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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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Every now and then Tom and I do a cooking extravaganza with our friend Hope: a whole elaborate meal of some particular cuisine. The three of us cook together all afternoon and then sit down to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We’ve had splendid Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and French dinners that way. This time we decided to stay in the USA – selecting four recipes from Patrick O’Connell’s book Refined American Cuisine. O’Connell is the owner-chef of The Inn at Little Washington, an extremely luxurious small hotel and renowned restaurant in Virginia. Tom and I had had the pleasure of a two-days’ stay there as a retirement gift from my company. Our meals were extraordinary, so of course I had to buy the cookbook. I hadn’t actually tried any of its recipes before now. The book is as glamorous as the Inn, with mouth-watering photos. In each section below, the book’s photo of the dish is on the left, and a picture of our version is on the right.     .

Watercress Soup

soups.

This soup starts with a parmentier-like base of potatoes and onions cooked in chicken stock. Lots of watercress quickly wilted in a bit of oil goes in, and the mixture is cooked some more, pureed, and finished with cream and butter. (Tom heroically washed and trimmed what seemed like a bushel of watercress.) It was a very smooth, tasty soup, and even more vibrantly green than the book photo. An auspicious start to the meal.

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Truffle-Dusted Maine Diver’s Scallops on Cauliflower Puree

two scallops

Here we began to diverge from the book’s presentation. As you can see, we skipped the herbed potato crisp that perches atop the book’s scallop; it was too much complicated work for something purely decorative. Also, we took advantage of O’Connell’s permission to substitute whole black sesame seeds for the minced-truffle coating of the sautéed scallops.

The cauliflower puree also has potato, heavy cream, and butter. The sauce around the outside starts with a syrupy reduction of red wine and balsamic vinegar with shallot. Then many bits of butter are added, in a beurre-blanc-like technique. Our scallops weren’t actual divers, just the biggest sea scallops we could find. Not as perfectly shaped as the book’s, but perfectly tasty. The sesame seeds mostly just added texture, but the cost differential made them a better choice for us than a black truffle.

Our sauce was a lot darker than the book’s, probably because the reduction got away from us at the end, producing something more tarry-looking than syrupy. But the butter smoothed it out to a good consistency. There was much more puree than the book’s picture indicates, but that was all right because it was good. It liked the wine-reduction sauce, as did the scallops. This was a little gem of a dish, but it did exact a huge amount of work.

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Pistachio-Crusted Lamb Chops on Rutabaga Rösti with Gingered Carrot Sauce

lamb I’ll say at the start that this was a delicious way to do a rack of lamb. But the book photo is totally unrealistic – a food stylist’s fantasy. There are no Brussels sprouts, whole carrots, or watercress in the recipe. If you look at the boned-out chops on the rear right (where the pistachios are placed on top, which is not where they’d be if you’d followed the directions), they’re thick enough to be filet mignons. If that’s a portion for one, the rest of the diners would receive mighty skimpy plates. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely treatment for meat.

The lamb rack is partially roasted, then coated with a slurry of Dijon mustard and brown sugar, rolled in chopped pistachios, and roasted again for 10 minutes before being carved into chops. To our surprise, the large amount of brown sugar instantly dissolved in the mustard, providing just a light touch of sweetness to mellow the bite of the mustard and the nuttiness of the pistachios. The sauce is an intense reduction of carrot juice and fresh ginger root, finished with crème fraiche – unusual and surprisingly good on the lamb. Let me tell you, though, it takes a long time to reduce a pint of carrot juice to half a cup!

The rutabaga rösti was the weakest part of the preparation. It’s hardly visible in the book’s picture, probably because it isn’t picturesque – as our photo makes only too clear. Grated potato, rutabaga, and onion are formed into cakes and sautéed in butter. Good potato pancakes are tricky to get right, and the added moisture of the rutabaga (my least favorite root vegetable) made these cakes almost soggy, despite our efforts to get them crisp and crunchy. And of course the ensemble is all in tones of brown, which – despite that fact that much good food is that color – is anathema to professional food photography.

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Pear Tart

tarts

By the time our initial menu planning had gotten to dessert, we figured we’d better pick something easy. One of O’Connell’s recipes is a pear trio – a tart, a soufflé, and a sorbet. We did the tart alone: Pears poached in sugar syrup flavored with star anise and cinnamon, sliced and fanned out over a plain pastry base, and glazed after baking with pear jelly.

Though the little tarts took three times as long to bake as the recipe said, we were pleased enough by the way ours looked. (That is, considering that the chocolate syrup in the book’s picture is not in the recipe; it didn’t specify puff pastry, as shown there; and I don’t have a pear-shaped cookie cutter.) But to our dismay the pears tasted as if they had come straight out of a can. Maybe my star anise was too old. Maybe I should have bought Boscs instead of Bartletts. Maybe we should have poached them in wine instead of water. Fortunately, we’d had enough palatal stimulation from the first three courses of the dinner that this wasn’t a catastrophe; we’re none of us big dessert eaters, anyway. We contented ourselves with espresso and Cognac.

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It seems to me that the recipes of prestigious American chefs often don’t adapt well to home preparation. To pull them together properly needs a large staff of workers, a large space to work in, and a lot of pots and pans (or a designated dishwashing person pacing you as you cook along – in our case, that was me). The many flavor and texture combinations in this book’s recipes seem to be designed more for impressiveness than for natural compatibility. While there’s nothing wrong with an impressive dinner at an elegant restaurant, it’s not the kind of cooking I really care to do at home.

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