Sformato di finocchi (Fennel Mold)

 

The sformato (a term literally meaning ‘unmolded’) is something like a savory flan or perhaps a soufflé without the puff. At its most basic, it is actually a rather simple dish, a mixture of puréed or finely diced vegetables with béchamel and eggs, baked or steamed in a mold until set.

A sformato can be made with practically any vegetable which can vary according to the season, so you can serve a sformato all year round: peas or asparagus in the spring, zucchini or green beans in the summer, and so on. Now that the weather is rapidly cooling off here in the northern hemisphere, I turned to one of my favorite cool weather vegetables, fennel. Now fennel is delicious raw, served in a salad or even on its own, after dinner, as a kind of palate-cleansing ‘fruit’. When cooked, its anise flavor mellows considerably and becomes, for lack of a better word, ‘buttery’ in flavor, and marries very well with butter, cream, cheese and other dairy products. That makes it a perfect candidate for a sformato.

Begin by boiling, or even better, steaming fennel bulbs, trimmed of their stalks and cut into halves or quarters, according to their size. For a family-sized sformato, about 500g or a pound of fennel, two large bulbs, should do well. When they are tender—a knife should slide easily in and out of them—drain them well. Let them cool a bit and, when they are cool enough to handle, either cut them into small dice or purée them, as you prefer. (I also like to add some of the fronds from the stalks for extra flavor.) A food processor works well for the purpose. Then melt a good amount of butter in a skillet and add your fennel, allowing it to absorb the flavor of the butter and to evaporate any residual liquid.

Now make some béchamel in a separate saucepan, in the usual way (see this post), using 2 cups of milk for every 500g (or pound) of fennel. Add the béchamel to the sautéed fennel, and season to taste with salt, pepper and a handful of grated parmesan cheese. Allow the mixture to cool off and  then add four eggs. Mix everything up well and pour into a well-greased loaf pan or other mold (see Notes below). Place your mold into a larger baking pan and pour water around the sides, to make what the Italians call a bagnomaria or ‘bain-marie’ in French and English:
 

 

Place the baking dish into a moderately slow oven (about 325F, 170C) and bake until the mixture has fully set. To test doneness, insert a paring knife or skewer inserted into the mold; it should come out completely clean. Baking time varies according to the size and shape of your mold, but for the loaf pan shown in the picture, it took about an hour. Individual molds will, of course, take much less time, as little as 15-20 minutes.

 

Let the sformato cool for about 15 minutes or so. Loosen the sformato from its mold by running a knife along the edges of the pan. Then unmold itonto a serving platter. This can be done by placing the platter over the loaf pan or other mold, then holding pan and platter together with both hands, flipping it over. Gently remove the pan, revealing your sformato in all its glory. Serve warm or at room temperature.

 


NOTES: As I mentioned, you can use the above basic recipes with just about any vegetable, using the same technique and the same proportions. I find that ‘solid’ vegetables like green beans, carrots, mushrooms and the like work best with the above basic recipe. Softer vegetables that tend to ‘melt’ when cooked, like pumpkin can also be used but you should reduce or even eliminate the béchamel and up the number of eggs to maintain the proper texture. You can also make sformati with other ingredients, including pasta, but the recipe is sufficiently different that it deserves a separate post.

The number of eggs varies from recipe to recipe. For 500g or a pound of vegetable, some recipes call for as few as a single egg, or as many as the four indicated in this recipe. Obviously, the more eggs, the firmer the texture of the final dish. Some recipes call for yolks only, which I imagine also produces a firmer result. You can also vary the texture by making the béchamel thicker or thinner, according to the amount of flour you use. (Too thin, though, and the sformato may not hold together.)

One important point: make sure that your vegetables are not ‘water logged’ when you mix them with the rest of the ingredients. That will tend to result in a rather flaccid texture. This is why steaming is better then boiling, and why it is important to sauté the vegetable in butter until quite dry. (The sautéing also gives it a wonderful flavor.)

As mentioned, you can use any number of different types of molds: a simple loaf pan works very well, but you can make a sformato in a round mold, or a ring mold, or a square mold, as you like. And rather than making a single ‘family style’ sformato, for more formal occasions you can use individual ramekins (or even a muffin pan!) to make individual sformati, which make for an impressive ‘gourmet’ presentation on the plate. For an even more elegant presentation, serve your sformato with a sauce—a creamy cheese sauce or a light tomato sauce or a coulis made from a vegetable with a complementary flavor. You can also garnish the sformato with sautéed vegetables, either the same vegetable as you used to make the dish, or some other vegetable that would go well with it.

At its most basic, though, this is actually a very simple, light yet rich, dish very suitable for home cooking. The only really tricky part is the unmolding. If you’re lucky, the mold will come off perfectly cleanly, leaving a perfectly formed sformato. But if not, no worries—the taste will be just as good. You can just use garnish or sauce to hide the imperfection. To increase your chances of success, be generous when greasing your mold. And to be doubly sure, you can use a piece of wax paper, cut to size, to line the bottom of your mold. You then just gently remove the paper from the unmolded sformato before serving. Or, for a very informal meal, you forget all about it and just serve the sformato directly from the pan at table, with a spoon or metal spatula. Of course, technically you will not have a ‘sformato’ at that point, but I’m sure no one will mind.

The sformato is a usually vegetable dish, but it is too elaborate, really, to serve as a side. Traditionally, it served as an intermezzo, the course that came after the primo and before the secondo in very formal dinners. If you want to impress your guests, you can use it that way. For everyday eating, a sformato is very versatile. It can be an antipasto, a first course or even a vegetarian second course, as you prefer. There are even sweet sformati for dessert… but that’s a subject for another post.

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11 Responses to “Sformato di finocchi (Fennel Mold)”

  1. 8 January 2013 at 06:07 #

    My late mother used to make a sformato di patate. We all loved it! She died when I was nine so I didn’t get the recipe. I now may have found the secret. You make a bechemel that could be the thing I am missing when I try to recreate it. What do you think?

    • 8 January 2013 at 08:22 #

      Why not try it and see?

      Since potatoes are starchy and bind naturally, you wouldn’t need béchamel to keep things together (provided you added enough eggs) but it may give you that flavor you’ve been looking for.

      Do let us know how it turns out!

  2. 11 October 2010 at 20:40 #

    Thanks for the kind comments, guys! Do try it–it's really not at all hard and very versatile, and makes a great presentation when company comes calling.

  3. 7 October 2010 at 19:58 #

    I had this many years ago but it has been off my radar for a long time and seeing it again brought back some great memories of dinners at my nona's What a great change for a veggie dish. Loved it!

  4. 5 October 2010 at 21:49 #

    very nice course you got here, it would be grand in between servings – I find this to be a nice change for dinner when entertaining… thanks

  5. 5 October 2010 at 16:14 #

    fantastic
    yummy

  6. 5 October 2010 at 08:03 #

    aWow!!! What a fabulous dish.

  7. 5 October 2010 at 08:03 #

    Wow!!! What a fabulous dish.

  8. 3 October 2010 at 17:28 #

    This sounds familiar and not. I have never made it – did I read i somewhere? Did Grandma make it? I don't know but must investigate and cook. I love the idea of the fennel. Also the autumn mushrooms…one can have fun with this.

  9. 3 October 2010 at 15:22 #

    I've never tried or heard of this dish, my loss. It sounds and looks delicous. I like how ,as you suggested, you can use whatever vegetables are in season. I'm going to save this one. Thanks for the knowledge.

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