Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Chocolate bliss--Sformato di Ciccolato

For me the essence of the enjoyment of good food and cooking is sharing that food with people that you care about. I suppose this has its origins in my southern roots. I grew up in an environment where food was the sincerest form of hospitality. In my grandmother's house you were never there more than 5 minutes without the issue of food being introduced. Actually this was true of both of my grandmothers. Whenever you arrived at their houses you could count on the fact that you would be well fed despite their protestations that they "simply had nothing in the house to prepare". What usually followed was, by any standard, a veritable feast. The dishes might be simple by modern gourmet standards--but the taste was anything but simple. Each dish would have been prepared using available ingredients, without the use of a written recipe, and with flavor that left an indelible imprint in my memory. Many of the ingredients were grown by the cook and served either at their peak, or had been preserved by the same hands for later use. My own pursuit of cooking has largely been shaped by these strong women and the memories of the food of my childhood. Attempting to recreate the "remembered" flavor has been a joyous pursuit that lies at the root of my enjoyment of cooking.

The recipe that I am inspired to write about really is related to the concept of sharing food with people you care about. I have a dear friend that I consider to be more of a sister than "just" a friend. Because of some health issues, she has been trying a gluten-free approach to eating. Understand that she and her husband are willing/or graciously unwilling recipients of some of my food experimentation--so it has been difficult for me to be respectful of her dietary approach and yet share the food that I want to prepare. The whole area of desserts have been especially difficult. I like to think of myself as a want-to-be pastry chef . We have gone the route of rice pudding, fruit desserts and ice cream treats, but on a recent COLD and snowy evening that we shared, I was in the mood for creating something CHOCOLATE. Those of you who share the love of good chocolate will understand that there is nothing that will fill this spot if you are truly craving the decadence of a chocolate dessert. I found inspiration in an unlikely place! While sweating away on an elliptical machine at my gym, I watched a TV Chef prepare an "old Italian" favorite----Sformato. The core of this version is chocolate. It is NOT a cake, nor is it a brownie, nor is it a mousse. It is closely related to a pudding--but definitely not your grandmother's warm, silky comfort pudding. It is hardcore chocolate. AND it was apparent to me that I could adapt this recipe to be gluten-free. According to an Italian food dictionary--sformato is similar to a souffle, though not as airy. It will always involve beaten eggs and will be baked in a bain marie (water bath). Other than those requirements the rest of the sformato is up to the chef to create. Sformoti are most commonly savory and often used as a conveyance for whatever fresh vegetable is available. They can also be sweet, and as in this case, a conveyance for a chocolate indulgence. So with that--I was off on a mission to try this dessert. The results of that effort are detailed in the following recipe. A cautionary note: Be sure to read the whole recipe prior to starting and get all ingredients prepared and pre-measured (mise en place) before you start. While not complicated, there are steps to this recipe that need to be coordinated. Happy baking.

Sformato di Ciccolato Caldo

2 Cups Whole Milk (for divided use)
1 Cup of granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 packet gelatin
4 whole eggs, beaten lightly
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
1/4 Cup Toasted sliced almonds
1 Cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon Amaretto

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 2 quart flat casserole dish and a roasting pan that will allow the casserole to fit inside with a 1-2 inch margin all around the dish. this will be used for the water bath to bake the sformato.

In a medium saucepan combine 1 1/2 cups of the milk with sugar and bring to a simmer and cook until sugar is dissolved. Add the espresso powder and stir to dissolve. (You will not taste the espresso--but this is a terrific chocolate enhancer). Remove from the heat and add the vanilla. Meanwhile sprinkle the packet of gelatin over the remaining 1/2 cup of cold milk and let it "bloom" or dissolve for 2 minutes. Combine the gelatin and milk with the hot milk and sugar. Stir until dissolved. If the gelatin does not seem to be adequately dissolving, gently heat the mixture until smooth. When the gelatin and milk mixture is smooth combine with the lightly beaten eggs by using the tempering method of whisking in small amounts of the hot mixture to slowly warm the eggs--thus avoiding scrambling the eggs! Be sure to whisk the mixture constantly when the two are combined. Pour this mixture through a fine sieve to remove any undissolved particles or egg that has not combined.

Meanwhile melt the chocolate in a double boiler (use a bowl over simmering water--being sure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water). When the chocolate is melted, gradually combine the milk and egg mixture with the melted chocolate--stirring well with each addition to create a smooth chocolate mixture. ( you may still be able to see flecks of chocolate--but mixture should be as smooth as you can get it). Pour this mixture into the buttered 2 quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the top with toasted almond slices. Place the casserole dish in the roasting pan. Add hot water to a level halfway up the side of the casserole dish. Bake for approximately 1 hour until the sides are firm and center still jiggles slightly. Important--let the sformato cool at least 30 minutes prior to serving.

Just before serving, whip the cream to soft peaks. Add the powdered sugar and amaretto and whip to desired stiffness. (be careful to not over-whip)
Spoon the sformato into individual serving dishes top with the amaretto cream and sprinkle with additional toasted almond slices.


A note about the texture: if you serve this immediately after the 30 minute rest, the texture seems a little bit grainy--but this does not interfere with the warm chocolate goodness. After an overnight rest in the refrigerator, the chocolate taste was more intense and mellow and the texture was silkier. I see advantages to both the warm dessert and the leftover texture----your choice--but I dare you to resist the warm chocolate goodness while waiting for the smoother texture!!!

