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During Tom’s and my recent trip to Rome, our hotel’s former broad, open breakfast buffet was displayed within glass cases and dispensed by gloved staff members. (Thanks, covid.) Among the generous array of breads, cakes, pastries, fruits, meats, and cheeses were slices of what looked like pound cake, which the servers encouraged us to have: “amor di polenta – very good – polenta cake.” I’d never heard of it, but we tried it, and indeed it was very good: a sweet, light, golden cornbread, unlike any I’d tasted before. It became a breakfast staple of our stay in Rome.

Back home, I wanted to learn to make this hitherto unknown treat, so I googled the name. Egad: Amor polenta recipes were all over the Web, in both Italian and English. Well! Time to make its acquaintance.
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I discovered that amor polenta is a specialty of Varese, a province in northern Lombardy. It’s much like a pound cake, made with only flour, butter, sugar, and egg: no other liquid. The intriguing flavor comes from a mixture of white flour, almond flour, and fine cornmeal.

I downloaded a few recipes for comparison and settled on this one to take as my model. Being in Italian, it lists ingredients in grams, so I began by measuring out the three flours on my kitchen scale: 100 grams (3.5 oz) of cornmeal, 80 grams (2.8 oz) of white flour, and 70 grams (2.5 oz) of almond flour.
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Then I took out my heavy-duty mixer – an appliance that the recipe calls a planetaria. Not a name I’d known. I imagine it must be because the beaters simultaneously rotate and orbit, like planets. I love the idea of having a planetarium in my kitchen! But I digress.

In the machine I whomped 100 grams (3½ oz) of softened butter with 120 grams (4.2 oz) of sugar, added two eggs, one at a time, and beat it all into a smooth cream. At this point, the recipe asked for the seeds of a vanilla bean to be stirred in. Instead, I used ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract.
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Next, I had to mix in the dry ingredients. The recipe insisted on their being added in sequence, with the mixer running: first, the cornmeal; second, the white flour; third, the almond flour. I can’t think why; maybe it’s something folkloric. But I did as prescribed. And ended with ½ teaspoon of baking powder. Finally, the recipe wanted 10 grams of rum stirred in. We don’t keep rum in the house, so I used a teaspoon of grappa.
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There is a special baking pan for amor polenta, which gives the traditional domed, ribbed slices visible in many of the google images above. Since I didn’t have one, I scraped my very dense batter into a buttered 10″x4″ loaf pan.
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The loaf baked for 45 minutes at 350° and developed a typical pound cake crack down the middle. (You wouldn’t see that if you used the amor polenta pan, since the loaf is turned out onto the plate upside down.) It was attractively golden and fragrant, but it hadn’t risen very high. (The recipe hadn’t indicated a size for the pan, so I guess mine was a little too large.)
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It had the fine taste and texture we remembered from Rome, confirming its seductive aroma. Lovely for breakfast, and no doubt will be excellent too with afternoon tea or coffee. The recipe suggested dusting the top with powdered sugar, but it was already sweet enough for us. I might even try a small adjustment next time: a slightly larger proportion of polenta flour and a small reduction in the sugar. No great matter: Even with no further tinkering, amor polenta could easily become a breakfast staple for us here at home.

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You couldn’t tell from reading my blog that Tom does a lot of cooking in our house. He does, though. Not big on following recipes, he’s a versatile utility cook. Soups, stews, steaks, chops, pasta, frittata, vegetables – let him look in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, and he’ll put together something good for a meal.

One of his big talents is hash. Tom sees hash as the perfect way to use leftovers to make another, different meal. No two of his versions are ever exactly the same, and he never measures ingredients, but all are a simple pleasure to eat. This week I watched with my camera while he made his latest concoction. Here’s what would be going into it:
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In the front, a few formerly fried potatoes, the last chunk of a good smoked ham, raw celery, and remnants of a roasted duck. In the back, two eggs, an apple, red onion, carrot, and raw potatoes. (The apple isn’t chopped yet, to keep it from turning brown.) As you see, he doesn’t feel hash needs to be overly heavy on meat.

