Heston Blumenthal on Finding the Perfect Recipe Heston Blumenthal talks about his book In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics and his search for the perfect recipe. Blumenthal is the proprietor of the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, England, which has been awarded three Michelin stars.

Heston Blumenthal on Finding the Perfect Recipe

Heston Blumenthal on Finding the Perfect Recipe

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Heston Blumenthal talks about his book In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics and his search for the perfect recipe. Blumenthal is the proprietor of the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, England, which has been awarded three Michelin stars.

Heston Blumenthal, from the cover of In Search of Perfection. hide caption

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION.

And now to the search for the perfect recipe. Any chance that your menu today includes sardine on toast sorbet, mango and Douglas fir puree, or for dessert nitrogen scrambled eggs and bacon ice cream? Well, no, not in our house either. But those are some of the dishes at the famous Fat Duck Restaurant.

In 2005, The Fat Duck was voted the Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine and it sports the maximum three stars in the Michelin Guide. The Fat Duck is about an hour outside of London, along the M4 motorway in the village of Bray and Berkshire, England. And there, in the kitchen of his modest country house you'll find The Fat Duck's chef and owner, Heston Blumenthal.

Now after 11 years of experimenting with food from a scientific - some might say bizarre - approach, Heston Blumenthal is on a new journey. He wants to find the perfect recipe for simple classic dishes, like pizza, steak, and fish and chips.

Well, we invite you to join in. when you make your comfort food classic, what makes yours special? What makes it perfect? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@NPR.org.

Heston Blumenthal is with us from the studios at the BBC in Chelmsford, England. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. Blumenthal?

Mr. HESTON BLUMENTHAL (Author, “In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics”): Yes.

CONAN: Welcome. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Hi, Neal. How you doing?

CONAN: Very well. And I have to -

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Just going to say Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Well, a very different holiday here than it - and, of course, it's not even celebrated there.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: No.

CONAN: I never understood, why. Maybe it's because that's the place they came from. Anyway. I have to begin by saying this search for these - these are really comfort food that you're writing about. Very different from what you serve in The Fat Duck restaurant.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yes, very different. What was interesting is when we looked at this, there were dished that we've kind of grown up with in Britain and made our own. And in a couple of instances there are dishes where we've taken the original authentic and we've changed it over like a 20,30 year period. It's just something that - in the case of Black Forest gateau is actually nowhere near as nice as the original one was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, gateau, of course, is the universal English word for what we call in America - cake.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Cake, that's correct.

CONAN: And what corrupted Black Forest cake?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, the original combination - the mixture of wonderful chocolate, great cherries, delicately scented with Kirsch and a little bit of lightly whipped cream is a marriage made in heaven. Now over the years, what we've managed to do in Britain was take glace cherries, really cheap alcohol, over whipped cream, and cheap nasty chocolate.

And by the time you mix all those together, you've actually got something which is very, very far removed from the original. Also there's so much over whipped cream. And I'm not sure if Black Forest people eat Black Forest gateau in the States at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: But in Britain it was one of those things I grew up with that was always - came out at a special occasion and it was on a paper plate and it was frozen. And you associated it with weddings or birthdays, but no one ever ate it because it was awful.

CONAN: Interestingly, what you've done in this book is go back and find the histories of these foods as they were actually developed and then present us with what should be the real recipe for something like Black Forest cake.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, we actually went over to Baden-Baden in the Black Forest, which is the home of the Black Forest gateau and went to a case factory. And we went to see a pastry chef whose family had been making Black Forest gateau for years. And we went to the place that supposedly the original Black Forest gateau was made.

And it was quite a different affair, so we came back with all of that information and sourced the best chocolate we could and the best cherries and then we just set about making this cake. And what's sort of interesting about making a lot of pastry works, particularly, cakes - it's quite similar to architecture. You need to look at it as you would do building a house - put all the thick heavy durable stuff on the bottom and all the really light stuff on top. Otherwise when you cut into it, you end up with a bit of a squashed mess.

CONAN: It's not going to stand up to the rigors of being served.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, exactly. And then we - we did a couple of interesting additions to the cake, and one of them was at the restaurant, we'd been serving these aerated chocolates made - we've got a vacuum oven in the kitchen, and you suck the air out of the oven, and the chocolate rises like a soufflé, and then it sets, and you get these wonderful bubbles, and we put some mandarin essential oil so you get this explosion of mandarin flavor. But of course, this recipe has to be doable at home.

