After a lengthy, some might say girthy absence, our famous food face-offs are back, baby! And this theme is perhaps our easiest ever. The kind that’s so self-explanatory that it doesn’t need a big preamble by me. I texted “sexy pasta” to the group chat, everyone gave it a thumbs up, and we were off to the races!
Ready to dive into some of the most sumptuous, sultry, silky pasta on the planet? Let’s go! (And, as always, we’re eager to see your votes and roasts in the comments!)
— Steve Bramucci, Editorial Director, UPROXX LIFE
Also, check out Steven Bramucci on Foodbeast’s ‘Kitchen League: Challengers Vs Champs’ this Friday at 4pm PST on Twitch!
PAST 5 RESULTS (see full results here):
Diner Food Showdown with George Motz: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Vegetarian and Vegan Showdown: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Sweet Treet Showdown: 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Pancake Showdown: 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Three Food Writers Battle Over BBQ Rib Recipes, Just In Time For July 4th 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. All votes are counted equally. As it stands, the score is:
Steve’s Deconstructed Carbonara With King Crab Claw “Scarpetta”
When I think “sexy pasta” which — to be transparent — was my idea for a contest theme, I think the following: silky, sensual, slurpy, and rich without being a gut bomb. I don’t want garlic or onions or other random aromatics near my dish. It’s got to be simple. I was raised on sitcoms and movies that made it seem like a man knowing how to scramble eggs was the most amazing foreplay on earth. So spending eight hours on a dish is not the vibe. In fact, it’s why I stayed away from stuffed pasta.
Sounds like the exact opposite of the cooking philosophy that has pushed me to a deeeeeep third place in this contest, right? Maybe I have a chance!
To help me out, I asked the mega-talented Ashley Wilhardt, founder of Cayenne Agency, to bring together some friends for an impromptu dinner party. In exchange for cooking, she agreed to photograph it all and let me use the photos.
Does having good photos help my chances? Probably. But I think this dish is able to speak for itself.
This starts with a pasta called strapponi (if you can’t pull innuendo from that, you’re repressed) which Vince learned via me (though there’s not anything to it) and then immortalized here. Since silkiness was the order of the day, I used double yolks and 00 flour.
- 2 cups Tipo 00 flour.
- 3 eggs.
- 3 yolks.
- Two glugs of EVOO
Since I wasn’t making a stuffed pasta and wasn’t particularly worried about the pasta tearing, I was able to add a tad more olive oil. Knead that until a thumb pressed into the doughball retains its shape and the dough pulls apart rather than snapping. Then let it set in a cool place in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes to let the gluten bonds form.
I rolled that out to the thinnest setting on the pasta machine. Doing this with your date is a nice bit of foreplay for anyone taking the “sexy” assignment super literally. Food, like sex, is 80% about anticipation.
From there, this is a single pan sauce (technically I used two because I browned butter). Once again, this went against precedent. Typically I use 17 pots per dish. Once I had the strapponi, I boiled up some water in on pot and began toasting some pancetta in another.
Pork fat is luscious and musky and animalistic, so I was glad to have it. That said, I used about 1/3 of what I’d use in a more traditional carbonara.
Once the fat was rendered and the Maillard reaction started to be visible on the pancetta, I added crushed walnuts to the pan. Walnuts start acrid and get sweet as they toast before going back to being acrid when they’re overcooked. If this all stresses you out, just remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and put them back later — that way you don’t need to have it all quite so timed out.
Next, I dabbed up a bit of the pork fat and replaced it with browned butter to enhance the nutty notes of the dish. I cracked black pepper into the pan and let it open up, turning the burner to low.
Next, I wrapped the long pasta sheets onto a wine bottle and let my guests tear them into the pot. The pasta is thin and cooks to the al dente level incredibly quickly, so this next bit you have to move quickly for:
- Draw noodles out of the pot and straight into the pan. They’ll carry a bit of water along with them. Do not strain the noodles in the traditional sense. Toss the noodles as you finely shred 24-month parmesan over the top. A younger parmesan will be a tad more “milky” — which I like.