The condiments, lined up in readiness, were Mexican hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.

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And so, to work. He started by parboiling the raw potatoes and carrots for 10 minutes.

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Drained, they went into a frying pan with the onion and celery, and gently sauteed in olive oil for about 10 to 15 minutes. No browning yet wanted.

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Next, he stirred in the ham, duck, and already fried potatoes, cooking the mixture slightly more briskly for another 10 minutes. Generous salt and pepper, plus splashes of Cholula sauce and Worcestershire went in at this point, and everything was vigorously stirred together.

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Finally came the apple and another vigorous stirring, followed by gentle cooking together for 10 to 20 minutes, until the mixture began browning on the bottom and forming a slight crust. The hash was ready.
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Then it was my turn to step in, to poach eggs to top the hash. You need very fresh eggs for poaching, to keep the whites neatly surrounding the yolks. On this day the eggs I had were pretty old, so as an experiment I put a pair of English muffin rings into the pan of simmering water and eased an egg into each one.
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I can’t say it worked completely well. Even though most of the whites stayed contained within the rings, some escaped and floated around wispily in the water. But it didn’t seem to hurt the eggs any.

So here is a plate of the day’s hash, crowned with its egg. The hash itself was richly flavorful, as always. The apple, which he’d never used in a hash before as far as I remember, gave  a nice little touch of sweetness to the succulence of the meats and vegetables. And the liquid egg yolk made its usual perfect sauce.
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Hail to the chef!

 

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Police inspector Salvo Montalbano, hero of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mystery novels, is an impassioned consumer of local foods, eating his way through dishes often fully described in the books. The latest volume gives Montalbano a role reversal: he goes undercover as the cook aboard a mega-yacht cruise that will be hosting an international criminal summit.

Readers, please note: If you haven’t read The Cook of the Halcyon but intend to, you might want to skip this post. I won’t be able to avoid spoilers.

Between the yacht’s crew and the guests, Montalbano will have to make meals for 12 people. To prepare for the role, he gathers recipes from his housekeeper, Adelina, and his restaurateur friend, Enzo. And he manages the cooking well, once on the ship – a fact that devoted Montalbano fans may find hard to credit, as he has never before been known to cook anything whatsoever. But so we are told.

On a critical day in the cruise, Montalbano makes a potato gâteau for the dinner’s first course. (In the book’s original Italian, the word may have been gattò.) He uses a big sack of potatoes, a dozen eggs, two kinds of cheese, ham, olives, and one very special item. The combination sounded interesting, so I thought I’d try to create a tiny version. Here are my ingredients.
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In the front are two ounces of chopped Castelvetrano olives, two ounces of chopped fontina cheese, and two ounces of chopped ham. Behind them are one egg white, one whole egg, and some grated Parmigiano. On the right, one pound of potatoes, mashed.

I beat the whole egg into the potatoes, spread half of them in a small buttered casserole dish, laid on the three chopped ingredients, and topped with grated cheese.

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I covered the filling with the remaining potatoes and spread the extra egg white over the top, as Montalbano did. My only divergence from his procedure was omission of the “very special item.” Verb. sap. sat.
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Montalbano baked his gâteau for half an hour, and his egg white topping became a brown glaze. We aren’t given an oven temperature, so I tried 350°. Not hot enough: after an extra 10 minutes, I raised the heat to 400°, and though my gâteau eventually firmed up well and even puffed a little, the glaze had spread unevenly and hardly colored at all.
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Nevertheless, it was a very tasty dish. On the plate, the potatoes and filling made a nicely varied flavor blend – piqued by the excellent Castelvetrano olives. The gâteau could certainly have stood alone as a first course, though it went very well alongside our sauteed fillets of sea bass.
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The only part of it we didn’t care for was the glaze, which was mostly a dry skin. Next time, instead of the egg whites, I’ll dot butter over the top layer of potatoes. This is a versatile dish that I can imagine pairing with almost any dry-cooked fish, fowl, or flesh. One could easily vary the filling ingredients, too.

