My sformato in its mold.
Recipe: Sformato of Ricotta with Mint, Parmigiano, and Lemon
When cold weather comes I begin cooking food in neat packages. My tart rings, gratin dishes, and casseroles get pulled out and used to create dishes with boundaries. Those dishes somehow seem more attuned to winter than loose food, nonchalantly chopped and left to scatter or pool over a plate, like wedges of fresh tomato slicked with olive oil. In colder weather I want to know where my food begins and ends. So I decided to go formal Italian and make a sformato.
The word sformato means a food, usually a savory custard, that’s been cooked in some kind of mold and then freed of its mold. The verb formare means to form. Sformare means to pull out of shape, which is pretty much the opposite of what happens with a sformato. But sformare also means to unform or to unmold, and that’s why this tidy little food form is called what it is. I’ve made sformati using morels, chicken livers, cauliflower, and—a particularly memorable one—eggplant (I’ll have to try duplicating that some time). I like to end up with a texture that’s somewhere between a soufflé and a custard. That’s how it’s most often done in Italy. The goal is to be able to unmold the thing, and you can’t really do that with a delicate soufflé.
You may think of molded foods (outside of Jell-O) as usually loaded with cream and fat. That’s much less true in Italian cooking than in French or American. You can use a béchamel as a base for a sformato, the way you would for a soufflé, but Italy is lucky enough to have ricotta to work with, a sweet, fluffy, relatively low-fat cheese that can be mixed with all types of flavorings. Take it and an egg or two and concoct the sformato improvvisato of your desires. I knew I wanted to use ricotta this time around (for a foolproof recipe for homemade ricotta see my post here).
To accompany my ricotta, I borrowed flavorings from a pasta dish I often make in cold weather, a fattening mix of tagliatelle, cream, Parmigiano, tons of lemon zest, and black pepper (see page 158 of my book Pasta Improvvisata for a recipe). I replaced the cream with ricotta and added a handful of mint. I’m really happy with the taste and texture of my new sformato. I’ve served it cut into wedges as an antipasto offering, along with a bowl of black olives and glasses of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi from Le Marche, a white wine with strong fruit flavors. But then I noticed it moving from the coffee table to the dinner table, alongside our next course, my mother’s pasta e fagiole. My sister Liti crumbled up pieces of the sformato and sprinkled them on top of her pasta. Excellent idea, Liti.
My sformato demolded.
Sformato of Ricotta with Mint, Parmigiano, and Lemon
(Serves 6 as an antipasto)
I used a seven-inch springform pan for this.
¼ cup dried breadcrumbs, ground but not too finely
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon soft butter
2½ cups whole-milk ricotta
3 large eggs, separated
¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon limoncello
6 large mint sprigs, the leaves chopped
6 large flat-leaf parsley sprigs, the leaves chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the breadcrumbs with the olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Coat the springform pan with the soft butter, and then add the breadcrumbs, tapping them around to coat well the inside of the pan. Set the pan in the refrigerator while you work on the rest of the recipe.
Put the ricotta and the egg yolks in a large bowl. Add the Parmigiano, nutmeg, lemon zest, and limoncello, and season with salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Beat briefly with a handheld mixer, until fluffy.
Wash the mixer beaters very well to remove any oil. Place the egg whites in another bowl, and beat until they form stiff peaks. Add the mint and parsley to the ricotta mixture, and then gently fold in the egg whites.
Pour the mixture into the mold, and place it on a baking sheet. Bake until browned, puffy, and rather firm to the touch, about 70 minutes. Let the sformato come to room temperature. It will shrink considerably. Unmold. To serve, cut into thin wedges.