CONAN: Right, and not many of us have that oven.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Exactly. So we set about with all the alternatives, and we ended up with a vacuum cleaner and those sealable bags that you put your bed linen in when you want to store them for a few months.

CONAN: Yes, yeah.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Well, you melt the chocolate and put it into a Tupperware container, make a little hole in the top, pop it in one of these sealable bags and then stick the nozzle of a powerful vacuum cleaner over the valve, and as it sucks the air out of the bag and the container, it sucks the chocolate up, and it rises like a soufflé. You then close the valve and leave it in the fridge, and you've got this wonderful aerated chocolate.

CONAN: Wow. I bet that might even work.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. We broke a few containers on the way. I just don't want to be blamed for people ruining their vacuum cleaners. But if you do it - if you follow the instructions, it's fine.

CONAN: I was also interested. You go back to something - obviously black forest cake, gateau is some special thing in England. Roast chicken and potatoes, I think, is certainly universal in this country, as well. And I was interested -first of all, you go to a lot of attention finding the very best free-range chicken you can find and then testing which type of potatoes it turns out will roast the best.

Now obviously, the selection's going to be different in this country than you might get in England, but nevertheless, the technique that you say this is how to go about finding out which one is the best, that's going to work anywhere.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Well, that was an amazing piece of information that we discovered. We went to see a company that analyzed potatoes, and you might say gosh, life's too short. Why on earth would you want to analyze a potato? It's just a potato. But potatoes consist of something called dry matter, and dry matter's everything that's not water, basically. And if the dry matter is high, then the potato will roast well and be crisp. If the dry matter's low, it means it's got a lot of water in it, and then it's really hard to get crisp potatoes with low dry matter.

So we then tested 30-plus varieties of potato that we knew the dry matter of, and we literally got that - you know, when I explain this, I really do think I need to get more often because it sounds worse when I'm listening to the words coming out of my mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: But we did find like a 1 percent band of dry matter where you get the most incredible potatoes. And I just think that -

CONAN: So you found the Goldilocks potato, the just-right potato?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: We did. It was a magic potato, the Holy Grail of the spud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But it sounds like this - this is an extension. You describe yourself as a self-taught cook, but you use a lot of scientific method in your kitchen. It's funny, we ended up our previous conversation talking a lot about science in cooking.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yes, actually, and indeed, Jose Andres is spot on when - I mean, I agree wholeheartedly with him when he's talking about the fact that when we cook, there are physical and chemical reactions that happen, and it's not about going into the kitchen with a lab coat and clip board, but it's just - if we could understand some of these reactions, it does make life in the kitchen and gives you more confidence. Also, it opens up a few more doors of sort of creativity and experimentation.

CONAN: We're asking listeners today to call up with whatever it is that makes their comfort food special that makes it a classic. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@NPR.org. And let's turn to Marsha(ph), Marsha's with us from Chico in California.

MARSHA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MARSHA: And I haven't made this for quite a long time, but I'm always interested to hear if people have heard about it. When I was growing up in the Midwest, we had often for Saturday afternoon lunch what my mom called goldenrod eggs. And it's actually something that was such a comfort food. I made it for my husband when we were first married.

I'm a cardiologist, so I don't make it very often now, but it was a white sauce, kind of a medium white sauce made in the top of a double boiler. It had peanut butter added. I think it may have come out during the Second World War when protein was in short supply. Then you would chop up hard-boiled eggs, mix them in, reserve a little bit of the yolk, and then grate that on top, and it was served on either toast or crackers for Saturday afternoon lunch.

CONAN: And called goldenrod eggs.

MARSHA: Goldenrod eggs. Every once in a while, I run into someone who knows that.

CONAN: And goldenrod, of course, grows naturally not just in the Midwest but like a weed all over the country.

MARSHA: And the goldenrod only had to do with the egg yolks - the cooked egg yolks that was grated on top.

CONAN: So it's like the famous egg-cream drink that contains neither egg nor cream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARSHA: I think so.

CONAN: I wonder, Heston Blumenthal. Goldenrod eggs. Are we going to see that on the menu at The Fat Duck anytime soon?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I've definitely never come across them before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I'm just thinking - I'm just picturing tasting them, the mixture of peanut butter and egg. Is it quite - is it sweet, is it quite sweet, or is it - ?