P.S.  As readers of the book well know, Montalbano’s own gâteau was a truly memorable dish for the guests and crew of the Halcyon.

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If this summer’s Olympics had had an event for Dumb Cooking Mistakes, I’d have gotten a gold. It was by pure luck that I was able to salvage the very promising Italian vegetable dish on which I had committed the idiocy.

But let me tell it from the beginning.

From the collection of summer vegetables I’d written about here last week, there was one left of the small eggplants, still firm, plump, and shiny.
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I’d saved it to use for a recipe simply called Eggplant with Mozzarella, which I’d noticed for the first time while browsing the vegetable section of this little Neapolitan cookbook – another book I’ve had for years, where I can still discover treasures.

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Basically, you fry eggplant slices, sandwich a slice of mozzarella between each pair, and bake them in the oven with tomato sauce, beaten egg, and grated parmigiano for just 15 minutes. Seemed easy enough. I peeled and sliced my eggplant, salted the slices, and left them in a colander for half an hour to drain off some of their liquid.

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Then I pressed them dry in a cloth, floured them, and browned them well in olive oil.
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Here are half the slices, placed in the baking dish, topped with mozzarella, and awaiting the upper halves of the sandwiches. The sauce ingredients are sitting behind them. All well so far.
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But then I made my ridiculous blooper. This is what the recipe says:

Cospargere le melanzane ripiene con due uova battute con sale e pepe, qualche cucchiaiata di salsa di pomodoro e una spolverata di parmigiano grattugiato.

Now, in a well written English recipe, that might be given as “Beat two eggs with salt, pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano. Pour the mixture over the stuffed eggplant.”

But the phrasing of the Italian is, “Spread over the stuffed eggplant two eggs beaten with salt and pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano.” So what I did was add the three things one after the other. I somehow had the idea that they’d all blend together in the oven.
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Anyone with half a brain would have realized that wouldn’t happen. When I looked in after the dish was in the oven for a little while, everything still sat right where I’d put it and the egg was already firming up on its own. Aarrgh!

I pulled out the dish and quickly tried to scrape the tomato sauce and cheese off the eggplant, mix them into the half-scrambled puddle of egg, and spoon some of it back over the eggplant. Didn’t work all that well, but I put the dish back into the oven to finish its 15 minutes of baking.

It came out pretty sad looking.

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But the gods who take care of culinary idiots were on the job that day, because those little “sandwiches” were fabulous. Yes, you could see that the egg and tomato hadn’t come together properly, but in the mouth their flavors blended brilliantly. It was one of those magical “whole is better than the sum of the parts” creations. And it got even better as it cooled.

Tom had initially raised an eyebrow, but then we both scarfed down every bit. I was so relieved!

 

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A great pleasure of opening any of Martin Walker’s “Mysteries of the French Countryside” books is anticipation of the dishes that Bruno Courrèges, his police-chief detective, will be making for dinner guests in the intervals of solving crimes. Bruno’s kitchen work is described so fully, I’ve been able to recreate several of his recipes for myself – about which I’ve done posts, here and here.

This time Tom and I and the friend who shared those earlier occasions gathered to make a dinner based on two of Bruno’s recipes from The Shooting at Chateau Rock: a main course of chicken and a dessert of cherries. Earlier, I’d written up the book’s information on each dish, so we could make notes on scaling down and quantifying. This we did while having kirs, the aperitif that Bruno served.
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For our appetizer at the dinner table, we couldn’t match Bruno’s homemade pâté de foie gras, but we had a hearty chunk of peppercorn-crusted pâté de campagne, served with cornichons and mustard.
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Our main course was this dish of chicken thighs, which, owing to a peculiar omission in the book, might well have been called a “mystery of the French countryside” itself.
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For all the book’s detailed narrative of chopping shallots, garlic, and tarragon, softening them in butter in a casserole dish, adding wine and stock, bringing it to a simmer, covering and putting it in the oven for 45 minutes, it never said to put the chicken thighs in the pot.

