Here’s what I learned about Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss, and star of TLC’s Cake Boss and Kitchen Boss, after meeting him and watching him cook a fantastic meal for the five grand winners of the KitchenAid Make the Cut Sweepstakes by hhgregg at the Senior PGA this summer in Benton Harbor. The first is that he’s warm and witty, the second he can whip up a multi-course dinner in an amazing short period of time and the third is he doesn’t measure.
Chopping up a big pile of pancetta (a type of Italian bacon and no, we didn’t learn how much), he adds it to a big pot along with finely chopped shallots and minced garlic.
“If you don’t have shallots, you can use onions,” he says. “It ain’t gonna kill you.”
Next come the tomatoes that the Valastros can each fall – some hundred bushels and a large pile of basil – an ingredient he describes as the most important.
“When you cut it,” he says. “It releases all the flavors.”
And next – well, let’s just say it was lucky there wasn’t a heart specialist in the group.
“You’re going to go crazy when you see how much salt I put in this,” he says, scooping up what looks like a huge handful of salt from a bowl and throwing it into his pasta sauce. “But believe me you need it.”
Watching Valastro, we all wonder how much salt he used.
“I don’t measure,” he says after someone asks. “I ain’t going to like to you.”
Indeed, when Buddy cooks, several of his crew watch him, trying to estimate the amounts he uses to translate them into recipes for his food shows and cookbooks.
“Anytime I cook with tomatoes, I always put in a little sugar,” he says. “Maybe because I’m a baker, maybe because I’m a sweet guy.”
He also likes to keep a piece of bread nearby to dip in the sauce to taste for seasoning.
While he’s talking, he brings us up to speed on Cake Boss, the reality show based upon his fourth generation bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“It’s pretty wild,” he says. “I do a life sized Betty White cake.”
Next, he adds cream to the pasta sauce so the red turns pink.
“Sometimes I do what my dad used to do which is whip the cream before adding it,” says Valastro. “This is old school Italian.”
After throwing in a “smidge” more basil and telling us we can add as much cream as we want, we get to eat the sauce after he ladles it over bowtie shaped pasta. Served with a round of polenta, a caprese salad – freshly made mozzarella layered with tomatoes and basil leaves and drizzled with olive oil, Buddy starts on the cannoli – rolled pastry shells stuffed with a thick rich cream made of ricotta cheese, cream, sugar and a touch of cinnamon oil.
“Don’t be cheap with the cannoli cream,” he says, using a pastry bag to extrude a large amount into the rolls. “The trick to making the rolls is lard. But it’s hard. You have to fry them and wind them around a stick. I did a demo of it once at DisneyWorld and I was like stressing. This is one of the recipes in my book that I say good luck. Better to buy some good shells somewhere.”
When Buddy finally is finished cooking a meal that seems like it should have taken days – the elapsed time is about an hour -- he has produced a warm tomato basil soup, garlic cheese bread, veal picante, the pasta dish, the caprese salad, polenta as well as cannoli for dessert.
“I want to bring back a time,” he says in closing, “I want to let the basil talk, the garlic talk, I want to cook from the heart. That’s what it’s all about.”
2 ripe tomatoes, cut 1/4" slices across the equator
1 pound best quality fresh mozzarella cheese, cut 1/4" slices
Fresh whole leaves of basil, approximately 15-20 leaves of assorted sizes
Best quality flavorful extra virgin olive oil, as needed
Coarse grindings black pepper
On a serving platter, lay down the slices of tomato and sprinkle with salt. Allow to rest 5-10 minutes until tomatoes exude some juices. Lay mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, season with sprinklings of salt and grindings of pepper.
Drizzle olive oil to taste over all. Oil will mingle with the tomato juices to create a flavorful sauce.
Scatter fresh basil leaves decoratively over all.
Pasta with Pink Sauce
½ pound pancetta
2 – 4 shallots
28-ounce can Italian tomatoes, chopped
1/8 cup olive oil
1 to 3 cloves garlic
½ cup or more fresh basil
¼ to ½ cup grated Romano cheese
½ to 1 cup heavy cream
Salt, pepper and sugar, to taste
1 pound farfalle or bowtie pasta
Finely slice up the shallots and garlic. Cut the pancetta into chunks. Sauté the shallots over medium heat.
After a couple of minutes add in the garlic and the pancetta. Cook for a few minutes and then add tomatoes.
Add a dash of sugar, salt, pepper and bring it to a roaring boil for about 5 minutes. Lower the heat and let it cook for another 5 minutes.
Next add the heavy cream. You can cook your pasta at any time but you only want to cook it al dente because it’ll continue to cook in the pan with the sauce.
Cook for another couple of minutes. Then drain the farfalle and dump it right into the pink sauce.
Cook it at high heat for another minute so that it absorbs the sauce.
Finish with fresh basil and some grated Romano cheese.