I understand that all I really have to say about today's dish is potatoes and cheese, right? For me, this dish is so much more. It's part of a land I so love, and a food ideology steeped in its cucina povera (pour-man's kitchen) roots. This dish embodies the Italian "keep it simple and delicious" way of thinking. Someone has served me this at least once every trip to Puglia and I never tire of it. It's one of the must eat dishes from Puglia and usually one of the first dishes an Italian mamma gives me when I arrive. I'm certain every Italian mamma has it in her arsenal of dishes to woo and make them feel welcome and loved.
Cheesey, creamy potatoes, a crunchy top and bottom crust, and a savory filling. It goes by two names in Puglia; I hear it called pitta di patate most often. The first time my friend's mother made it for me, she called it focaccia di patate. It's two layers of a Parmigiano-laden mash potato mixture sandwiching together the filling.
The classic pitta Leccese has a briny and salty filling of slowly sauteed onions and cherry tomatoes with olives and sometimes capers and anchovies. Just as good, possibly even better, is this version: one with a center of more cheese and cooked ham. I've had this version about as many times as I've had the classic. We make both versions, and sometimes a third, a whatevers's-left-in-the-pantry version, during the Food Lover's Culinary Tour in Puglia. So quick and simple to make, yet so darn good, it's comfort food Italian style. With potatoes, cheese, and pork, what's not to love?!
After many, many samplings of this dish from many different Italian mamme; and after my trials to get it just right, I have for you my version of pitta di patate or Potato focaccia, as we might call it in English. There are just the right amount of additions to the boiled-then-mashed potatoes to make them oh-so-creamy, and a generous amount of cheese in the center of the foccacia so that the melted cheese is oozing out when you cut into it. The all important breadcrumbs on the top and bottom give a crunchy, textural contrast to the creamy potatoes and cheesey center.
As the weather is getting much cooler, now is definitely the right time to bring this recipe out and introduce a little piece of Puglia to those of you not yet familiar with it. It's usually included in gli antipasti che non finiscono mai (slew of antipasti that never ends), but you can also make it as a side-dish or serve it as a piatto unico (simple, one-dish meal). I hope you make it at least once this cold-weather season, think of Puglia, and that it comforts and warms you from the inside out just as it does me.
Focaccia di Patate (aka Pitta di Patate) from Puglia
(Makes one 8x10 inch casserole)
2 1/2 pounds (8-9 medium-sized) Yukon Gold potatoes
cups grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus more for the top
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup whole milk
2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley, optional
About 3 generous pinches of sea salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
For the stuffing:
6-8 ounces mild cheese, Provolone for example, sliced
4-5 slices cooked ham
potatoes with the skins on until they are fork tender (very tender), 30-45
minutes, depending on size of potatoes.
Once the potatoes are done, preheat an oven to 375°F
Remove the potatoes from the heat and drain
off the water. Peel the potatoes (this is best done while the potatoes are
still hot). Run the peeled potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill. You want to get all the lumps out of the potatoes so the texture of your focaccia is nice and creamy. Add
the eggs, milk, olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped parsley (if you are using parsley) and stir in until combined. Stir in the
Parmigiano cheese and taste for seasoning.
some olive oil over the bottom of the casserole dish and rub the oil up along the sides of the dish. Sprinkle breadcrumbs to
cover the entire bottom dish with a thin layer of breadcrumbs. Spread some olive oil, you can also use warm water,
on your hands (this keeps the potatoes from sticking). Using half the potato mixture, form patties about 1/2-inch thick with the
potato mixture. Place these patties in the casserole dish until you have covered
the entire casserole dish. With your fingertips dipped in olive oil or warm water, press the
mixture together so it is one even layer of potato "cake." Add a generous layer of sliced cheese, a layer of the cooked ham strips, and another generous layer of the sliced cheese.
With the remaining half of the potato mix, wet your hands again and form patties. Place the patties on top of the ham & cheese filling. Once done, press the patties together to form an even top potato layer. Sprinkle grated Parmigiano cheese over the top and another layer of breadcrumbs. (The breadcrumb layers on the top and bottom of the potato mixture give the cake a nice crunch and textural contrast to the creamy potato.) Bake at 375°F for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden brown. Let rest 5-10 minutes to cool before cutting and serving. Buon Appetito!
Join me in 2014 in Puglia! An amazing 9-day/8 night Food & Wine Lover's Culinary Tour - It's a food frenzy, cooking party, history & cultural lesson through food. You'll have "backstage-pass" entrance to kitchens and Italian homes and immerse yourself in the food and culture of Puglia!
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