I kid you not. All three of us had read and reread the book’s pages, and once the raw chicken thighs are salted and peppered on the kitchen counter, the next we hear of them is when they come out of the casserole to wait while the sauce is being finished.

Needless to say, we needed an intervention. When would Bruno have put the chicken in the casserole? We opted to brown ours quickly in butter at the beginning, took them out of the pan to wait while we softened the vegetables, and returned them in time for the addition of wine and stock. From there, we were able to return to the book’s “instructions.”

Finally, the pan juices were reduced, and the sauce was finished with crème fraiche and lemon zest. We served the chicken with a very plain rice pilaf, as Bruno did (plus green beans, which he didn’t). The whole dish was excellent, with just a touch of spicy-sweet tarragon in the creamy sauce.
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Bruno’s dessert was cherries (picked from his own tree, of course) lightly stewed with honey and topped with a custard made from crème fraiche and heavy cream. It sounded luscious. Alas, our version didn’t entirely succeed.
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We did take extreme care in the time and temperature for heating the two creams and in the continuous vigorous whisking, both when beating them into the eggs and when finishing the cooking. But our custard first refused to thicken, and then – slowly but inexorably – curdled. Too much heat, I fear. I’ve found custards made with milk much easier to work with, and baked custards are easiest of all. Wish we’d used a double boiler here!

Our dessert wasn’t quite ruined: The cherries were fine, and you could think of the topping as a kind of furry, sweetened ricotta. But it didn’t have the silky texture you expect in a custard. Still, well chilled, and with cherry juice drizzled over the top, it was a pleasant enough ending to the meal.

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And finally: Tom produced three white wines for us to drink in the course of the dinner. A Mâcon-Villages for the kirs, a Condrieu with the pâté, and an older Savennières with the chicken. He’s done a post about them on his blog.
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A cobbler can be a great fruit pastry for an ease-loving home baker. You do have to make and roll out dough but, unlike making a pie, you don’t have to fit a round of dough into the baking dish, fit another round over the fruit filling, trim and seal the two together, and shape an attractive rim.

The cobbler section of Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts opens with a two-page spread showing a rustic blackberry cobbler, made with dough merely partially folded over the berry filling, leaving large (artistically placed?) gaps.
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In the recipe headnote, the author declares this to be his favorite kind of cobbler. I’ve made and enjoyed his peach cobbler, so the prospect of an even tastier one was very tempting. And berries are easier to work with than other fruits: no peeling or slicing needed.

There were no fresh blackberries in my Greenmarket yet, so I bought a commercial pack. Happily, it contained three cups of berries, which was exactly right for a half recipe’s worth.

I usually make pastry in my heavy-duty mixer, but this recipe requires a food processor, because it calls for frozen butter and frozen vegetable shortening. That’s certainly a way to keep the dough cool, but I’ve never had trouble using just chilled fats and very cold water.  This should have been my first clue that Bailey’s favorite cobbler might require a bit more effort and complication than other, less special, ones.
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The processor noisily and laboriously turned the frozen fats, flour, and salt into a rough crumble. Then I had to trickle in more ice water than called for, in order to make it gather into a mass. Good thing the fat was frozen: in the process, the machine had thrown a lot of heat.
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The dough, shaped by hand into a ball, had to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. I used the time to clean the dough residue from the processor parts, which was harder than cleaning my stainless steel mixer bowl. Another clue? Hmpf!

