Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cheese & Football Feast day 16: Italy

For the last of the 1st round Euro2016 knockouts I returned to Italy for the cheese feast and chose Smacafam. There are so many Italian dishes that incorporate cheese that I have to nominate Italy as my favourite cheese feast nation. I was very happy that they went through to the quarter-finals as it will be very easy to find another cheese dish for their next game.
Patrica Michelson's Smacafan or 'Hunger Breaker'
Smacafam is a rather delicious dish comprising layers of polenta, sausage and onion sauce, and cheese. The dish is based on a recipe from The Cheese Room by Patricia Michelson. The author runs La Fromagerie in London with 2 lovely cheese shops/delis/cafes. I have only shopped at the Marylebone store but it is an absolute delight to visit. The Cheese Room was her first book published in 2001 and has an eclectic mix of recipes, reference information and anecdotes related to her love of cheese. There are even some notes on making your own soft cheese at home.
I have a whole shelf of Italian cookbooks but could only find reference to this dish in two of them.It wasn't even included in my book of polenta dishes. Many of the internet recipes/pictures I found looked a little different or even used a buckwheat polenta rather than cornmeal so I give you this knowing there may be many variations. The recipe apparently comes from the Trentino-Alto Adige region  in the north of Italy where polenta is a staple dish.

Try to use Italian 'fresh' sausages if you can, these have no rusk or cereal added and are made with coarsely ground pork and can be flavoured with fennel seed, garlic and mild chilli flakes. I could not find any this time so I just used a high meat content coarse ground pork sausage and added some fennel and chilli flavouring to the sauce. The dish can be prepared a day in advance.

I used less polenta than given in the recipe below and just did a top and bottom polenta layer with all of the sauce in the middle. I used a wide dish so there thin layers and plenty of crispy topping. It would have been easier to spread the polenta into a smaller dish giving a thicker layer. Polenta can set solid so quickly.

I am omitting the author's instructions for cooking the polenta as they involved an hour and a half of simmering. I am sure you would be able to tell the difference between my quick cook polenta and a traditional method but I have yet to summon the patience to try the traditional method. My totally lazy cook method is to have the polenta and boiling water in a large jug in the microwave and just keep cooking on high for a few minutes at a time stirring well after each blast, until it tastes cooked and is the right consistency. I add any extra water I think it needs as I cook, and add the salt at the end.

For detailed information on polenta and how to cook it the serious eats site has a good reference article.

For full recipe: 500g polenta cooked in 2.5 to 3 litres water and 2 tsp salt. If you are using 'instant cook' polenta follow the packet instructions for the amount of water and cooking method.

I only used 150g of polenta but will up this to 250g when I next make the dish so the polenta layers are thicker.

For the Fillling
cooking oil
2 large mild onions thinly sliced
200g fresh (soft) pancetta (you can substitute a good dry cured streaky bacon) cut into small cubes
250g fresh Italian sausages or other fresh continental style sausages - I used more than this as the pack size was larger.
2 large cloves garlic chopped
250g of either young asiago, Montasio, young gruyere, or mozarella, coarsley grated
120g young grana padano or young parmesan (not too dry) finely grated

  1. If cooking to use straight away preheat the oven to 180C.
  2. Lightly oil a deep sided baking dish.
  3. Start cooking the polenta as per packet instructions or your preferred method. 
  4. If you are happy watching 2 pots at a time you can start to make the sauce while the polenta is cooking. If you are using instant polenta then I would make the sauce first then do the polenta.
  5. In a large heavy frying pan cook the onions in some oil until translucent the remove and place on some kitchen paper to absorb some of the oil.
  6. Add a little more oil to the frying pan and cook the pancetta until golden, remove from the pan and place on kitchen paper.
  7. You may need to wipe the frying pan out with kitchen paper now to remove any burnt or sticky pieces, Then add a little more oil and cook the sausages until golden brown, crispy and cooked through. Remove from the pan.
  8. Clean pan again if there are burnt pieces and drain off any excess oil. Gently cook the garlic for 2-3 minutes but take car not to burn.
  9. Take the pan off the heat and drain off any excess oil.
  10. Chop the sausages into cubes and add to the garlic in the pan along with the cooked pancetta and onions, stirring everything to mix well.
  11. Pour some of the cooked polenta into the baking dish to give a layer of  about 1cm.
  12. Sprinkle over half of the asiago or other cheese of your choice.
  13. Cover with half of the sausages filling.
  14. Repeat the layers again - polenta, cheese, sausages.
  15. Add a final layer of polenta to the top and sprinkle the parmesan cheese over.
  16. At this point the dish can be cooled down and stored in the fridge or baked off in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes.
  17. When heated through if the dish still looks quite pale put under a hot grill to brown and crisp the top. To cook from cold the dish will take longer to heat through.
The first of the semi finals sees Poland play Portugal and I shall be doing my best to recreate a Portuguese 'sandwich' known as a 'Francesinha' or Little Frenchie.

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