- Toss but don’t overwork your noodles. The pasta water will make your sauce silky and you’ll find — another absolute rarity for me — that you don’t need a ton of cheese.
Finally, I added oregano to the pan and tossed one more time. Then I plated. The pasta was piping hot, so rather than doing the traditional carbonara egg yolk in the pan, I drizzled the yolk over the plate and let it thicken thanks to the heat of the noodles. For people who don’t live and breathe food the way Vince, Zach, and I do (e.g. my guests), that drizzling of the yolk seemed very inventive and impressive.
A different plate.
The crab leg scarpetta idea came to me when composing the dish. Scott Conant famously calls his flagship restaurant “Scarpetta” after the crust of bread you dredge across your plate at the end of eating pasta. But since the goal here was to leave people feeling light and sexy, I didn’t want carbs on carbs. So I boiled a king crab claw and refrigerated it, leaving it light and springy, cracked the claw, peeled back the shell, and voilá —
You slurp out the crab easily and get crab plus sauce. Simple.
Light and easy and silky AF and it feels effortless.
Clearly, I didn’t play so far against type that I cleaned my workstation while cooking. That’s still beyond me. But still… the result delivered.
How can you tell that I killed it? I don’t have to belabor the point and I’m not afraid of a closeup!
Vince on Steve’s Dish:
You’ve clearly taken to heart getting constantly dinged for unnecessarily complex food. AND YET, your conception of “simple” still includes two herb garnishes, three different types of fat (egg yolk, brown butter, pancetta), and a chilled crab claw to finish (“Oh, this old thing?”). Honestly, the crab claw was very Steve and kind of fun, and I think you would’ve had me if you’d left out the oregano and walnuts. But you can’t, not with that very special brain of yours. I feel like you worried that in replacing crunchy bread with a soft crab claw you’d lose some texture. But if that’s the case — why not some bread crumbs over the top at the end? That seems less “forced” than walnuts. And oregano just doesn’t seem like it goes with anything here. Why not parsley? Or even tarragon to go with the crab? Your herb use always feels a little… frantic.
Lastly, how are you going to make strapponi but still use a pasta machine for it?? To me, half the whole point of strapponi is that all you need is a rolling pin, a table, and some elbow grease. Putting the dough through a machine and then wrapping it around a wine bottle (rather than just rolling it out on the wine bottle) seems fussy and fey. Like eating a Snickers with a knife and fork. Sort of the opposite of things I associate with sexiness — earthy, capable, willing to get your hands dirty. Makes me think that you’re going to keep your clothes on during sex and just put your pee-pee through the little hole in the front of your underpants.
Zach on Steve’s Dish:
I’ve been saying this for years, Steve has to go more simple in his recipes and he’ll start winning. And here we are, years later, and it’s happened! Besides the fact that this isn’t really a carbonara in the classic, Italian sense, it’s still a good dish. I would eat. I would be happy.
I do think you used the wrong pasta shape though. I know you and Vince like strapponi but there are other pasta shapes that are better for this recipe. Carbonara specifically needs a thinner pasta so that the fat from the pork and cheese doesn’t overwhelm and weigh down the pasta. Having these massive sheets slathered in dairy and porcine fat cannot have been light. Just looking at the plates and I already need a nap.
Yes, yes, you have the requisite photos of magazine hot people pretending to eat food they cannot have more than one bite of to keep their jobs. But that’s just it, one bite of this sounds about right. No one wants one one bite when it comes to sex, dude. I feel like I’d tap out after two or three mouthfuls and need some Tums to get through the night.
Vince’s Sweet Corn Agnolotti
I was a little hesitant about a “sexy pasta” battle, if only because I have mixed feelings about people calling food “sexy” in general. I’m trying to eat it, not fuck it. I like both sex and eating but with all due respect to Marlon Brando, I’m not sure we need to combine the two. “Sexy” means lots of different things to lots of different people. Some people like ball gags, other people want to watch hot people drown in quicksand. Whatever floats your boat, man.
