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If you were to make a list of the most iconic Chicago foods — and not the ones like deep dish and Italian beef that are the subjects of hair-splitting debates, but the truly quintessential ones that speak to the city’s rich culinary contributions — Pasta Yiayia at Lula Cafe would almost certainly claim a spot there.
Not only has Lula churned out upwards of 50 Pasta Yiayia [pronounced YAH-YAH] orders a day, six days a week for almost a quarter century, but the recipe predates the restaurant as a staple of co-owner Amalea Tshilds’s childhood. Her two, now teenaged, children have grown up eating it just as she did.
“I married into this dish,” writes her husband, Lula chef and co-owner Jason Hammel, in his new cookbook, The Lula Cafe Cookbook (Phaidon; $49.95), which publishes Wednesday and contains the recipe for this and some 90 other dishes from the restaurant. “This is the recipe my wife most associates with her grandmother and namesake Amalia, who came to Chicago from a village near Sparta as a child.”
The pasta has become something of an icon, recreated countless times across the recipe blogosphere; one Lula manager even dressed up as Pasta Yiayia last Halloween, essentially wearing a plate of it. For me, it tastes like the hominess I feel whenever I sit in Lula’s warm, funky dining room beneath the whitewashed tin-print ceiling. The salty tang of the cheese and sweet and toasty hits of garlic, the nutty browned butter and sneaky warmth of cinnamon tangling with thick, toothsome pasta; it’s rich, comforting and a bit unexpected — so much more than the beige-hued sum of its parts. (Find the full recipe below.)
When self-taught cooks Tshilds and Hammel debuted Lula on the curved corner of Kedzie Avenue and Logan Boulevard in 1999, their bohemian cafe didn’t yet have a culinary identity. They put Pasta Yiayia on the menu mostly because Tshilds knew how to make it and Hammel loved it. But it quickly became a guiding star for the type of cooking Lula is so well-known for: combining continental technique and Mediterranean lineage with some surprising outside flavor that “still melds in a harmonious way,” as Hammel writes in the book.
A dormant writer until recently, Hammel has dreamt of publishing a book since he was a teenager. He studied fiction in college and came to Chicago to write. Then he and Tshilds spent the ensuing 20-odd years building a family and a cafe, connecting the words “farm” and “table” in Chicago, as he writes.
When the pandemic upended the world in 2020 and Lula’s dining room went dark for 18 months, Hammel returned to writing about all that they’d built, in between handing out groceries and meals, cobbling together takeout farm dinners and lobbying for independent restaurants.
“The closure of the restaurant gave me the sense that I had to work quickly and with intention to tell the story — in some ways before it was too late,” Hammel told me. “I wanted to capture the depth of feeling about what Lula meant to me.”
Hammel was a little incredulous when I asked if he’d like me to provide ingredients for a cooking demonstration of Pasta Yiayia at his Logan Square home. “Lol we always have Pasta Yiayia ingredients on hand,” wrote the James Beard and Jean Banchet Award-winning chef in an email before my visit.When I arrived at the house, a brick two-flat on a quiet street a few blocks from Lula, I was greeted by Vito, a muppety little mutt that Hammel and Tshilds adopted 10 years ago, after finding him tied to a light post in a snowstorm outside Lula. Hammel had already prepared the bechamel, a simmered milk sauce seasoned with roasted and fresh garlic that’s blitzed with feta and xanthan gum to emulsify it. (Fittingly, every recipe in the cookbook was tested and photographed in his home kitchen, he said).
I’ve tinkered with recreating this dish many times at home, but it never occurred to me to make it with milk sauce; I always conjured a “sauce” simply by melting feta or goat cheese with brown butter. But pasta with bechamel, cinnamon and cheese is a staple of many Greek households as an everyday derivative of pastitsio, the labor-intensive baked pasta with ground meat, cinnamon and cheese that’s typically served at holiday gatherings.
Of course, not everyone thinks Yiayia is great, Hammel reminded me. “They think we’re creating something like trying to be unique or unusual and not adhering to some kind of Italian pasta tradition; or [as one anonymous reviewer put it recently], it was ‘just kind of a bad idea,’” he recounted. Oh, the dangers of reading Yelp reviews.
The rest of the Yiayia ingredients awaited us on the countertop in little plastic deli containers: cinnamon, cubed butter, crumbled French feta, paper-thin raw garlic slices and a bagged pile of par-cooked Greek bucatini. Hammel reheated the pasta, and warmed a shallow serving bowl by ladeling in some pasta cooking liquid.
With Pasta Yiayia, timing is everything, not unlike an impeccable restaurant experience.
“Anytime you have something as simple as this, with just a few ingredients, if you prepare them hastily or like the wrong temperature or something happens, the errors are really visible,” he said. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
The most common error in this straightforward dish? Burning the butter and garlic during browning — a mistake I’ve made countless times. Hammel teaches this foundational technique to every new cook on the line by first making an important distinction: “This is not a fried garlic sauce; it is a brown butter sauce,” he said.
