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.
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.)
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.