When it was time to roll out the dough, I faced a mathematical question. If a whole recipe needs a circle of dough 15 inches in diameter, how big should the circle be for half a recipe? It was obvious that a half-sized circle – 7½ inches – would be too small, so I resorted to my trusty A = π r² formula and rolled the dough to 11 inches.
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Probably unnecessary precision, as I realized later. I could just have eyeballed the job. I think I was already a little spooked. Anyway, I draped the dough over a small pie dish and heaped the berries in the middle, adding sugar and dots of butter.
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Here I diverged from the recipe. For three cups of berries, it would have wanted six tablespoons of sugar – much too much, I thought. I gave it three tablespoons. Then, just before closing over the dough, I chickened out to the extent of one more tablespoon. In the upshot, that was unnecessary: Those berries were plenty sweet already.

Back to following directions, I folded the overhanging dough around the filling (it wasn’t supposed to cover completely), and sprinkled a little more sugar over the crust.
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The cobbler baked at 425° for 45 minutes, to come out lightly browned and bubbling – and with a large puddle of breakthrough juices. Hmpf again!
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Inartistically messy as it looked, my blackberry cobbler was delicious. Perhaps a bit too sweet for us, but richly berryish and with a firm, tasty crust. Well worth the amount of unexpected effort it took. (Though next time I might try making the crust with unfrozen fats.)
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The half of it that we couldn’t finish for dessert that evening made a sinfully good breakfast the next morning. That none of it lasted longer than that is a testimony to how much we enjoyed it.

 

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The herbs I planted on my building’s roof garden, which I mentioned in my last post, are doing well.

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Picking them has been perilous for a few weeks, because of a militant mockingbird that attacked anyone who stepped out onto the roof, which he considered his territory. At last, his babies have fledged and left the nest he was guarding up there, and I can tend my tiny herb garden in peace.

The herb that most needs frequent cutting back is the dill, which has been flowering so fast, it’d soon be setting seed and dying off. To help redirect its attention to new shoots, I snipped some of its feathery-leaved flowering stems to use in two recipes I made for the first time this week.
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Dakhini Saag: Spinach with Dill

This dish from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India is a specialty of Hyderabad, a city in southern India. Jaffrey says it’s “a simple but very flavorful spinach dish.” Given the number of ingredients listed in the recipe, I wasn’t sure I’d regard it as simple, but by the same token I could see it was certainly going to have a lot of flavors. It looked like fun.

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To begin, the spinach had to be wilted in boiling water, drained, cooled, and squeezed. Then I called my bespoke knife man into action, and he gallantly rose to the occasion. Clockwise from lower right, here are the spinach, chopped; sliced fresh spring onion; diced heirloom tomato; sliced Spanish onion; chopped dill; chopped garlic; salt, cumin seeds, turmeric, and red chili powder.
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Actually, once those components were prepared, the dish really was quite simple to make. First, I sauteed the cumin seeds, Spanish onion, and garlic for a few minutes over medium heat.
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Next, I lowered the heat, added the spinach, dill, salt, turmeric, and chili powder, and cooked all that for two minutes.
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Last, I stirred in the diced tomato and spring onion.
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Another two minutes’ cooking made the dish ready to eat.

And very good it was.The very first taste was purely moist, tender spinach, but each forkful opened in the mouth to reveal the flavors of the seasonings – mainly dill, but also subtle accents of spring onion, cumin, and chili. (The tiny cubes of tomato, being of necessity hothouse, served mostly for appearance.) A nice middle choice between plain spinach and a composed dish.
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Jennifer’s Dill Bread

Long ago, my friend Jennifer, with whom I’ve shared many recipes back and forth, gave me her hand-written one for dill bread. It had her small variations on a recipe that a family friend had given her even longer ago. I saved it in my big recipe binder, but this folksy American yeast bread made with cottage cheese never quite caught my interest enough to try. Now, with my dill needing to be used, it seemed to be time.