“What you’re doing when you’re browning butter is browning the milk solids in the butter,” he added. “You need to move the pan in such a way that the solids, which will sink to the bottom of the pan and touch the hot surface, are sort of reincorporated into the fat, so you shake the pan a lot. The movement creates a vortex in the fat that pulls the solids up and prevents them from burning.”
The second most important thing to know is that until the butter hits the pasta, the butter will continue to cook. In other words, once you start browning butter, you can’t stop.
I grew nervous at these words; meanwhile, Hammel methodically added the warm pasta to the skillet of Yiayia Sauce, tossing to coat the noodles before plating them in the warmed bowl. He joked about how the burners on his home range turn in opposite directions to those at Lula, in one of life’s fun-size cruelties. Then he topped the dish with the feta and cinnamon, grated a heap of Parmesan over the top, and set it aside.
The moment had come. He heated a small skillet over a medium flame and added the butter and sliced garlic, swirling the pan almost continuously. Within about 90 seconds, large, foamy bubbles formed and started crackling, then the chef’s muscle memory took over.
“See I keep swirling, swirling,” he said. “Once you get to this stage where it’s really simmering, you don’t walk away; you do nothing else.”
He shook the skillet back and forth with jerky, rapid movements to keep the milk solids and garlic slivers aloft, even as he periodically pulled the pan off the heat to check on the now cloudy mixture. “Can you see the butter starting to brown?,” he said.
The term for brown butter in French is beurre noisette, with noisette meaning hazelnut, he said, just as that unmistakable nutty aroma, tinged with toasty garlic, wafted up from the skillet. “We’re just brown, you can see, so we’re going to take that pan at an angle and go into the pasta.”
As he poured every last garlic chip and drop of browned butter over the waiting noodles, the mixture beneath sizzled its approval. “Ta-da!” he sang, just above a whisper.
For Hammel, this was just one more comforting lunch dished up for the restaurant’s vast community of friends, family and fans, now armed with the instructions to recreate the dish themselves. “As a chef, my deepest connections now are the ones that foods make to the people in my community,” he said. “So when I thought best about how to bring my ambitions as a writer and my day-to-day life as a chef together, it was clear that I would tell my story and the stories of my community in the form of a cookbook.”
I felt like applauding, too. Then Hammel pushed the bowl across the counter.
“Um, do you want some?”
Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based food and drink writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. Follow her on Instagram.
Lula Cafe’s Pasta Yiayia
From The Lula Cafe Cookbook (Phaidon, 2023)
- 1 ¼ cups (10 fl oz/300 g) milk
- 1 tablespoon Roasted Garlic Purée (recipe follows) + 1 teaspoon oil from the Roasted Garlic
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cup (5 oz/150 g) crumbled feta
- ⅛ teaspoon xanthan gum (optional)
- 8 oz bucatini (Hammel and Lula use Misko No. 2)
- 1 cup (3 ½ oz/100 g) grated Parmesan
- Generous ½ cup (2 ¾ oz/70 g) crumbled feta
- Ground cinnamon, to taste
- ¼ cup (2 ¼ oz/55 g) butter
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1. Make the Yiayia sauce. In a small pan, combine the milk, roasted garlic, garlic oil, minced garlic, and cinnamon.
2. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 15 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent scorching.
3. Remove from the heat and let cool.
4. Transfer the milk mixture to a blender, adding the feta and xanthan gum, if using. Purée until smooth.
5. Gently warm the sauce in a large, wide pan over low heat while you prepare the pasta.
6. To serve, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt generously. Add the bucatini to the boiling water and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes.
7. Strain and transfer the pasta to the pan with the warmed sauce, tossing until thoroughly coated.
8. Add half the Parmesan and feta, and toss again until just incorporated. The feta can be chunky and half melted.
9. Transfer the pasta to warm serving bowls or a platter and top with the remaining feta and Parmesan. Sprinkle cinnamon on top and keep the serving vessel(s) in a warm place.
10. In a small pan over medium heat, combine the butter and sliced garlic, swirling them around as the butter melts and begins to simmer. This will be your brown butter. Adjust the heat so the butter foams and simmers without burning. You’ll see the cloudy mixture eventually separate and brown. Shake the pan in short forward-backward movements to aerate the foaming butter and circulate the slowly caramelizing milk solids. As the butter caramelizes, it should smell sweet, rich, and nutty. When both the garlic and butter are golden brown, remove the pan from the heat and drizzle the brown foaming butter all over the top of the pasta. It will sizzle evocatively. Serve.
- 3 heads garlic, top sliced to expose cloves
- 2 ½ cups (18 fl oz/550 g) vegetable oil, plus extra as needed
Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. In a small baking dish or loaf pan (tin), add the garlic and the oil. If the oil doesn’t cover the garlic all the way, add more to submerge it. Cover the dish with foil and cook the garlic until golden, tender, and lightly roasted, about 1 hour. Leave to cool, then store the garlic in the oil. When ready to use, squeeze the roasted garlic purée out of the cloves.