When it comes to memorable food scenes in holiday movies, dinner is the crown jewel of the holiday feast; breakfast scenes are relegated to the shadows. An overcooked turkey might fart noxious gas in Christmas Vacation or a pack of incorrigible hounds might gobble a roast in A Christmas Story, sure, but these movies play on well known tropes of the holiday table. Not so with Elf. The 2003 romp starring Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf brought us a new classic—but perhaps more importantly, it also pushed the boundaries of what can be considered holiday food.
The movie traces Buddy’s journey from the North Pole to New York City as he attempts to rekindle a relationship with his estranged father, and along the way it cleverly weaves in zany trivia about elf culture. Over a pasta dinner on the night of his arrival, Buddy is surprised to find that there is no maple syrup at the table. He hunts in his sleeves until he finds a small bottle of syrup, which he pours onto his bowl of spaghetti. “You like sugar, huh?” his stepmother observes wryly, and we learn that syrup—along with candy, candy canes, and candy corns—is one of the four main elfin food groups.
Like that horrible turkey in Christmas Vacation, part of its humor is the gross-out factor—but I wondered if maple syrup on pasta actually had to be gross. I set out to test my hunch that there had to be a way to make maple syrup and pasta come together in the glorious union that Buddy the Elf promised us.
Initially, I thought about using maple syrup to roast some vegetables that I could toss with pasta, but that seemed like a cop-out. We actually get to see Buddy prepare himself breakfast at one point: Spaghetti doused in mini marshmallows, candy, sprinkles, and chocolate syrup. For this to be a real homage, the syrup and pasta had to come together.
The most appetizing and logical place to start was with a basic carbonara. The egg and bacon pasta dish already had two breakfast components, and I thought back to mornings in the college dining hall when the maple syrup I would douse my pancakes in would seep into my scrambled eggs. The combination was pleasant when I was an 18-year-old with an iron stomach. How bad could it be at six years later?
I used a trusty New York Times recipe as a base, but I only eat meat once a month or so, so I swapped in my favorite salty pork product (prosciutto, which I had in the fridge) in for the recommended guanciale. You could also use any type of bacon. I also adjusted the number of eggs from four to one because I was cooking only for myself and threw in a splash of cream that was left over from a Thanksgiving recipe I’d cooked a few days earlier.
The most important decision was how to incorporate the maple syrup, and how much to use. Initially I thought about candying the prosciutto, but decided that that was the coward’s way out. Buddy the Elf doused his pasta with syrup, and damn it, so would I. While combining the cheese, eggs, and cream, I added a healthy tablespoon of maple syrup. As soon as the pasta was cooked, I tempered the egg mixture with a little water from the pot and tossed everything together in a warm pan. The moment of truth had come.
At this crucial step, I realized that I had made an error in judgment. Carbonara is temperamental; you have to time everything just right so that you can cook the egg without scrambling it, and it needs to be eaten right away. The festive brunchy Elf viewing I had envisioned vanished, replaced by me frantically ordering my guests to eat their carbonara before it cooled. If you’re going to have a pasta breakfast viewing of Elf, I’d recommend doing so alone with your laptop where no one can stand in the way of perfect carbonara timing, or with someone willing to indulge you.
After taking a bite, I was surprised at how delicious maple syrup is with pasta. The sweetness was faint but noticeable, and a welcome counterpoint to the saltiness of the parmesan and prosciutto and the spicy bite of black pepper. It could even stand to have a touch more maple syrup. Next time I’d triple the amount, or cook the carbonara normally and add a maple drizzle on top. The combination might be unorthodox, but the contrast between sweet and savory couldn’t be more classic. Buddy’s sugary diet might have started as a joke, but in addition to expanding our sense of what meals can become holiday feasts, maple syrup can be totally delicious with pasta.