I guess if I squint, food can be “sexy” in the sense that eating and screwing are both the most natural, sensual, animalistic things you can do. So when I think of “sexy food,” I guess I think of things that are earthy, fresh, vibrant. Things that taste like what they are and where they came from (heh-heh, “came”). Foods where you can smell the rain and feel the dirt between your fingers when you take a bite and all of that. (Debatable whether that describes “sexy” food or just good food, but we can table that for another time).
For whatever reason, people seem to associate seafood with sex. I think it’s a combination of seafood being traditionally expensive (luxury = treating yourself = sexy) and the whole oysters-are-an-aphrodisiac legend. I love shellfish, and shellfish pasta especially (clam fideos and squid ink fettuccine being just two examples of shellfish pastas I’ve cooked for this very series), but for one thing I knew both Steve and Zach would be making seafood pastas for this challenge, and for another I didn’t think seafood would be the sexiest thing to cook where I live.
Sexy food to me is fresh. Temporary, ephemeral — like life, in the grand scheme of things. Sorta the whole point of sex is that it’s the most visceral reminder of being alive and present in the moment. I live in Fresno. While it’s not a long journey to the coast (closer than most places in the country), and it’s not hard to find great seafood here, seafood doesn’t conjure quite the image of fresh, natural ingredients I associate with sexiness. Sexy ingredients are not things that are available all the time everywhere. For Steve or Zach, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest where the sea air is inescapable, I understand the seafood-as-sexy thing.
One thing we have here is tons of agriculture and some of the best, freshest produce anywhere on Earth. We’re surrounded basically on all sides by farms and dairies. One of the greatest local products is the “Fresno State Corn.” Fresno State’s ag department grows corn and sells it every year, incredibly sweet and delicious and it’s always sort of a big deal when it comes in — articles in the paper, all that shit. I ride my bike past the fields every day. My favorite local restaurant The Annex does Sweet Corn Agnolotti when it’s available and my wife (*Borat voice*) and I always do a date night there just to eat it. In my mind, it’s synonymous with seasonal, ephemeral perfection. And it tastes decadent and luxurious despite being vegetarian (though I should note that it is extremely not vegan).
So, I decided to recreate it for this challenge (which is to say, rip it off wholesale). I’ve never seen The Annex’s recipe for it, but I’ve eaten it a few times, and Wolfgang Puck had a recipe for sweet corn agnolotti online, and since he and I are basically best friends now I figured his was a good place to start.
For The Filling
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 ears white corn
- 1 teaspoon Diamond crystal kosher salt
- 1/4-teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 ounces mascarpone
- 1/8 cup grated Parmesano-Reggiano
- Tablespoon lemon juice and lemon zest
Puck’s recipe also called for goat cheese and thyme, which I omitted because they seemed unnecessary (I feel like people put goat cheese on everything in the late 80s and 90s just to be trendy). I added some lemon instead, which I grow in my yard. It also called for grating the corn in a box grater, a simple innovation I’d never tried before, but worked great. Then I just followed the recipe — reduce the heavy cream by two-thirds in a sauce pan, then add the grated corn and bring to a low simmer. Cook until “the mixture reduces and thickly coats the back of a spoon,” according to the recipe.
I transferred that to a bowl and added in the three ounces mascarpone, eighth cup parmesan, salt, sugar, pepper, and lemon (I assume Puck’s goat cheese added a similar acidic note as my lemon).
I mixed that up real nice until the cheese and mascarpone were melted and it was all uniform. It doesn’t taste exactly like The Annex does it, but it is delicious — sweet and creamy and just a little funky from the mascarpone. I put that bowl over an ice bath to chill it down and then covered it and stuck it in the fridge.
Meanwhile, I reserved the corn cobs and added them to a pot of hot salty water to make a sort of corn stock to boil my pasta in.
For The Dough
When people ask me how I got into cooking, I usually say “making ravioli for Thanksgiving.” I graduated from cheese grating to filling scooping to pasta rolling to ravioli construction until I eventually moved away and learned to do the process by myself to bring a little taste of home to my grad school Friendsgivings (not all that successfully at first). Basically, I know my way around some ravioli dough. And yet, when I looked at Wolfgang Puck’s recipe, calling for 3 cups flour, 8 egg yolks, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, and 2 to 3 tablespoons water, I thought, in the spirit of experimentation, fuck it, I’ll try it that way.
