A sformato (the word literally means ‘unmolded’) is something like a soufflé without the puff: the main ingredient is mixed with a very stiff béchamel sauce and eggs, then baked in a mold until set. But since the eggs are left whole rather than separated and the whites whipped, a sformato only rises ever so slightly in the oven. Typically eaten at room temperature, it has plenty of time to settled down, taking on a texture more like a light pudding or flan. Back in the day, a sformato was often served between the primo and the secondo, as a course that was known as the tramesso or piatto di mezzo, or ‘in between course’. The piatto di mezzo has practically disappeared from Italian tables, but the sformato remains popular as an antipasto or a meatless secondo.
I recently ran across a recipe by a fellow blogger that featured another technique for making sformati that substituted ricotta for the traditional béchamel. (Unfortunately, I can’t remember now just who it was!) The idea really appealed to me; béchamel is can a bit tricky to make, and substituting store-bought ricotta turns a sformato into something incredibly easy to make. This tuna sformato, made rather unusually with canned tunafish rather than a vegetable, is about as trouble-free as you can get—and it makes an elegant impression, fit for the most formal dinner.
Serves 6 as an antipasto, 4 as a light second course
- 1 lb (500g) ricotta cheese (one small container)
- 2 cans of good quality tunafish, preferably packed in olive oil (see Notes)
- 3 eggs (or more—see Notes)
- 50-100g (2 or 3 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese, or more to taste
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- Some fennel fronds or parsley, finely minced
- A simple tomato sauce, to serve on the side or on top of the sformato
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl until well incorporated, making sure to season very generously with salt and pepper.
Grease the sides of a small loaf pan (preferably non-stick) with the olive oil, then pour in the mixture.
Place the loaf pan in a larger pan and add enough water to come up at least a half inch or so around the base of the loaf pan to make a little hot ‘bath’ for the loaf pan. (NB: For the technically inclined, this is called a bain-marie in culinary lingo.)
Place the two pans in a moderate oven (180C/350F) for about 30 minutes or so, until the mixture is set. The exact time will depend on the size and shape of your loaf pan. To test for doneness, shake the pan a bit; it should not wiggle. You can also pierce the top of the loaf with a skewer or knife; if it’s done, it will come out clean. (No worries about ruining the looks of your sformato, since the top will soon become the bottom and won’t show.)
Remove the loaf pan from its bath and let the sformato cool for at least 15 minutes. (More if you like; in fact, to my mind it is even better when it cools completely.)
Place the loaf pan on a cutting board (or, if you want to serve it whole, on a serving platter) and, holding them together tightly with both hands, turn pan and board over. Shake the pan a bit and, with any luck, the sformato will come loose. Remove the pan et voilà, you have your sformato! Cut the tuna sformato into slices and serve, either on a platter or in individual dishes, either by itself (as pictured) or with a bit of tomato sauce.
As with the traditional master recipe, this alternative recipe for tuna sformato can be the basis for endless variations; you can substitute the tunafish with just about any sort of main ingredient you can think of, although, generally speaking, sformati are made from pre-cooked vegetables, puréed or cut into small dice. And actually, this recipe is perfectly delicious without the tunafish, in which case it would be a sformato di ricotta. In that case, since ricotta has a very mild flavor, I would perhaps double the amount of Parmesan cheese and season even more generously than you would otherwise.
The amount of egg that goes into a sformato varies from recipe to recipe, of course giving a different result; the more egg, the firmer the sformato. For this amount, you could use up to 5 or 6 eggs if you like, but I prefer a lighter, softer mixture.
As for the tuna itself, of course you can use any kind you like and have available, but the dish is at its best if you use good quality tunafish packed in olive oil. These days, with Italian food being as popular as it is, I noticed that even good old Bumble Bee brand has an Italian-style tunafish. Reasonably priced (but not cheap) imported brands like Genova, Cento or Nostromo work well. The very best canned tunafish can cost a small fortune, and I would flip for the really expensive stuff unless your pockets are very deep. The whole subject of choosing canned tunafish is worth a separate post, but in the meanwhile, check out Vincent Scordo’s good advice on the subject.
For an even more elegant presentation, you can bake the sformato mixture in individual ramekins to make individual-sized sformatini. Reduce the baking time accordingly, to 15-20 minutes. Sformati can also be made in a ring mold for another elegant presentation or really any mold your imagination calls for. One thing, however:, whatever mold you use: Make sure to grease the sides well, cook it until totally done and let the sformato rest before you attempt to unmold it. Otherwise, you risk having the mixture stick to the bottom and/or falling out into a mess… and that would be a real pity.
By the way, tuna sformato should not be confused with the polpettone di tonno or tunafish loaf, which is made with tunafish bound with egg and bread, and traditionally wrapped in cheesecloth and poached. That’s delicious, too, and you can read all about it in another post.