Saturday 6 August 2016

Pastuccia (Italian polenta pie)

The nature of my research means I end up studying a lot of cookbooks from a purely academic perspective - I read far more recipes than I could ever possibly cook, and the ones I do select to prepare are carefully chosen for their research value. But occasionally a book I initially intended to use merely for investigative purposes ends up going above and beyond its usefulness as an academic reference and earns a spot as a treasured resource in my kitchen as well. (This means I have to get my own copy to keep, so I can quit monopolizing the library’s one!) 

La Cucina (originally published in Italian as La Cucina del Bel Paese), if you’re not familiar with it, is essentially a giant community cookbook comprising the entirety of Italy. It represents the culmination of 50 years of research by the Accademia italiana della cucina, started in 1953 to record and preserve Italy’s regional culinary heritage. A fantastic project! But because the recipes were collected from regular people rather than developed by a test kitchen, some of the instructions are a little sparse - and because it’s been translated and adapted for an English-speaking audience, some words also become less specific. In the recipe I wanted to make, it wasn’t clear to me what type of sausage should be used, or even how thickly or thinly the dough should be spread, so I turned to the internet hoping to find some clarification.

Well, after comparing the variety of recipes available online, it appears that this dish - like pretty much everything that is baked in a casserole, come to think of it! - is the kind of food where you use what you’ve got. So what makes it a pastuccia? The common defining elements seem to be cornmeal, pork (usually a combination of sausage and pancetta), almost always egg yolks in the dough, and usually some raisins too. The proportions, procedure, and other specifics are open to much freedom of interpretation. To answer my initial question, it turns out some recipes use fresh sausage, some use dry, and many use something in between. What’s more, some versions are essentially a giant savory corn-cake, mixed with cold water to form a crackled, crumbly dough; others are rich casseroles which require first cooking a soft polenta. Oh, and the additions may be mixed into the dough or distributed mostly on the bottom and top. Most versions go in the oven, but a few apparently are cooked entirely on the stove. And so on...As I said, it’s pretty flexible.

In the spirit of this variability, writing it out as a recipe seems a bit stuffy - instead, I’m just going to tell you what I did. You can do the same, or you can change things depending on your tastes and what you have available. 

How I made the pastuccia:
(These measurements are for a small pastuccia - most recipes use at least double the amounts I’ve given here, so scale it as you see fit. It was so delicious, I wish I’d made a larger one!)
First, I took about ¼ lb of raw local pork sausage and browned it in a cast-iron skillet, then added 70 grams of minced semi-dry andouille sausage (I didn’t have any pancetta/guanciale, so I improvised - I know it’s very different, but it worked anyway!) and cooked it until the bits were nice and crispy. Meanwhile, I put about a cup (140 g) of cornmeal in a bowl along with a pinch of salt - this was mostly Arrowhead Mills’ organic cornmeal, but I also used a little of Anson Mills’ heirloom Italian polenta integrale for the flavor - and stirred in 120 g (½ cup) very hot water to form a stiff dough. Next, I mixed in 40 g (¼ cup) of golden raisins (I had previously soaked these in water for a few minutes to plump them up), followed by one raw egg yolk, which made the dough quite soft and sticky. 

At this point I removed about half of the sausage mixture from the cast iron pan, pressed the dough into the hot pan with the remaining sausage and cooked it a moment to brown the bottom, then scattered the reserved sausage mixture over the top of the dough. Then I put the whole thing into the oven (preheated to 200º C/395º F) and baked it until it was golden and cooked through - this took about half an hour I think, or maybe a little less. 
Cut it into wedges to serve as part of a main course or as an appetizer. These types of cornmeal cakes are traditionally frequently paired with cooked green vegetables. Leftovers (if you have any!) can be reheated in the oven or enjoyed cold.
P.S. Don't forget, the Raleigh GFAF Event is in one week! See here for the details, and go to this post to win free tickets!

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