Bagna càuda: What it is and how to make it

I grew up in Vermont where cold weather means single or negative digits in Fahrenheit. Unlike here in Rome, where cold hovers closer to 40°F, but it’s a wet cold that seeps into your bones and which is hard to shake if you catch a chill. You can’t just put on more layers to warm up. The days can be warm in Rome in the late fall and winter, assuming it’s not raining which it mostly has been lately, but once the sun goes down it’s like living in a cold, damp cellar.

Warm and toasty dinners are therefore essential on chilly nights to heat you from the inside, especially those dishes which simmer away for hours on the stovetop, steaming up your windows, or which ask you to turn the oven up good and hot. Bagna càuda can do both.

Bagna càuda, with a name that sounds like a magical incantation, is a sauce from northern Italy made with lots of garlic and anchovies. It’s bone warming stuff meant to be shared with a table of friends (post-pandemic of course) and which is best served still warm with plenty of vegetables for dipping. Bagna càuda means hot bath in the local Piedmontese dialect and that’s exactly what it is, a hot, oily, and deliciously smelly bath.

I made it for dinner last night to warm the house (and our souls) and roasted some baby potatoes and yellow cauliflower in the oven with a little olive oil and salt for dipping. According to my Piedmontese cookbook, Nonna Genia, bagna càuda is traditionally served in November with red and yellow bell peppers and cardoons for dipping and young novello red wine when all three are in season.

It was warm and delicious and perfect for a cold, dark December night with a bottle of Barbera.

Bagna càuda

  • 10 cloves of garlic, 4 crushed and 6 minced
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 12 salt-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed, bones removed, and chopped
  • 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • Assorted vegetables for dipping, such as bell peppers, broccoli, cardoons, cauliflower, and potatoes.
  1. Prepare the vegetables in one of three ways: clean and slice to serve cold, chop and boil until tender, or chop and oven roast with some olive oil and salt.
  2. Put the garlic, olive oil, and anchovies in a small saucepan and cook over extremely low heat for approximately two hours. Stir occasionally and keep a very close eye on it to make sure the garlic does not burn.
  3. Stir in the butter until it has completely melted.
  4. Serve warm along with the vegetables for dipping. Use a food warmer if you have one. If not, just return it to the stove to rewarm when it starts to grow cold.

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