MARSHA: No, not really, and it would've been peanut butter without sugar. So it would be just a richer - you know, it didn't - I didn't even know white sauce much other than with that, but it would've been a richer, you know, sort of thicker white sauce.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I am certainly really interested to try it. As I said, I've never come across it before.

MARSHA: And I haven't found recipes for it, either.

CONAN: Well, Marsha, we may have unleashed something we may all regret sometime soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARSHA: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. Happy Thanksgiving.

MARSHA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking today with Heston Blumenthal. He is the author of In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics and proprietor of The Fat Duck restaurant, which is located in Bray in Berkshire in England, voted last year the best restaurant in the world.

If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, or zap us an e-mail: talk@NPR.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Betty(ph), Betty's with us from the road in North Carolina, a lot of people traveling today.

BETTY (Caller): Yes. My family had Thanksgiving in Charlotte for lunch, and I just left, and I'm heading to Columbia, South Carolina to have another Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Well, you drive carefully. We all know what that tryptophan can do to you.

BETTY: Yes, yes. This is - our comfort food is mashed potatoes. But in our family, we also love deviled eggs. And I started doing something a couple years ago, and it might not be so strange, but I put sour cream as well as the mayonnaise and mustard in my deviled eggs. And it was a huge hit.

And I started trying to put sour cream - I put sour cream in my mashed potatoes, and they're great.

CONAN: So the secret, I guess -

BETTY: (Unintelligible) ever did that.

CONAN: Betty's secret, Heston Blumenthal, is when in doubt add sour cream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, I have to admit doing something as a kid, which you've just reminded me of, and I don't think I've ever shared this with anybody.

BETTY: I'm sorry?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I don't know if I've ever shared this next piece of information with anybody, not for years. When I was about 10, 12 years old, I used to love the combination of potatoes, sour cream, butter, horseradish and a little bit of mayonnaise heated up. So it doesn't sound too far removed from what you're talking about.

BETTY: It really does add a very distinct, different flavor to them, especially the deviled eggs, and it doesn't make them too tangy, but it give them a different richness.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah.

CONAN: And if there's any cardiologists in the audience, they can start signing you up now.

BETTY: Well, I'm thoroughly enjoying your show while I'm on the road, and I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Well thank you, and one down and one to go, Betty, for you.

BETTY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go to - this is Nicky(ph), Nicky's with us from San Antonio. Hey, Nicky, are you there?

NICKY (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

NICKY: Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: Happy Thanksgiving to you.

NICKY: My favorite comfort food, and what we've done to make it special, is tuna noodle casserole. But along with all of your regular ingredients and your cheeses and everything, we add about a cup of mayonnaise, at least one full brick of cream cheese and dill to taste.

CONAN: Dill to taste.

NICKY: Dill.

CONAN: No that's - I don't know about you, I would not think of dill with tuna, Heston Blumenthal.

NICKY: I stumbled across it by accident, actually, but it actually worked very, very well.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well dill is quite a classic fish accompaniment and does work very well - I can imagine it working very well with that dish.

NICKY: It's very rich, though. It will clog your arteries if you eat it too often.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Just go for more runs, more jogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah, this is - the day after Thanksgiving used to be the biggest shopping day in the year, but it certainly is the biggest day for everybody to start running. Nicky, thanks very much for the call. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

NICKY: You, too. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's another - we heard about adding sour cream. My mother, writes David(ph), my mother always told me everything tasted better when you added a stick of butter. Want a great turkey, he writes? Smear a stick of butter on its skin. Want great mashed potatoes? Add a stick of butter. In fact, if I was going to open a restaurant, I'd call it a stick of butter. Is that the genesis of The Fat Duck?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: We don't actually - we're not overly heavy on the use of butter, although I have to say mashed potato with a really generous percentage of butter, you can't go wrong with that.

CONAN: Now when you're making mashed potatoes, do you mash them with a physical masher, do you whip them? How do you do it?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: This is an interesting point. For the program, when we decided to tackle bangors and mash - I don't know if you know the term bangor.

CONAN: I lived in England for four years, so I'm quite familiar with the sausage known as bangor.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Bangor is a particular type of British sausage. Now, I thought, putting my gastronomic chef's hat on, okay bangors and mash is going to be a wonderful, ethereal, silk-like potato puree with loads of butter and a sausage like a Toulouse-style sausage, which is more of a chartreucerie(ph) piece. It's a real work of art.