The recipe directions were simple in the extreme – they started with “Soften yeast in water. Combine all except flour.” The “all” was cottage cheese, sugar, salt, baking soda, minced onion, softened butter, an egg, and dill weed.
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Next was to add “enough flour to form a stiff dough.” Here, I had to go astray. The ingredient list said 2¼ to 2½ cups. In my heavy-duty mixer with the dough hook, 2½ cups of flour produced only a thick, heavy batter. I added more flour. And more. And more. (I think there was too much whey in my cottage cheese.) This is apparently supposed to be a no-knead dough, but mine was thoroughly kneaded by the time I achieved a dough thick enough to hold together in a ball.
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It rose nicely in a gently warmed, turned-off oven, though with all that extra flour, it took longer than the expected one hour to double in bulk.
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I punched the dough down, shaped it into a ball, and was then supposed to put it in an 8-inch round casserole to rise again. I don’t have a dish that size, so I substituted a buttered 8-inch pie tin and prayed that the free-standing loaf would support itself as it rose in the turned-off oven. It did.
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A bit over an hour of baking at a more moderate temperature than I usually use for breads (350°) produced a plump brown loaf. The final touch was to brush the crust with butter and sprinkle it with sea salt.

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Sliced, it revealed a soft, light crumb with a wheaty sweetness and a gentle fragrance of dill. (Might have been dillier if I hadn’t had to add so much extra flour.) It was good as a dinner bread, good for sandwiches, and good for morning toast. Although it will never replace my all-time favorite White Bread Plus from Joy of Cooking, this folksy recipe made a versatile and tasty loaf.
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A brief heat wave earlier this month made me think about a picnic. Normally, I can take picnic fixings up onto my building’s roof garden, but this spring a very aggressive mockingbird who has a nest somewhere up there has taken to dive-bombing anyone he regards as encroaching on his territory. His beak is sharp and his aim is good.

Oh, well. A picnic in the dining room can be pleasant too, and there we have air conditioning, comfortable chairs, and a good CD player. And no avian attackers.

One of Tom’s and my favorite dishes for hot-weather fare is a big salade niçoise. But it’s still too early in the season for the fully ripe field-grown tomatoes and freshly dug potatoes that the dish wants, so I looked for other cold-platter combinations.

It so happened that I had many new choices just then. My friend Betty, who was downsizing her book collection, had dropped off a pile of cookbooks for me to look at, in case I might want any of them. A 1986 volume called A Taste of Italy, by Antonio Carluccio, a British restaurateur, had a number of interesting looking recipes, including three new-to-me antipasto items that I made for my picnic platter.

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What you see here are raw-beef meatballs, eggs stuffed with tuna, eggplant rolls, an heirloom tomato (hothouse, but best I could find), and a wedge of sheep-milk ricotta. The green wisps around the edge of the plate are bits of cilantro that I managed to snip from a plant in my rooftop herb collection before the militant mockingbird chased me away.

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Uova Ripiene di Tonno

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Deviled eggs are a time-honored summer treat. I usually mash their yolks with whatever condiments I feel like pulling out of the refrigerator that day – mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, soy, Worcestershire, Cholula, pimentòn, capers, cornichons? This recipe, more restrained, calls for a lot of canned tuna and only a little mayonnaise, parsley, capers, and black pepper. That way, the balls of filling are the main component of the dish, the whites merely a casing. Especially if made with the rich Italian belly tuna called ventresca, it’s a tasty little dish. (The parsley was also from my roof, snuck out under the baleful eye of that bird.)

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Insalata di Carne Cruda

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While steak tartare is always eaten immediately after its preparation, the raw beef here is minced together with parsley and garlic; dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper; and held in the refrigerator for a whole day before being eaten. That made the lemon juice “cook” my beef like seviche, turning its bright red color to grayish pink and somehow flattening all its rich meatiness. The headnote calls this a popular Piedmontese recipe, but the versions of carne cruda that I know are made with veal, not beef; and lemon juice is added only at the last minute. For me, this was a terrible way to treat excellent sirloin.

