Monday, January 7, 2008

Marcella Hazan's Polenta Bake

One of my favorite cookbooks is The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan. The copy I have is actually borrowed...ok stolen from a friend's house and it belonged to the landlord. This Italian original was published in 1976, which is probably when my copy of this book was purchased. By the time I had this book in my hands, it has been splattered with sauce, dog eared, and marked with comments in pencil.

This book so far has never failed me. The recipe that I tried over the weekend was Hazan's polenta bake: layers of polenta with bachemel sauce, tomato-meat sauce, and fresh Parmesan cheese. The creamy bachemal sauce cuts the tartness of the tomato sauce, and baked together it's a pretty guilty pleasure.

Make no mistake about it: Hazan is from the traditional school of cooking, requiring standing over the stove and patience. But technique-wise, this dish is not too hard at all. Hazan gives such specific instructions that I will copy it here verbatim -- following her instructions exactly (yes, including 'raining the polenta grain by grain,' has served pretty fantastic results!)

Polenta with Meat Sauce
Serves six
Bechamel Sauce (see below)
Polenta (see below)
2 cups Meat sauce (more on that here)
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese

Preheat oven to 450F.
Make the Bechamel sauce, keeping it on the thin side by cooking it less. It should have the consistency of sour cream.
Slice the cold polenta horizontally into three layers, each about 1/2 inch high. (I only had two layers but it worked fine).
Lightly butter an 11 inch lasagne pan (I used a 9x9 and it was fine). Cover with a layer of polenta.
Spread a thin layer of bechamel sauce over the polenta. Then spread the meat sauce and sprinkle with parmasan cheese. Repeat until the final layer of polenta, bachemal, meat sauce, and Parmesan.
Bake in the uppermost level of over for 10-15 minutes until heated through and cheese melts.

(I made this the night before up to the point when the dish is ready for the oven and just kept it in the fridge. Return to room temperature when you are ready to bake.)

Bechamel Sauce
2 cups whole milk
4 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoons salt

In a small sauce pan, heat milk until almost boiling.
While heating the milk, melt butter over low heat in sauce pan.
When butter is melted, add all the flour, stirring constantly with wooden spoon. Let flour and butter bubble for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Don't let the flour become colored.
Turn off the heat and add milk 2 tablespoons at a time, stirring it constantly. As soon as the first 2 tablespoons have been incorporated, add the next 2 tablespoons. When about 1/2 cup of milk has been added, you can start adding 1/4 cup milk at a time. Never add more than 1/4 cup at a time.
When all the milk has been incorporated (the mixture will be thin), turn the heat to low, add the salt, and stir-cook until the sauce is about the consistency of thick cream.

Note: Sauce is best made right before you are ready to use it. If you make it ahead of time, reheat it slowly until it is the right consistency.

6.5 cups water
2 cup polenta
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt

Bring water to boil in large kettle.
Add the salt, turn the heat to medium low so the water is just simmering, and add the polenta in a very thin stream, stirring with a long wooden spoon. The stream of polenta must be so thin that you can see the individual grains. A good way to do it is to let a fistful of cormeal run through nearly closed fingers. Never stop stirring and keep water at a slow simmer.
Continue stirring for 20 minutes after all the cormeal has been added. The polenta is done when it tears away from the side of the pot.
Pour polenta into pan and cool to set.

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