We had two encounters with mascarpone cheese in pasta recently. One was seeing this tagliatelle with spinach, mascarpone, and Parmesan over on Jamie Oliver's website; the other was catching the tail end of a British cooking show where the host was making mascarpone-lemon spaghetti. (We're sensing an English theme.)
This is our version, which borrows a bit from both but has the bright flavor of Meyer lemon plus toasted hazelnuts, which turned out to be the best ingredient of all.
Mascarpone is a soft, scoopable, sweet cheese (not sugar sweet, but mild and milky with just the tiniest bit of tang). The Meyer lemon has that same quality: sweeter than a regular lemon but still tart. They make a great sauce together, lighter than a typical cream sauce but still silky and rich.
The hazelnuts were a last-minute addition. We made this pasta once without them, and we even tested a few bites with the nuts sprinkled on top before we dumped the whole lot into the pan. They really elevated this dish to something special, in our opinion, by adding another texture and flavor.
We didn't bother pre-cooking the spinach. Instead, we threw it in with the warm pasta and sauce, adding a tiny bit of pasta water to keep the mixture loose while we continued to heat it over a low flame. The spinach wilts in no time. In fact, the entire dish doesn't take more than 15 minutes to pull together.
The first time I made this dish was four years ago. I had friends from home visiting me in Italy for a bit and I was eager to greet them with a show-stopping meal. As spring was just on the cusp, I wanted to make something that felt fresh but was still comforting enough for the brisk days we were having in Northern Italy. This recipe sung to me, with its inclusion of hazelnuts, which were abundant where I was living. It ended up being such a success and a wonderful memory — of old friends with me for a moment in a foreign place sharing a celebratory meal.
Years later, this is a dish I still crave at this time of year. It's sophisticated yet wildly simple to make — the perfect choice for a dinner party or just a midweek meal that you want to feel a tiny bit more special. I encourage you to follow the recipe as is. Some may want to throw garlic in or add a dash of red pepper flakes, but try to let the ingredients here speak for themselves — they want to and will wow you. It's also very much worth seeking out a Meyer lemon here (Trader Joe's carries them!), as I do feel it makes a difference; the delicate floral, sweet notes that the citrus helps puts this dish on another level.
- Sheela, April 2018
Spaghetti with Mascarpone, Meyer Lemon, Spinach, and Hazelnuts
Serves 2 as a main course
Finely grated zest of 1 medium Meyer lemon
Juice of 1 medium Meyer lemon (about 3 tablespoons juice)
freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
loosely packed baby spinach or coarsely chopped regular spinach
chopped, toasted hazelnuts
Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt generously. Meanwhile, place the mascarpone, zest, juice, salt, nutmeg, and a few grind of pepper in a small bowl and whisk to combine; set aside.
Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta.
Return the pasta to the pot over low heat. Stir in the mascarpone sauce. Add the spinach and toss so that the spinach begins to wilt. Add about half of the reserved pasta water (more if necessary) to keep the sauce loose but not too watery. Continue to cook and toss until the spinach is cooked. Add the hazelnuts and stir to combine. Serve immediately.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.