Just as I suspected, three cups flour is way too much flour for eight yolks. I added 10 yolks and still ended up adding probably double Wolfgang’s listed amount of water (which sort of defeats the purpose of an all-yolk dough, doesn’t it?). If I had it to do over again, and if I’m recommending how to do this to you, the reader, I’d go with my standard pasta dough recipe, which is:
- 2 cups flour (I use all 00 flour for filled pastas, for noodles I’d sub in 1/4th or 1/2 cup semolina)
- 3 whole eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (call it a teaspoon)
Mix all that together until it’s mostly uniform and probably seems a smidge dry (it shouldn’t be sticky). Then cover and let rest for at least 20 minutes or so. Then roll out your pasta into sheets. I tried to freestyle it at first and I did my first batch that way, but I was getting real sweaty to the point that it probably wasn’t that sexy. So I just busted out the machine instead, which is actually kind of perfect for making the long rectangles you need for this kind of pasta anyway.
Before you ask, those spots are condensation drops from the filling bag, not sweat from my forehead. I kept my pastry bag full of filling in a bowl of ice to keep it cold in between batches.
If you want to know how to make agnolotti perfectly, watch these ladies:
My technique — well… it ain’t perfect. I don’t have those small arthritic fingers that the best pasta makers seem to have. I have big clumsy walnut crushers. Probably that’s an excuse, but anyway, my agnolotti are more like three-sided ravioli.
Still cute, imo.
Wolfgang’s recipe calls for sage, but I know The Annexe uses chives, and I have chives in my garden so I used chives (I also love chives, I could eat them on almost anything, and they go especially well with corn). Chives say “summer” more than sage, if you ask me.
- 1.5 sticks of butter (about 6 ounces)
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 bunch of chives
As per Wolfgang’s instructions, I melted the butter over medium heat, then poured in the chicken stock and boiled it until the mixture emulsified. Then I added the chives.
The agnolotti go in the salty corn water until they start to float. Then I remove them with a slotted spoon directly into my butter reduction pan. A few spoonfuls of the starchy water go in there as well to get it nice and velvety/gooey.
There’s a beautiful alchemy that happens when you boil the agnolotti with the chilled filling. The mascarpone and cream and cheese mixture melt into a liquid in there and kind of burst in your mouth when you eat them.
Admittedly, not quite as cute as The Annex’s version, but they’re still so amazing. They’re decadent and rich, but fresh and super simple. Just sweet corn, creamy, slightly funky cheese, a hint of acid from the lemon, and the fresh crunch of chives. To me, the simplest pasta is most true to the spirit of pasta (and to Italian cooking in general, which basically invented modern European cuisine during the Renaissance). “Sexy pasta” to me is this creamy concoction of simple ingredients fresh out of the ground, elegantly combined, and bursting with sun-kissed flavor that melts in your mouth.
You feel sated but not heavy afterward, and as the cherry on top, it doesn’t leave your kitchen smelling like rotting fish carcass.
Steve on Vince’s Pasta:
I love this dish and have had it other ways at other restaurants. The corn broth is inspired — nice one. But sage was the right call here. I love a chive but you needed to highlight the earthiness and instead, you veered bright. For a dish that is absolutely laden with dairy, that plays more like you got insecure and tried to brighten the dish than went an arbitrary direction at a fork in the road.
Also, and I cannot believe I’m writing this but… mascarpone and parm? And then a butter and cream sauce? The dairy-based filling clearly ratioed the corn to the degree that the filling looks pure white. The sauce looks more like melted butter than anything else. I think that’s overkill. As the great New Girl quote goes, “Is there a hot way of saying I don’t feel sexy after I’ve had a lot of cheese?”
For a guy who spent a cool 500 words programming us all to feel like fresh produce was ephemeral, this is really more of a cheese on cheese on butter dish than a corn one. Four cobs for a whole pan of agnolotti? I don’t think you create the ode to seasonal produce you thought you did. Instead, you made vanilla sex in pasta form.
