I feel it is only right, when starting a blog called “The Parmesan Poet,” to address the first entry to a poet of parmesan. You, dear Boccaccio, knew food. You wrote about it, and you ate it. Liberally.
True, you wrote in an early form of Italian and I can’t read your work in its original form. But I choose you anyway, partly because parmesan is a universal language, and partly because your name reminds me of focaccia. (That makes me trust you. Foody-sounding names have brought me to some of my favourite authors. I call this phenomenon gastronomastics. As in: you can’t read Michael Chabon without sipping some Chablis. Just as you can’t read Steven Pinker without chewing on a Pinky bar. Or Kingsley Amis without nibbling a King-size Pinky bar. But I digress.)
You are famous for the Decameron, a collection of spicy vignettes about local Italian characters playing tricks on each other. In one story, a dim fellow named Calandrino is tricked into believing in a land where:
“they bind the vines with sausages, and a denier will buy a goose and a gosling into the bargain; and on a mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese, dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and ravioli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throw them down to be scrambled for; and hard by flows a rivulet of Vernaccia, the best that ever was drunk, and never a drop of water therein.”
I’m not sure what makes me sadder: that the mountain of parmesan did not exist, or that Italians used to dilute their wine with water. (I don’t mourn the sausage vines. For some reason, I suspect that growing grapes in intestinal casings would make the wine even worse.)
But Boccaccio, your story of cheesy topography raises my eyebrows. Parmesan, while delicious, is not known for its structural integrity. You specify that the cheese is grated... well, maybe 14th Century Italians had some form of magic microplane, but my grated parmesan - even a mountain of it - could not support a population of presumably rotund residents. This won't do.
Challenge accepted, Boccaccio. I shall make you a mountain. Not of parmesan – I figure lasagne is a more solid Italian building block. But the parmesan will rain down on it, thick rustic shavings of the stuff. For you, Boccaccio: freeform squash, hazelnut & sage lasagne. Here’s what goes in it:
Nutmeg: like your writing, which was spicy, but warm and endearing.
Sage: because you are considered one of the three wise men of Italian letters (with Petrarch and Dante). Geddit? Sage?
Squash: I’m sure I could come up with some reason why a gem squash suits you, but honestly, I just had one in the pantry.
Parmesan: because you wrote of a mountain of parmiggiano-reggiano cheese. Though, forgive me, I live in New Zealand, so it’s plain ole parmesan. (PAH-ma-zin in my accent - again, sorry.)
Freeform Squash, Hazelnut, and Sage Lasagne
· 3 cups plain flour
· 3 eggs
· 3 tbsp water
· 1tsp olive oil
· ½ tsp salt
· 1 egg extra, for egg wash
Squash & hazelnut filling:
· 1 small gem squash
· 100g ricotta
· 2 tsp honey
· 50g parmesan
· 1/3 cup dried mushrooms
· 1/3 cup hazelnuts
· handful of sage leaves
· sprinkle of nutmeg
· squeeze of lemon juice
· 100g ricotta, extra
· handful of sage leaves, extra
Butter sage glaze:
· 40g butter
· 1/3 cup hazelnuts
· handful of sage
· sprinkle of nutmeg
· sprinkle of flaky salt
Before you do anything, preheat the oven to 180C. Cut the top off the gem squash, drizzle a little olive oil over it, and pop it in the oven to bake until it’s soft.
Find a clean surface. Measure out the flour into a heap, and make a well in the centre. Add the first egg to the well, and gently incorporate the flour by collapsing the edges of the well. Mix the water, oil, and salt, and incorporate half of this the same way. Repeat with the second egg, the second half of the water mixture, and finally the third egg. You should now have a disgusting mess that doesn’t look like it will ever taste good. Continue to work the ingredients together, adding more flour if you need to, until it forms a roughly pasta-like substance. Knead for a few minutes. If you’re using a pasta machine, refrigerate the dough in some cling film for 30 minutes. When it’s well-chilled, run it through the machine on the widest setting, progressing towards a medium setting. If you’re rolling by hand (as I did), knead the dough for a good 10 more minutes until it’s thoroughly pliable. This is a workout. It takes ages, but eventually the dough will spring into a buttery, glorious mattress of deliciousness. Assuming you’re a weakling like me, roll it out until it’s as thin as you can physically make it. If you’re stronger, stop at about 1.5mm.
Take your gem squash out of the oven (it should have had enough time while you’ve made the pasta – about an hour). Scoop out the seeds, then scoop the softened flesh into a food processor. Throw all the other ingredients into the processor as well (except the reserved ricotta and sage), and pulse until chunkily combined.
Assembling the stacks:
Cut the dough into squares, around 10cm x 10cm. Drop a teaspoon of the reserved ricotta onto a square, and smoosh it around to cover the pasta. Add a good two teaspoons of squash filling, then layer a few reserved sage leaves over top. Repeat with more squares of pasta and more filling until your eyes are satisfied. The recipe should make enough for four medium-height stacks. Bake your stacks for around 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven. They’re done when the pasta starts to brown and the ricotta bubbles.
While the stacks are cooking, add all the sauce ingredients to a hot saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted, the hazelnuts are toasted, and the sage is crispy. Pour over the cooked stacks and serve. [Warning: this glaze is dangerous. You’ll resent the pasta for taking up room that could have been used for more glaze.]