As for the results, my generous friends gave it a glowing review as did my omnivorous husband! My friend's husband announced that the only thing that would improve this dessert----was NOTHING! This comment was made with much flair--as if he were about to give me the "missing link" to make this dessert perfect. Everyone who knows him--knows that he likes nothing better than his own brand of wry(lovably corny) humor.
So if you want a good chocolate dessert that is decadent and delicious try this one. If you happen to need a gluten free dessert also--this is for you.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Happy Union--Butternut Squash Lasagna

One of my favorite ingredients during the cold winter months is one that I have fairly recently discovered---Butternut Squash. I was not interested in this vegetable for many years because it looked intimidating and if possible it "looked" bland. I found myself unsure of how to approach it and what to do with it. In recent times I have found that it actually is NOT bland at all and that it serves as a great taste canvas that encourages enhancement. I lean toward the savory applications at present and plan to explore the sweet side in the future. I have tried it simply peeled, diced and coated with olive oil and salt and pepper and simply roasted in a hot oven. This is delicious and will go well as a side dish with many main courses or it can go solo when combined with a great salad.

This initial method of preparation also forms the foundation of many other savory dishes.
During the oven roasting add some diced onion and some smashed cloves of garlic. This mixture becomes the basis of a great butternut risotto or the basis of a fantastic pasta sauce that has the rich creamy texture of butter and heavy cream without having any of the "weight" of those ingredients! I have even ventured into the use of butternut squash in a macaroni and cheese creation.

Another great attribute of the butternut squash is the durability and shelf life of the vegetable. I like to buy this ingredient when it looks good and appeals to my sense of cooking adventure. However time and life often get in the way of immediate preparation so I really enjoy having the ability to have the squash "on hand" and available whenever the cooking stars align and creativity prevails.

On a recent cold and cloudy day all of these factors came together along with the new found knowledge that I uncovered enough lasagna noodles in my pantry to swath the city in semolina. I must also give credit for this dish to some unwitting participants. I have 2 *NEW* sons-in-law that I adore. One of them loves lasagna with a special passion and the other loves butternut squash with a special passion! So with them in mind and the pantry stocked I decided to try my hand at Butternut Lasagna. I have somewhat of a reputation among family and friends for making a good traditional lasagna so I needed to be careful not to tarnish that image with a less-than great alternative. The results of this collaboration:


1 medium to large butternut squash, peeled and diced into 1/2 cubes 1 large onion sliced into medium pieces 4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed 1/2 -1 teaspoon dried thyme Olive oil to generously coat vegetables Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the vegetables and toss with olive oil, thyme and salt and pepper. Place on a half sheet pan lined with a silicon mat or aluminum foil. Place this in a hot oven (400 degrees) for approx 10 minutes or until the vegetables are knife tender and lightly caramelized. Remove from the oven and let cool.
Meanwhile make a bechamel sauce with the following ingredients:

4 ounces (1 stick) butter 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour Approx. 2 quarts of milk (I use skim) 1/2 to 1 whole nutmeg, finely grated Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy 3-4 quart saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook the flour and butter for 2-3 minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour. Be careful to not brown the roux. With a whisk in hand, add the milk a small amount at a time while whisking. The slow addition of the milk will allow the roux to combine without forming the dreaded lumps. When all of the milk has been added stir the roux and gently bring to a boil. Its full thickened potential will only be reached when the mixture comes to a boil. I generally reserve some of the milk until I see how thick the sauce becomes. Sometimes I will then add the reserved milk and sometimes it is not needed. The goal of the sauce is to be thick enough to coat a wooden spoon and leave a trace when you drag your finger across the spoon, but not be paste-like. The sauce should be smooth and velvety on your tongue. Now season with salt and pepper to taste (aesthetically, white pepper is preferable but not essential). At this point grate the fresh nutmeg with a microplane grater directly into the sauce. How much you add is a matter of preference. Since nutmeg is a great flavor enhancer for both bechamel and butternut squash--I used a whole grated nutmeg.
this sauce forms the basis for your lasagna.

Cook a 1 pound box of lasagna noodles to slightly less-than al dente. Remember that they will finish cooking as the lasagna bakes. Generously salt the water as this is your one opportunity to flavor the pasta with salt. When the pasta is cooked to the desirable level, drain the hot water and immerse the pasta in cold water. This will cease the cooking process and hold the pasta until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.

Form the flavor base of the dish:
In the bowl of a food processor combine the following:
The roasted butternut squash, onions, garlic and the olive oil it was roasted in, 1- 15 ounce container of Ricotta Cheese 1/4 to 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmigiana Cheese, 2 whole eggs, and salt and pepper.

Process this mixture until a smooth and thick puree is formed. You may need to add a little olive oil and or heavy cream to get the texture you want.

You are now ready to assemble the finished product:
In addition you will need the following ingredients:
1 pound of shredded mozzarella cheese and 1/2 cup of shredded parmigiana cheese
Use a 10x13 inch pan (size is relative to what you have on hand) that has been well greased or sprayed with a non-stick spray.

Place a thin layer of the bechamel sauce in the bottom of the pan. Place a layer of lasagna noodles on top of the bechamel. (I take care to dry the pasta with paper towels as they come out of the cold water to prevent dilution of the dish)
On top of the pasta, ladle a generous amount of the bechamel. Dollop a layer of the butternut squash mixture over the bechamel. I used an ice cream scoop and then gently spread this into a layer with a fork. Sprinkle this generously with shredded mozzarella cheese and a little additional parmigiana cheese. Place another layer of pasta, etc. Layer to the top and finish with a layer of mozzarella and parmigiana on top. Cover this tightly with aluminum foil that has been greased or sprayed with non-stick spray to prevent the lasagna from sticking to the foil when removed.

At this point the lasagna can go to the oven or it can be refrigerated until ready to bake. If you refrigerate--allow extra time for the baking.

The lasagna is baked at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until it is hot and bubbly all the way through. Remove the foil and bake an additional 15 minutes to allow the top to brown.

Allow the lasagna to rest out of the oven for at least 15-20 minutes to "set".

Serve and enjoy.