But when we started doing the program and tasting sausages, I realized that it just wasn't bangors and mash, and the mash needed to be - mashed potato needed to be not the wonderful, silk-like puree that we make in the restaurant, but it needed to be slightly lumpy, so it's mashed by not completely pureed - pockets - I don't know if you can imagine eating - this same effect with a baked potato, where you've got cold butter melting on the potato, and you've got that mixture of the hot potato and the cold butter with this wonderful film of just slightly melted butter at the top, that is - and some black pepper, cracked black pepper, and some grains of salt. That for me was just - I'm actually making myself hungry talking about it.

But that is - it's interesting. There's no dictionary term or law as to what mash is, but it just seemed right to me that that's what I wanted for the bangors and mash.

CONAN: He writes about all of these classic meals in a book called In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics. Our guest, Heston Blumenthal, is also the proprietor of The Fat Duck. And In Search of Perfection, that's going to be a series on BBC TV?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yes it is. It's just started, and it runs until Christmas.

CONAN: Well, it'll be here soon. I have a strong feeling about that. Happy Thanksgiving, even though you don't know what it is, and we appreciate your time today. Good luck to you.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Thanks a lot, thanks Neal.

CONAN: Heston Blumenthal joining us today from the BBC studios in Chelmsford, England. Ira Flatow's here tomorrow with Science Friday; we'll see you Monday.

I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Recipe: Spaghetti Bolognese

Read Heston Blumenthal's recipe for Spaghetti bolognese.

As you might expect from a classic of the Italian kitchen, this involves no special equipment, just a long, slow simmer to allow the flavours to combine. However, I’ve added in a few things to boost those flavours. Caramelising onions with star anise produces vibrant flavour compounds that really enhance the meaty notes of the sauce, and the oaky quality of the chardonnay complements the sherry vinegar in the tomato compote. Finishing the compote on a high heat captures something of the fried character I enjoyed at Trattoria della Gigina. The use of milk might seem strange but it’s a standard part of many Italian ragù recipes: as it cooks, the proteins and sugars in milk react to give extra flavour and body.

 

Timing: Once the meat is browned and the caramelised onions are ready (an hour’s work at most) the sauce is virtually left to simmer unattended for 8 hours. Do the prep first thing in the morning and then the day’s your own until it’s time to serve up dinner (especially if you prepare the tomato compote in advance, though even this involves a fairly simple preparation, followed by a slow, carefree simmer). You can even do all the cooking of the Bolognese in advance, then simply warm it through and add the tarragon bouquet garni on the day.

 

For the sauce base:

125ml extra virgin olive oil

250g oxtail, boned and minced

250g pork shoulder, cut into 1cm cubes

375ml oaked chardonnay

1 star anise

2 large onions (about 450g), finely sliced*

2 large cloves of garlic

2 large onions (about 450g), finely diced

3 large carrots (about 400g), finely diced

3 celery stalks (about 125g), finely diced

250ml whole milk

 

For the tomato compote:

975g ripe tomatoes

1 tsp salt

200ml extra virgin olive oil

3 large cloves of garlic

1 large onion (about 225g), finely diced

1 heaped tsp coriander seeds

1 star anise

3 cloves

4-5 drops Tabasco

4-5 drops Thai fish sauce

2 tsps Worcestershire sauce

1 heaped tbsp tomato ketchup

30ml sherry vinegar

1 bouquet garni (consisting of 7 sprigs of

fresh thyme and 1 fresh bay leaf)

F  or the finished spaghetti Bolognese:

1 batch of tomato compote

100g good quality spaghetti per person

sherry vinegar, to taste

Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano)

1 bouquet garni (in a sheet of leek, wrap 6

tarragon leaves, 4 sprigs of parsley and

the leaves from the top of a bunch of

celery)

unsalted butter

extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Preparing the Sauce Base

Place a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Crush the star anise and bag it up in a square of muslin. Add this to the pan, along with 25ml oil and the sliced onions. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the onions are soft and caramelised, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

 

2. Meanwhile, preheat another large, heavybottomed frying pan over a low heat for 5 minutes. Mince the garlic. Pour 50ml oil into the pan, then tip in the garlic, onions, carrots and celery and cook this soffritto over a medium- low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the raw onion smell has gone. Transfer the soffritto to a bowl and wipe clean the pan.