Zach on Vince’s Pasta:
Man, that intro makes it really hard to burn Vince’s dish. Then the dish makes it even harder. I guess I really only can fault the simplicity of this. It seems kind of phoned in, which is weird given that you made pasta from scratch. This might be the most Bramucci thing I’ll ever say, but I need a little something more. Crumbled fried pancetta? Deep-fried lardons? A clam (something, something, Steve’s mom)? Hell, dried fried onion bits? Something…
I feel like this is what you’d serve me and then we’d watch NFL in silence while sipping our Negronis. I just don’t think anyone’s having sex after this dish is served.
Zach’s Lobster Confit Ravioli with Bouillabaisse sauce and Beluga Caviar
When I think of “sexy” pasta, my mind goes to seafood and caviar. The last thing I want is fatty meats and tons of cheese. The fat has to be layered and take second place to the light seafood and pasta in my book. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be rich. In fact, it should be rich as f*ck. You want decadence. But when you build that rich decadence into the dish, you don’t need a lot to feel that satisfaction.
So, I’m making a lobster confit rav cooked in a bouillabaisse sauce and topped with Beluga caviar. It’s a great combo of rich, decadent, light, and bright while adding some serious sexiness. If you don’t think caviar is sexy, then we probably can’t be friends (or you need to get a new caviar crew).
For the pasta
- 2 1/2 cups 00 flour
- 3 eggs plus 3 egg yolks
- Pinch of salt
For the filling
- One lobster, deshelled
- 250 grams of smoked butter
For the seafood broth
- 1 lobster shell
- Prawn shells from 1 lb. of prawns
- 1 celery stalks
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 carrot
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2-star anise
- 10 black peppercorns
- 4 allspice berries
- 1/2 gallon water
- 1/2 cup sea salt
For the sauce
- 4 cups seafood broth
- 1 tube concentrated tomato paste
- 1 carrot
- 1 celery stick
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 yellow bell pepper
- 1 bouquet garni (fresh bay, oregano, thyme, sage, parsley, tarragon)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup brandy
- Salt, Cayenne, and Pepper to taste
- 10 grams Beluga Caviar
What You’ll Need:
- Large pots
- Small pot
- Medium pan
- Cutting Board
- Kitchen knife
- Pasta machine
- Ravioli cutter
- Bring a large stock pot full of water up to a brisk boil. Use the tip of a kitchen knife to kill the lobster by piercing the head right in the middle. Drop the lobster into the boiling water for one full minute and remove to an ice bath to stop the cooking. Use the end of a wooden spoon or ladle to crack all the shells and pull out all of the meat. Set aside.
- Leave about 1/2 gallon of water in the large stockpot. Add the lobster shells back in along with prawn shells and roughly chopped celery, yellow onion, carrot, and a head of garlic. Add in the cinnamon stick, star anise, black peppercorns, allspice berries, and salt. Bring to a boil and reduce by half. Once reduced, strain the contents with a colander and save the seafood broth in a smaller stock pot.
- Add the tomato paste and diced carrot, celery stick, yellow onion, and yellow bell pepper with a bouquet garni to the seafood stock and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until all the veg is soft and falling apart. Remove the bouquet garni and use a hand blender to blend the contents of the sauce until completely integrated. Use a strainer to strain the sauce into a smaller sauce pot and discard all the bits that didn’t make it through. Return to a simmer and add the brandy to the sauce and light on fire to let the alcohol burn off. Finally, add the cream and stir until fully emulsified. Turn off the heat, put on a lid, and save until the rest is ready.
- Make the pasta by combining the dry and wet ingredients on a work surface or in a small bowl. Knead until a smooth ball forms. Cover in plastic wrap and place in the fridge for at least an hour to allow the gluten to form.
- In the meantime, melt the smoked butter in a small saucepan. Add the chopped-up lobster to the butter and let simmer on the lowest temp for about an hour. The lobster will turn chewy but then it’ll start to break up and get soft again. Once it’s soft and falling apart, it’s ready.
- Remove the pasta from the fridge and work the dough on a floured surface through the pasta machine until you reach the thinnest setting with each sheet.
