January 13, 2017
The word sformato in Italian means deformed or shapeless. When applied to food, standard Italian-English dictionaries often translate it as pie or soufflé. It is none of the above.
A sformato is most definitely not deformed or shapeless. In fact, a food historian described a sformato as “something that was cooked in the mould [sic] and then extracted from it” (Alexandra Grigorieva, Naming Authenticity and Regional Italian Cuisine in Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005, edited by Richard Hosking). Nor is a sformato really a pie or a soufflé as those terms are usually used. It has no crust of any sort, as would a pie. It is not puffy like a souffle. Sometimes it doesn’t even contain eggs.
A sformato is most often made of vegetables, usually bound with some combination of eggs, cream, cheese, and/or béchamel (balsamella in Italian), and cooked in a baking dish. I think the best English translation of the word is casserole.
Sformato di Spinaci, spinach sformato (or, reluctantly, spinach casserole), is one of those dishes that has iconic status in my husband’s family. Like Merluzzo in Umido, the recipe came from Italy with his grandmother whom we called Nonni. Nonni is one of those made up words that sometimes take hold in a family based on mispronunciations of little kids. The Italian word for grandmother is Nonna. However, Nonni is to Nonna as Gramma is to Grandmother.
Just as Pasta Ascuitta has only one meaning in my family, Sformato has only one meaning in my husband’s. If you simply say “sformato,” everyone knows you mean spinach sformato, and not, for example, cauliflower sformato.
I first had sformato at Christmas Dinner at my in-law’s house in 1989. Although I had been cooking northern Italian food since 1973 based largely on Marcella Hazan’s wonderful cookbooks, that Christmas was really the beginning of my learning to make some of my husband’s family’s northern Italian favorites. It’s really a whole different taste profile from the southern Italian dishes I grew up with.
I’ve actually taken a heretical twist with my interpretation of Nonni’s sformato. I’ve added a little balsamella for moisture. This was most definitely not in the original, though it is not an uncommon addition to sformato. If you want to make the original version, just leave out the balsamella. It will be a little drier. You might want to not squeeze the spinach quite as tightly if you don’t include the balsamella.