Thursday 16 April 2009

Recipe: Fennel Sformatino

Sformato used to be a dirty word in this house, on the basis of one (made from Cardoons) that was served many years ago at a Christmas Eve dinner party outside Colle Val d'Elsa. Sludge-like in appearance, it had the texture of baby food and a composite flavour that could have been anything or nothing. It did the concept of Sformato a terrible injustice, and for a very long time even the very word raised a wrinkled lip of disdain in these quarters. Until now.

Recently, I came across a recipe for Fennel Sformato, given by Anna del Conte in her excellent 'Secrets from an Italian Kitchen' which has completely reversed that prejudice. The version given here is an adaptation of that recipe, and is light, and completely delicious. Sformatino, by the way, is just the linguistic consequence of making sformato in smaller, individual portions.

The fact that the cooked fennel is partly chopped and partly puréed is important - it retains some texture in the finished dish, and saves it from being merely pap. The choice of sauce is mine - you can replace it with any sauce you might prefer that you think would work with this dish.

For Two Sformatini.

Ingredients: 250g Fennel; 30g Butter; 100 ml milk; 15g Flour; pinch of Nutmeg; 1 Egg; 20g grated Parmesan; 1 tbs dried breadcrumbs (see recipe re this ingredient); 30g Gorgonzola piccante; 1/4 cup of Cream; Salt & Pepper.


1. Slice the Fennel thinly, sauté it for five minutes in half of the butter, melted in a sauté pan, then season with Salt & Pepper, add half of the Milk, and simmer, covered, for twenty minutes or so - until the Fennel is cooked through.

2. Drain the Fennel, and discard any remaining cooking liquid. Purée half of it in the food processor, and chop the other half by hand into fine dice. Combine the two Fennel mixtures in a bowl.

3. Melt the remaining Butter in a double boiler or simmertopf . Stir in the Flour, and then add the remaining Milk; cook, stirring, for five minutes or so, to make a thickish bechamel. Add to this a pinch of Nutmeg, then add the sauce to the Fennel.

4. Add the beaten Egg and the Parmesan to this mixture; mix very thoroughly, then test and adjust seasoning to taste. Put into two prepared ramekins (if you use Trennwax on the ramekins, no breadcrumbs are necessary; if you butter the ramekins instead, however, then it's a good idea also to dust them with fine breadcrumbs in order to facilitate subsequent unmoulding)

5. Place the ramekins in a bain marie, and bake for about 30 minutes in 190 degree C oven - when cooked, the tops will be slightly browned, and the sformatini will have swelled slightly. Let sit for five minutes before unmoulding them onto heated plates to serve.

6. Meanwhile, gently heat the Gorgonzola and Cream together to make the sauce, one spoonful of which should go onto each sformatino.

Sunday 12 April 2009

Schacciata di Pasqua

Not sure how I'd missed it before, but it appears that there's a traditional Italian Easter Cake - 'Schacciata di Pasqua' by name. It resembles a large button mushroom, and is flavoured with aniseed. Beyond that, sadly, there's nothing much to be said for it. Being naturally cynical, I strongly suspect that this Schacciata isn't so much a time-honoured tradition, as a construct on the part of the Panettone manufacturers, who were casting around for ways of making money once the Christmas-Panettone rush was over. Yet another example of the 'fakelore' impulse which has seen the appearance all over Italy of so-called ancient customs, most of which involve the locals inappropriately wearing moth-eaten 'medieval' costumes and performing some specious activity in order to part gullible tourists from their money.

The Schacciata itself is fluffy and insubstantial, and the slice I ploughed through was a little like eating flavoured polystyrene. As with Panettone, I think probably the best use for the thing is as the base for a Bread & Butter Pudding.

Otherwise, I've come across something else, which probably has a greater claim as traditional Easter fare: Pasqualina. This is a double-crust pie, filled with a ricotta and swiss chard mixture in which whole raw eggs are placed before the top crust is fitted, and they set as the pie is baked. The only 'old' recipes I've found for Pasqualina use what seems an unnecessarily complicated (and heavy!) format of oiled layers of a rather dough-like pastry; I'm replacing that with a much lighter puff pastry, which should be considerably more digestible.

Watch this space...

Tonight's dinner:


Spezzatino alla Fiorentina

Bread & Butter Pudding (di Pasqua)