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Involtini di Melanzane

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These eggplant rolls tasted better than they looked. My eggplant (store-bought; too early for local ones) had excessively well-developed seeds. Sliced thin, the flesh around its seeds had very little substance. Browned in olive oil, drained, and spread with a chopping of parsley, pine nuts, capers, and garlic, the slices were too fragile to roll properly. Folded over and baked for 20 minutes, they darkened too much at the ends and partially burst open at the middle. Annoying! But this treatment has promise. I’ll try it again, with a fresher, less mature eggplant that I’ll cut in somewhat thicker slices.

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All in all, though, that platterful made a nice first-of-the-year indoor picnic. So far, I’d call the score for this cookbook a hit, a miss, and a maybe. I’ve marked a dozen of its other recipes for trying someday, so we’ll see how that score changes over time. Good thing it doesn’t have a recipe for spit-roasted mockingbird!
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Naples’ church of Santa Chiara is world-famous for its exquisite 18th Century majolica-tiled cloister and garden.

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Dating from the same period, and similarly famous in Italy, is its culinary specialty: il gattò Santa Chiara. This is a savory bread-cake hybrid (gattò is an Italianization of the French gâteau) created by the nuns of the convent..

The yeast-raised dough is enriched with mashed potato, eggs, and lard, then speckled with meats and cheeses – most often cooked ham and mozzarella. There’s a gattò recipe in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but I haven’t been totally satisfied with the results, so this week I tried giving it a few tweaks.

 

On the morning of baking day, even before my coffee was ready, I started a yeast sponge, stirring together two teaspoons of dry yeast, two tablespoons of water, and two tablespoons of flour.

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The little bowl sat on the kitchen counter for two hours, until it was puffed and bubbly. Later in the morning, I prepared the other ingredients you see below: clockwise from top left, half a boiled russet potato, two beaten eggs, an ounce and a half of lard, three ounces of boiled ham, the risen sponge, and four ounces of mozzarella.

I’d increased my recipe’s quantities of all those items except the sponge.

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After beating the potato (mashed), the lard (melted and cooled), and the eggs into the recipe’s specified two cups of flour and teaspoon of salt, I let my heavy-duty mixer knead the dough. It smoothed out very readily, not needing any additional flour. The next step was to work in the ham and cheese, which I did by hand.
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The finished dough went into a greased nine-inch cake pan, which I covered and left on the countertop to rise. In two hours, it was threatening to overflow the shallow pan, so I wrapped it with a collar of aluminum foil before putting it in the oven at 350°.

 

After 40 minutes in the oven, it had turned a nice golden brown, though it hadn’t risen very much more.

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It took some persuasion to get it out of its pan, but eventually it emerged and allowed itself to be set on a rack to cool. It might be wise to use a springform pan next time.

That evening I warmed wedges of the gattò in the toaster oven and served them as our antipasto, along with slices of prosciutto.
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Sometimes gattò is served alongside simple grilled meats. I haven’t tried that, but the combination should be very good.

As a part of our antipasto, this loaf was quite tasty, as the warmth of the toaster oven intensified the ham and cheese flavors. The soft, dense crumb was almost cake-like, and the crust was pleasantly crunchy. I can’t say it was as fine as the loaves made by the nuns of Santa Chiara, but it was definitely an improvement on my previous version. And the next day, toasted and buttered gattò slices were very nice for breakfast.

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Though potato is the one food named in the title above, it refers only to the casing for a rich baked assortment of meats, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. In Italy’s Piedmont region, La Finanziera is an extravaganza of a stew, involving delicacies such as cockscombs, sweetbreads, and truffles. Applying the approach to more everyday ingredients still makes an excellent dinner dish.

