Today, we kick off a week of Valentine's Day dinners for two -- grab your partner or your bestie, and make a meal worthy of your love.
Some dates are better than others. We'd all love a fancy-shmancy, wine-and-roses, multi-course meal at that upscale Italian restaurant we've been dying to try -- but it's hard to resist a "Let me cook for you while you sip on some wine and I feed you my nonna’s Sunday Gravy out of the pot" night in. We’re not saying that we prefer one or the other, but you can guess which one we’d raise our hand for in a blind vote.
The same scenario presents itself even after you've decided to stay in: You can opt for a grand menu, with dishes that require you to stay in the kitchen all day; or you can whip up your favorite back-pocket meal that never disappoints.
This Valentine’s Day menu combines both strategies: A quick, crowd-pleasing main meets an elegant Italian dessert. Feel free to start on the cookies earlier in the week, or make the meal an afternoon project with your date. It’s going to be a great meal either way -- you simply can't go wrong when you start with creamy, pork-laden pasta and end with cookies whose name refers to "kisses."
More: Feel like an Italian-inspired cocktail to get you started? We do, too.
Here's how to make your meal:
First, the cookies: Grind the skinned hazelnuts finely in a food-processor or blender until the pieces resemble coarse sand. Have your date measure out the flour, sugar, and butter, and then combine them with the chopped nuts. Rub all the ingredients between your fingers until they resemble breadcrumbs. Make sure the butter is cold, and work quickly.
Divide the dough in half so that you can each knead it into packets that look like disks, about 1 inch high. Wrap them in plastic wrap and chill them in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to overnight.
When you’re ready to form the cookies, scoop out teaspoon-sized chunks of dough and have your date roll them into balls. Line them on a cookie sheet a few inches apart -- you'll need space for them to expand during baking. Place the cookie sheet in the fridge for a few hours before baking; alternately, stick them in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven between 285° and 300°F, depending on how hot it runs, and bake the cookies about 15 minutes, or until the cookies turn into hemispheres and are dry to the touch. They will be very lightly baked and are very fragile at this point, so watch them carefully -- don’t touch them until they are cool and hard enough to handle.
Melt the dark chocolate about 75% of the way over a double boiler (or use this amazing trick!). Take the chocolate off the heat and stir until all of it is melted; let cool for about 5 minutes, or until it reaches a consistency where you can spoon it onto a cookie, but it won’t dribble off the sides. Form an assembly line to finish the cookies: Place about a teaspoon of melted chocolate onto each of the cookies, then let it cool just enough so that when you press another cookie onto it, it sticks but the chocolate doesn’t spill out the sides. Set the cookies aside to dry.
To make the carbonara, have your date boil enough salted water for the pasta and chop the guanciale. When the meat is cubed, sauté it over medium-low heat until the fat is rendered but the meat hasn’t browned. Transfer the guanciale to a bowl, and save the rendered fat separately.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg and egg yolks in your prettiest serving bowl. Once the pasta water has boiled, go ahead and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup pasta water.
More: Worried about cooking perfect pasta? Boost your confidence.
Immediately add the hot pasta into the egg mixture, toss it to coat, and add 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water, and one teaspoon guanciale drippings. In three batches, have your date add the Pecorino, while you continue to stir and toss to melt the cheese. Shower in lots of black pepper (about 2 teaspoons). Continue to toss until the sauce thickens, adding more pasta water if necessary; season with salt and more pepper to taste. Garnish with more Pecorino to serve.
Take advantage of our handy grocery list and click the recipe photos or titles to see (and save and print) the full recipes.
Serves 2 to 4
1/4 pound guanciale or pancetta, cut into 1/3-inch cubes
7 large egg yolks, plus 1 large egg
1 pound spaghetti
1/2 cup Pecorino
3 1/2 ounces hazelnuts, skinned
3 1/2 ounces sugar
3 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour
3 1/2 ounces good-quality dark chocolate
You probably already have salt, pepper, and butter in your pantry. If you’re low, add them to the list.