Israeli pasta fonduta with labaneh and zaatar

Pasta fonduta is a little-known Italian dish, but if it were from the Levant, it might be something like this.

It comes by way of my cousins, who were here for a short visit that involved lots of communal cooking. The original dish, which comes via a recipe by Jamie Oliver, calls for creme fraiche, Fontina cheese and an herb such as marjoram. These cheese products aren’t readily available here (woman at the cheese counter: “Fontina? Never heard of it. I have feta.”), but there’s no reason to consider that a setback. Instead, we made or own local variation with goat labaneh, kashkeval and zaatar.

The name pasta fonduta, meaning fondue pasta, has relatively little documentation online. According to one source I found, fonduta is a regional specialty from Piedmont, northern Italy, and it can also serve as a quick pasta sauce. The fondue sauce is heated over a water bath, and egg yolk is added as a final touch before serving. When tossed with pasta, the heat from the noodles cooks the egg.

We flavored our version with zaatar, also known as hyssop, a native Israeli herb that could be right at home in an Italian herb mix. Lacking zaatar, one of the greengrocers at the shook offered me a bundle of oregano instead. And a neighborhood greengrocer gave me a box of thyme. When I pointed out that it wasn’t zaatar, he responded, “What? But it’s pretty much the same thing.”

For the record, it’s not. But the scents and flavors have distinct similarities.

I used two different kinds of labaneh, though you could simplify and choose just one. They give the pasta sauce a tang, and the egg yolks add a kind of richness that blends in with the egg from the noodles. Despite all the Israeli cheeses, the Parmesan ensures that this dish has a distinctive Italian flavor.

For four servings:

  • 100 grams soft goat’s labaneh
  • 30 grams hard goat’s labaneh (1 large ball)
  • 130 grams Parmesan, plus more for garnish
  • 100 grams kashkeval
  • pinch black pepper — 1/8 teaspoon
  • 1 tablespoon fresh zaatar, plus more for garnish
  • olive oil (optional)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 500 grams pasta (we used homemade tagliatelle)

Prep time: 5 minutes. Cook time: 10 minutes.

Prepare a double-boiler: Bring some water to boil in a pot, and sit a glass or metal bowl in the pot, touching the water.

Put the labaneh into the bowl. It will become softer as it gets warmer. Once it is relatively liquid, add the Parmesan and kashkeval. It should melt in. Toss in the pepper and zaatar. Add a bit of olive oil or water if the sauce seems too dry.

Cook your pasta. When the pasta is ready, mix it with the cheese sauce and the egg yolks. The yolks will cook from the heat of the hot pasta.

Serve garnished with more fresh zaatar and/or Parmesan if desired.

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