In the Beginning, There Was Butter: Bagna Cauda
September 22, 2012
“You start with nine sticks of butter,” my aunt says, giving me the recipe for a dish which, at the end of its life, will contain fourteen sticks. Her voice is a Florida twang, an accent no one else in my family seems to have picked up as strongly, though when I am with her, I find my own vowels stretching out. I becomes Ah, as though I’ve been stuck into a Twilight Zone dentist’s office and every personal statement is a chance to glance at my sweet tea-ravaged cavities.
“This is the easy way, but the real way is, you’re going to want to chop up about three things of garlic – at least.” Except it sounds like, Yer gunna wunna…
My aunt is referring not to cloves of garlic, but to heads, because this is the famed family recipe for banyacotta, which is the phonetic spelling for a dish which is actually a famed Italian recipe called bagna cauda. The recipe is basically the same. But I think my family uses more butter.
Banyacotta is a familial rite of passage. Lovers, fiancés, new spouses, children – you’re not a part of the family until you’ve eaten banyacotta.
This is mostly due to the fact that for a full two days after eating it, you trail the scent of garlic behind you thicker than Pepe le Pew on an amour trail. It is imperative, for this reason, that everyone in the family partake, so that we don’t notice our stench, naïvely wandering through the world in our own little garlic reek.
For a long time, I had no idea that banyacotta was not just something that had been handed down in my family from generation to generation. All of the friends I told about the dish – it’s a dip of butter, garlic, and anchovies and you eat it on cabbage – were disgusted (but then again, that isn’t quite the favorite foods lists of an eight year old). No one else had even heard of the concoction.
One day, while I was perusing a food magazine, I found a recipe for bagna cauda. The recipe called for butter, anchovies, and garlic… and I thought… this sounds a lot like banyacotta… And when I sounded it out in Italian I realized, oh my God. This is banyacotta. My family just can’t spell.
Regardless, this is tradition, and my aunt still makes her banyacotta (sorry, the spelling stays…) in my Great Aunt Dorothy’s electric skillet. At one point, the Davis clan used to add cream – which is also a part of the original Italian recipe – but somewhere along the lines, the cream was lost, and what now remains is a giant pile of melted butter, six cans of salty anchovies, and four heads of minced garlic simmered into a rich, salty mess.
When the banyacotta is done, my family huddles around the pot. We each grab a cabbage leaf and dunk it in. Some prefer the garlic-infused butter from the top which just slightly wilts the cabbage – others scrape the bottom for anchovy-laden scoops studded with garlic. For plates we use slices of white bread, and after we’ve eaten as much cabbage leaves as we can, we eat the bread, soaked through with butter.
Don’t tell anyone, but this is what I really came back to America for. Butter, garlic, salt – and a reminder that I’m part of the family.
Bagna Cauda (aka Banyacotta)
This makes a lot of banyacotta – and let’s hope it does, or else that’s a lot of butter shoveled through your arteries at once. My aunt freezes any leftover banyacotta and slices off pats to melt on top of a hot-off-the-grill steak. I add fresh parsley and capers and toss it with cooked pasta for a quick dinner (provided I’m not going anywhere later that night…)
14 sticks unsalted butter (give or take)
6 cans anchovies
4 heads finely chopped garlic
2 heads of cabbage leaves (Napa or bok choy), whole but removed from core
1 loaf of thinly sliced artisan white bread
In an electric skillet set to 200°, melt 9 sticks of butter. Keep a close watch on the temperature to make sure your butter doesn’t start browning. As soon as it starts to bubble, turn the heat lower. When the foam has started to clear from the top of the butter, add your chopped garlic. Take care that your garlic doesn’t burn. If you’ve burned the garlic, the banyacotta is ruined, as is the world. Throw it out and start over. Better yet, don’t burn your garlic.
Add anchovies whole, scattering evenly around the skillet. They’ll break down on their own. Increase the temperature to a low simmer – but if the bubbles get too high, turn it down. There’s a good chance that at this point, you’ll need to add more butter to the skillet. If your mixture looks a little chunky, add 3 more sticks of butter. Either way, you can do no wrong. If I learned one thing from my aunt, it’s that you can never have enough butter.
After you’ve added the anchovies, be sure to let the whole mix simmer for about 10 minutes (the whole process should take about 15-20 minutes). Don’t let the butter bubble too much – but don’t let the temperature get so low that it doesn’t bubble at all. Give it a slow and thorough stir every now and then.
When you’re ready to eat, dip cabbage leaves into the banyacotta and eat over slices of white bread. Be sure to finish your plate. Literally. Your plate is white bread. Keep the banyacotta simmering on about as low as you can go for another couple hours while you go have real dinner (something like… caramelized ham, corn puddin’, tomato puddin’, mac & cheese, and pot roast… or something), then come back and have some more for dessert.
Before you freeze the rest, melt the remaining sticks of butter into the skillet to even out the proportions and better prep you for a heart attack.