- Lay the pasta sheets out on kitchen towels and spoon large bites of the butter-poached lobster onto half of the pasta sheet (save the butter). Once you have three or four morsels of lobster spooned onto the pasta sheet, fold it over to cover the lobster. Use a ravioli cutter or press to cut the ravs. Set aside as you repeat the process. You should get about ten ravs from one lobster.
- Bring the bouillabaisse sauce to a very low simmer. Warm a small frying pan on medium-high heat. Add the butter from the lobster confit to the pan and add half of the ravs. Add about 1/8 cup of boiling water and let it completely simmer off, cooking the ravioli. Finally, ladle about a half-cup of the bouillabaisse and bring to a brisk simmer to finish cooking the ravs (this should take no more than two minutes).
- Plate two ravs on an oven-warm plate with a bit of sauce underneath. Use a small pearl spoon to place about two grams of Beluga caviar on each rav and then cross two chives spears, creating an “X” or “kiss” in the middle. Serve.
This was pure decadence on a plate. I mean, come on! It’s f*cking lobster confit in a creamy bouillabaisse with mother-f*cking Beluga on top. If that’s not sex on a plate, I don’t know what is. And yes, I served this with a nicely chilled Bollinger Rose.
Okay beyond the boasting, this was within the top three portions of ravioli of my life — and, please note, I spend a lot of time in Bologna. The confit lobster was smoky, buttery, and had become this distillation of the sea with a soft meatiness. The sauce was lush and yet somehow bright and playful. The last-minute dash of cayenne really brightened things up. And the caviar was the perfect accent to everything. It lightened the mood while adding a lusty kiss from a mermaid to every bite.
Lastly, this is labor-intensive. But you can literally make everything but the pasta the day before and let it set overnight (which will help deepen the flavors). Then you can get dusty making some pasta with your loved one and press out those ravs together before cooking them off in butter and sauce and digging in.
Steve on Zach’s Dish:
Vince and Zach have made this all into a compliment section rather than roasting so, Zach, please assume all the natural Zach compliments: technically proficient, layered, etc. I would — and I mean this sincerely — love to eat it.
But honestly, this dish inspires very little excitement in me. I know this is going to enrage you and I know this is more the thing you do to me than vice-versa but… I don’t think that’s a bouillabaisse. I think you made bisque. I’m searching the internet rabidly and cross-referencing my own memory and bouillabaisse virtually always has multiple fish (beyond shellfish), saffron threads, fennel, and orange peel. You have none of those.
Very few recipes seem to have brandy. You know what always has brandy? Lobster bisque. I wouldn’t be a stickler about this, except that being unbelievably pedantic with me has been your #brand in this series, so fuck it.
Beyond that, this dish just feels exhausting. Lobster “poached in butter” and then boiled inside a noodle? Could anyone identify it as lobster when tasted blind? Caviar on top? That seems like a flex more than a complimentary flavor. Caviar is briny and your sauce is silky with acid from the tomatoes.
A broth that turns to a sauce and looks pungent and powerful enough to obliterate the thrice-cooked (I forgot one, it’s tossed in the sauce ’til boiling again!) ravioli?
Maybe we approach sex differently, but this feels far more like the guy who had sex with robots than a real-live pasta to serve to a breathing human. Still, you gave me a chance to post this:
Vince on Zach’s Dish:
Lobster ravioli with caviar… does it sound like “sexy pasta?” Yes. Does it present well? Absolutely. Is it something I’d eat? Most definitely. It looks beautiful and tasty and I think you’d win the “super husband” prize for the night. But god damn, man, you basically made an entire seafood bisque and then turned it into a pasta sauce. Something about that feels… not just labor-intensive but labored, which feels not only anti-sexy but contrary to the spirit of pasta. Pasta should feel kind of simple, shouldn’t it? I don’t think that beautiful lobster confit inside a ravioli with caviar really needed a whole reduced soup to go with it. Plus, however sexy this dish is, it feels like it’s going to be undercut by the fact that you stunk up the entire house to make it. Taking a restaurant dish into your home doesn’t always make it better, sometimes there’s a reason people prepare things off-site.
I mean, if I wanted my house to smell like an open-air fish market I’d call Steve’s mom.