 

3. Place the pan over a high heat for 10 minutes. Pour in 50ml olive oil and wait until it starts smoking: it must be hot enough so the meat browns rather than stews. Add the cubed pork and the minced oxtail. Stir until browned all over. (To brown properly, all the meat has to touch the surface of the pan. If it doesn’t, do it in batches.) Tip the browned meat into a sieve over a bowl (to allow the fat to drain off), then transfer the meat to a large pot or casserole. Deglaze the pan by adding a splash of wine, bringing it to the boil, and then scraping the base of the pan to collect all the tasty bits stuck to the bottom. Once the liquid has reduced by half, pour it into the large pot containing the meat.

 

4. Remove the bag of star anise from the caramelised onions and then tip the onions into the large pot containing the meat. Add the remaining wine and deglaze the frying pan (as in step 3). When the wine has reduced by half, pour it into the large pot. Add the soffritto to the pot as well.

 

5. Place the pot of Bolognese over a very low heat. Pour in the milk and enough water to cover entirely, and simmer very gently without a lid for 6 hours, stirring occasionally. At all times the ingredients should be covered by the liquid, so be prepared to add more water. (Don’t worry if the milk becomes slightly granular: it won’t affect the end result.)

 

Preparing The Tomato Compote

1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Fill a large bowl with ice-cold water. Remove the cores from the tomatoes with a paring knife. Blanch the tomatoes by dropping them into the boiling water for 10 seconds and then carefully removing them to the bowl of ice-cold water. Take them out of the water immediately and peel off the split skins. (If the tomatoes are not ripe enough, make a cross with a sharp knife in the underside of each, to encourage the skins to come away. They can be left in the hot water for an extra 10 seconds or so, but it’s important that they don’t overheat and begin to cook.)

 

2. Cut the tomatoes in half vertically. Scoop out the seeds and the membrane with a teaspoon, over a chopping board. Roughly chop the seeds and membrane, then tip them into a sieve over a bowl. Sprinkle over the salt and leave for 20 minutes to extract their juice, after which you can discard the seeds and membrane, reserving only the juice. 3. Roughly chop the tomato flesh and set aside.

 

4. Meanwhile, place a large, heavy-bottomed pan over a low heat. Add 100ml of the olive oil. Mince the garlic, then put it into the pan along with the onion. Cook for 10–15 minutes, until soft but not coloured.

 

5. Crush the coriander and put it in a muslin bag, along with the star anise and the cloves. Add it to the softened onions and garlic.

 

6.Take the juice drawn from the tomato seeds and membrane and add it to the onions and garlic along with the tomato flesh.

 

7. Add the Tabasco, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup and sherry vinegar. Drop in the bouquet garni and cook over a low heat for 2 hours.

 

8. To add a roasted note to the compote, add the remaining oil and turn up the heat to high. Fry the compote for 15–20 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure it doesn’t catch, then pour off any olive oil not absorbed by the compote. Set aside a little to coat the cooked pasta. ( The rest can be stored in a jar and makes a great base for a salad dressing. The compote itself will keep in the fridge for a week.)

 

Cooking The Spaghetti Bolognese

1. Stir the tomato compote (including the bag of spices) into the Bolognese sauce and cook over a very low heat for a final 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

 

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil for the pasta. For every 100g of pasta, you’ll need 1 litre of water and 10g salt. (If you don’t have a large enough pan it’s essential to use two pans rather than overcrowd one.)

 

3. Put the spaghetti into the pan, give it a stir, then bring back to the boil and cook until the pasta is just tender but with a bite. Check the cooking time on the packet and use that as a guideline, but taste it every few minutes as this is the only way to judge when the pasta is ready.

 

4. Before taking the Bolognese sauce off the heat, check the seasoning and then add some sherry vinegar (tasting as you go) to balance the richness of the sauce. Add a generous grating of Parmesan (but not too much, as it can make the sauce overly salty) and remove the sauce from the heat. Take out the original thyme and bay bouquet garni and the bag of spices. Replace these with the parsley and tarragon bouquet garni, stir in 100g of unsalted butter and let the sauce stand for 5 minutes.

 

5. Once the pasta is cooked, drain, and rinse it thoroughly. Return to the pot to warm through. (Since the ragù is not going to be mixed with the pasta, it needs to be rinsed to prevent it becoming starchy and sticking together.) Add a generous knob of butter (about 50g per 400g of pasta) and coat with olive oil and the reserved oil from the final frying of the compote. To serve, wind portions of pasta around a carving fork and lay them horizontally in wide, shallow bowls. Top with the Bolognese sauce and finish with a grating of Parmesan.