There are, for me, two kinds of recipes, one for each mood: The first kind is quick and easy, like the 30-minute lemon chicken I make when I come home from work hungry and don't want to think too hard about what I'm feeding myself. The second is for when I'm feeding someone else, usually something special I'm excited to share; these take more time, and just a little bit more care.
Like this braised onion pasta, which takes at least two hours to prepare. Even longer if you're making fresh pasta (which, for this recipe, I always do).
There are a couple of key tricks to this sauce: Don't skimp on the butter (this adaptation calls for 10 tablespoons, but I like to stick with the original and use a full 12). Perhaps most important: Be patient. You may be tempted to turn up the heat to speed along the cooking process, but keeping the heat as low as possible for an hour-plus (I've been known to take my onions up to two hours; I recommend it) will give you the most ethereally jammy and complex-tasting caramelized onions ever.
Also, make fresh pasta if you can. When I'm cooking this dish, I like to make more or less a day out of it—spending the afternoon mixing, rolling, and cutting thin sheets of wide pappardelle and using the early evening to prepare the sauce. But there's absolutely zero shame in just buying fresh pasta from the store (I do it all the time).
One fall Sunday, my college roommate and I were looking
to avoid studying for a project to tackle. We hadn't cooked in ages, and wanted to relish the day with a long recipe to which we could devote all of our attention. Before working at Food52, I was a community member first, and would often turn to the site for something new to try. That day, I discovered this onion pasta.
Photo by Mark Weinberg
Being from an Italian family, my roommate took charge of the fresh pasta. I tended to the onions, stirring them every so often, until they looked just like the picture on the recipe page. Like all 76 commenters on the recipe, we were astonished by how absolutely delicious it was, particularly with a heap of salty grated Parm over top.
But I didn't fully appreciate just how special this pasta was, or how making a dish like this for someone was a way of showing appreciation for them, until I made it for someone who couldn't have cared less about either.
It was another Sunday, this time in the spring. My roommate and I had invited over a few of our favorite people to eat what we called the "magic onion sauce." Like before, we spent a few hours prepping the fresh pasta and onions, taking care to make sure that the dish we'd hyped up to our friends for days lived up to expectations.
That night, when everyone showed up for dinner, so did an unexpected plus-one my roommate and I had never met before. No problem. There was plenty to go around and we were more than happy to share it with him, too.
But when I served him a bowlful, he pushed aside the onion sauce we'd labored over for hours (okay, just two hours, but still) and ate nothing but the plain pasta. Without so much as a nod of gratitude, he gave me back the bowl filled with a sad, unloved lump of caramelized onions (which I'm unashamed to admit I saved and tossed back into the leftovers).
I was horrified, but maintained my hostly demeanor.
When the night was over, through clenched teeth I thanked him for coming and from then on vowed only to make this much-cherished recipe for people I love most — last-minute dinner party guests notwithstanding.
Braised Onion Sauce
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pinch salt
1/4 cup Madeira
3/4 pound hot cooked pasta (I used pappardelle)
1 pinch flaky salt, for serving (if needed)
1 handful grated Parmesan, for serving
1. In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent.
2. Stir in the sugar and a pinch of salt, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions slowly for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Patience is key! When they're done, they should be dark, caramelized, and borderline jammy.
3. Stir in the Madeira, cook for a few more minutes, and then add the cooked pasta to the pan. Shower on a generous dusting of Parmesan, and using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce.
4. Serve with additional grated Parmesan, and flaky salt if necessary.