt Carthage, making it one of the most important cities in the western half of the Roman Empire. Although Carthage, MO has a less illustrious beginning, last Christmas David was finally able to visit the Midwestern Carthage and was charmed. He not so secretly wanted to go up to everyone he saw on the street and give them a history lesson in the original Carthage.
Last week I returned home to Missouri to see my family and childhood friends. My sister is a recent transplant from NYC, she now owns a home in Carthage and is laying down new roots there. She’s just two blocks away from the awe-inspiring Jasper County Courthouse in the square. I used to march down these historic maple tree lined streets passing old Victorian homes twirling my baton and later playing my flute in the Christmas and Maple Leaf parades. Sweet, sweet memories.
This last visit gave me the opportunity to cook up a batch of brand new memories in the form of a dinner party for my childhood friends. Two of my bests were able to drive in from Lawrence, KS and Dallas, TX to join us for the weekend. We were hosted by other friends that live in Carthage - the Shelfers. I was there with my very first friend, Shaun Steele, and my newest friend, Flannery Shelfer, a soon-to-be second grader. (Flannery greeted us with that fantastic Welcome to Carthage sign!)
I’m sure you’ve all seen dinner parties depicted in cooking magazines. Everything is styled, the guests are perfectly dressed and made up, the food is artfully arranged, the smiles look genuine, and the food looks delicious. There is professional lighting, a real photographer, a designer dressing the set, etc. I throw a LOT of dinner parties, always with those silly magazines in mind, and this gathering with my friends was no different. My vision was to create this special evening of food and friends, skillfully capture it, and share it in this blog. Of course I had no professional staff to execute any of these visuals… I was armed with my cell phone and bags of groceries.
Screw the magazines! We had the time of our lives and I wouldn’t change a thing! I gave everyone tasks and instructions and our hosts kept the wine flowing. Flannery stayed perched on a stool to watch and learn and was incredibly helpful showing us where everything lived in their kitchen. Was the food beautiful? Nope. Delicious? A few problems in my own execution, but YES! With a slight nod to the Romans conquering the Tunisian Carthage, I thought I would bring a little bit of Rome to Missouri, in the form of their signature pasta dish Cacio E Pepe. 'Cheese and pepper' is the translation. A lot of ground black pepper and pecorino romano cheese (we used pre-grated parmesan and the moisture level wouldn’t allow it to properly melt into the sauce,) pasta, pasta water, and butter. Easy! Inexpensive! One of the best things I’ve ever eaten!
Staying with the Italian theme, I made Nutella pudding for dessert. Nutella was first made in the 1940’s when there was a shortage of chocolate due to World War II rationing of cocoa. Mr Ferrero, a pastry maker and founder of the Ferrero Company, used ground hazelnuts to extend the chocolate supply. Let’s all stand up right now wherever we are and give a round of applause to Mr. Ferrero for that brilliant idea! Flannery and I distributed the puddings to the guests and she was rewarded with two puddings for being such a good sport as she was the only kid at the party. After dessert, even more wine was poured and the Shelfers broke out Cards Against Humanity. How have I never played this?! We got out old yearbooks and passed them around, hilarious stories and memories were shared, and Flannery donned her roller skates and wove in and out of the festivities. Best. Night. Ever.
I think I’ve finally learned my lesson about comparing and despairing over perfectly captured dinner parties. Those magazines that I adore don’t have a thing on the one component at all of my shindigs. My friends! Whether you are an Eastcoast friend, a Westcoast friend, a Midwestern friend, an International friend, or a brand new acquaintance - may we have many more shared meals together! Maybe the next one will be in Carthage, Tunisia!
Cacio E Pepe
adapted from Lidia Bastianich
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, or more to taste
1 pound spaghetti (or Pici pasta if you have a friend coming back from Italy!)
salt for the pasta water
1½ cups Pecorino-Romano, freshly grated, or more to taste
1. Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil.
2. Grind the peppercorns very coarsely, preferably crushing them in a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder.
3. Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Drain reserving 2 cups of pasta water. Return pasta to pot.
4. Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese and most of the ground pepper on the pasta and toss in quickly. As you mix, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and melt the pasta and cheese together. Keep adding water and stirring in cheese and pepper and a velvety sauce will develop. Add more pepper or cheese to taste. Serve right away while the pasta is very hot.
- 2½ cups milk, divided (I used 2%)
- 1 cup Nutella
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3½ tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Mix ½ cup milk and the cornstarch until no lumps remain, set aside.
- In a medium-sized pot over medium heat, add 2 cups milk, salt, and Nutella. Stir with a whisk until the Nutella has melted. Add the milk/cornstarch mixture. Bring to a boil, while occasionally whisking then turn to simmer and whisk for 1 minute until thickened.
- Pour into cups and cool completely in the refrigerator.
- To make the whipped cream, add heavy whipping cream, sugar and vanilla to a bowl and whisk on high-speed until medium peaks start to form (about 1-2 minutes). Careful not to over-whip - if it forms quickly, turn mixer to medium speed.
- Add a dollop of whipped cream to each pudding cup and enjoy!