Audrey Hepburn was a girl after my own heart – or perhaps in this case, my stomach. She was not without her vices in the kitchen – Hepburn’s favorites included pasta, chocolate, vanilla ice cream with fudge sauce, wine and of course, an after dinner cigarette. Her son Luca remembers her propensity for eating generous helpings of pasta and gaining no weight (a trait that Ms. Hepburn and I do not share!) Luca also provides us with a heartwarming look her classic dishes in Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen by Luca Dotta with Luigi Spinola (Harper Design, June 16, 2015).
Each page is filled with photographs, handwritten recipes, cooking tips and notes written to friends. Her beloved homes in Rome and Switzerland flood the pages in photos of the amazing gardens that she tended along with candid snapshots of Audrey at home with her various pets (she had a beloved deer named Ip, short for Pippin).
To Audrey Hepburn, one classic Italian recipe was home: spaghetti al pomodoro. She made the sauce using tomatoes picked fresh from her garden that patiently sat on her sunny windowsill, filled with the scent of summer. She would also order spaghetti al pomodoro in restaurants. Presented with elaborate menus of fancy pasta dishes, she always deferred to this light and simple meal topped with parmigiana reggiano. She was even known to stock up on homemade pastas from Italy in her luggage during her trips abroad. One might expect a fancier choice of starch overload from the woman who portrayed Holly Golightly on the big screen, but Audrey in essence was spaghetti al pomodoro – classic, timeless and understated.
Although she lived in Rome for a good part of her life, she also was not afraid to shock the “gastronomic guardians” of Italian food, as Luca puts it, with her own spin on classic pasta sauce. Her son lovingly remembers it as one of their treasured “junk foods” – penne with ketchup. His “organically minded mum” hoed her own garden, made her own Genoese style pesto and regularly shopped at her local farmer’s markets. Judging by this, you might have expected her to be an uppity foodie, but she grew up during wartime and had few indulgences as a child. This simple meal was a special treat. A purist might shudder at her use of ketchup but she lovingly embraced it, and if you try her recipes, you will, too.
Below is Audrey Hepburn’s recipe for Spaghetti al Pomodoro – a classic taste of home:
Spaghetti al Pomodoro
1 pound (500 g) spaghetti
3 pounds (1.5 kg) vine-ripened tomatoes, cored and coarsely diced
1 onion, peeled and left whole
1 stalk celery, cleaned and left whole
1 carrot, peeled and left whole
6 basil leaves, chopped, plus whole leaves for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil
Fine and coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Start by cooking the tomatoes in a large covered pan over a high heat, with the onion, celery, and carrot for about 10 minutes to soften the vegetables.
Remove the lid and keep the boil for another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon.
Lower the heat to medium-low, and add the basil leaves and a drizzle of oil. The tomato sauce is ready when, as they say in Naples, “pipiotta,” in other words when the bubbles are no longer made of water but rather small craters of sauce. Remove from the stove, discard the largest vegetable chunks, and allow the sauce to cool.
A stainless-steel vegetable mill—the hand-operated type—is necessary once the cooking is complete in order to transform the tomato sauce and pieces of vegetables into a puree of the right consistency. It will also remove the bitter skins and tomato seeds. Add a drizzle of olive oil and adjust bitterness with a pinch of sugar. Add salt and pepper to taste.
To cook the spaghetti al dente, fill a large pot with cold water and place over high heat. When the water comes to a boil add a handful of coarse salt and the pasta, without breaking it. When done, remove it from the stove (perhaps even a minute sooner than the cooking time suggested on the package). Drain in a colander and add the pasta to the sauce with a sprinkle of parmigiana reggiano. Mix well and garnish with a few basil leaves.
Variation: Mum’s Amatriciana
Mum also loved pasta all’amatriciana. The classic version is prepared by cutting some guanciale (cheek lard) into small strips and browning in a small skillet until crisp. If guanciale is not available use pancetta or bacon. Add to the pureed sauce and simmer over low heat for a few minutes. Mum’s version was lighter; she used prosciutto crudo instead of guanciale, and once it was browned, she blotted the fat using paper towels.