This was the special dish I chose to match with the second of the 12 special wines Tom picked out from his collection to drink, one a month, this year. February’s wine was a 2001 Gaja Costa Russi – also from the Piedmont. I found the recipe on Italian Home Cooking, a blog by Stefano Arturi that I follow. Stefano is a London-based former restaurateur, cookbook author, and cooking teacher. His version of the timbale is an adaptation of one in Il Talismano della Felicità, the great seminal cookbook by Ada Boni. And mine is a slight adaptation of Stefano’s.

I want to show you what the finished dish should look like. (Regular readers may suspect why.) Here’s Stefano’s timballo di patate alla finanziera. The free-standing drum is made of mashed potatoes, with a crust of browned, buttery breadcrumbs. Quite a culinary feat!
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I was making my usual half amount of the recipe, which would still be too much for just two of us, but it wouldn’t have been feasible in a smaller quantity.

I started by preparing the potato. I boiled a big russet potato, mashed it, and mixed in beaten egg, grated parmigiano, ground nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
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My faithful knife man cut up the meats for me. I used luganega sausage, chicken gizzards already prepared in confit, and a small amount of veal sweetbread – not exactly what the recipe calls for, but all things I had on hand.
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In a sauté pan I softened minced onions in butter and olive oil, with bay leaf, sage leaf, ground cloves, cinnamon, crushed juniper berries, grated nutmeg, and black pepper. I added each of the meats in turn, cooking them gently, and ended by deglazing the pan with white wine.
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Earlier, I had soaked, softened, and cut up dried porcini mushrooms and also sliced a few fresh cremini mushrooms. Separately, I sautéed those, also in butter and olive oil, and stirred in the porcini soaking liquid and a little tomato paste.
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When I’d mixed the mushrooms and their juices into the meats, the timbale filling was ready and could be set aside. Now came the tricky part!

A bit intimidated by the prospect of using the recommended tall metal charlotte mold, I chose a broader, shallower Corning ware casserole dish. I slathered the interior heavily with softened butter and coated it with fine, dry, homemade breadcrumbs. On top of that I gingerly poured in some beaten egg, tilted the dish around until the egg covered all the crumbs, and followed with another coat of crumbs.
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Per the recipe directions, I put the mold into the freezer for a while, to make it easier for the potato lining to cling. Which it did, surprisingly easily: With wet fingers, it was just like applying modeling clay.
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In went the filling, with butter dotted on the top. Then a covering of the rest of the potato casing and yet more butter..

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I put the dish in a 350° oven with a sigh of relief. But I was not out of the woods yet. It was supposed to be done in 45 to 60 minutes, when the top was firm and golden. It firmed in about an hour, but it absolutely wouldn’t go golden. I gave it several extra minutes, then took it out anyway and let it rest for the indicated 10 minutes before unmolding.

Disaster! Even after loosening the sides, when I topped the dish with a serving plate and reversed the two, the timbale wouldn’t come out. With repeated shaking, the filling and some of its crust let go and spilled out. The original bottom layer of the crust was stuck to the dish and had to be pried out in chunks, to be laid over the filling.

I refuse to show you what the whole mess looked like. Instead, here’s one of the portions I rescued to put on our dinner plates.
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Despite its total collapse, the timbale was delicious. The meats and mushrooms had retained their individual characteristics, enhanced each other, and picked up more flavor from the gentle medley of spices, herbs, wine, and tomato. The potatoes – even the obviously overcooked layer from the bottom of the dish – had also taken on some of the shared flavors and were delicious too. And it all went perfectly with Tom’s special wine.

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I’d like to add that this dinner was special for us in two further ways. That day, we were celebrating Tom’s birthday, and also, we’d gotten our first Covid vaccine shots. Happiness and relief!

I do wonder why my timbale fell apart, though. Dish the wrong shape or made of the wrong material? Not enough butter or crumbs lining it? Potato layer too thin? Too long in the oven? Or just bad culinary luck?  Stefano, if you’re reading this, I’d be grateful for any thoughts you might have about that!

 

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