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Say Cheese: Sottocenere al tartufo

Regular readers of Say Cheese will undoubtedly have noticed a trend in the past couple of posts: cheese as comfort food, first in a luscious fondue and then in an oozy baked potato dish. This week I bring you the third (and final, I promise) installment in my mini comfort-food recipe series, a baked pasta dish with sottocenere al tartufo.

With Venice's version of Mardi Gras (Carnevale) right around the corner, the timing for using this lovely cow’s-milk cheese from Italy’s Veneto region seems appropriate. Mardi Gras, as we all know, is all about indulgence, and it is hard to think of anything more indulgent than black truffle (except, I suppose, for white truffle).

I am not talking chocolate here. That is indulgence of a minor sort. I’m talking real, rough-skinned, gnarly black truffles. Suffice it to say that at about $120 per ounce, black truffles do not come my way very often.

Not cheap, but far less expensive at about $22 a pound is sottocenere al tartufo, the name of which translates to "under ash, with truffle." Sottocenere is mild, with a creamy-chewy paste and an inedible dust-gray rind of fine pressed ash. The cheese, which is molded into 12-pound wheels, is rubbed with extra-virgin olive oil (or sometimes truffle oil) and a mix of spices: anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, fennel and nutmeg. The creamy, mild paste is flecked throughout with shavings of black truffle. It is not a huge amount, but it is enough so that every bite is infused with the beguiling, heady essence of black truffle.

Sottocenere al tartufo: inspiration for my baked pasta dish. (Domenica Marchetti)

Sottocenere al tartufo is perfectly lovely on its own, on top of a plain cracker or melted over slices of baguette. It is also delicious in an omelet. And it has an affinity for radicchio, that bitter scarlet-hued member of the chicory family. This is not surprising, as many varieties of radicchio grow in abundance in the Veneto. You can shred a little sottocenere al tartufo over a simple radicchio salad, dressed only with olive oil and maybe a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Or you can shower it over wilted radicchio.

But I promised you comfort and indulgence, and that is what you get with Fettuccine al Forno With Sottocenere al Tartufo, a rich, baked pasta dish from my book "Big Night In" that features porcini and shiitake mushrooms and, of course, a generous quantity of that lovely truffle-infused cheese.

Perhaps I’m trying to get my fill of indulgence before Lent arrives. I have no idea what I’ll be giving up, though I can tell you that it won’t be cheese.

-- Domenica Marchetti; follow her on Twitter.

Fettuccine al Forno With Mushrooms and Sottocenere al Tartufo
10 to 12 servings

This ultra-rich baked pasta dish is infused with the aroma of truffles, thanks to a generous quantity of sottocenere al tartufo. Sottocenere is readily available at cheese shops and well-stocked supermarket cheese departments, but if you are unable to find it you can substitute imported fontina Val d’Aosta, which has a similar creamy texture and also melts well.

MAKE AHEAD: The mushrooms can be sauteed a day in advance and refrigerated in a tightly lidded container. Reheat them on the stovetop before tossing them with the cooked fettuccine and sauce. The bechamel sauce can be made well in advance and refrigerated for at least a week in a tightly lidded container. Heat to barely bubbling at the edges over low heat (add a splash of milk if necessary to thin it out a bit) before mixing it with the cooked fettuccine.

For the mushrooms
1 ounce (1 cup) dried porcini
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds mixed fresh mushrooms, such as shiitakes, portobellos and cremini
Leaves from 4 to 6 stems oregano, minced (1 tablespoon)
Leaves from 4 to 6 stems thyme (1 tablespoon)
1 cup dry marsala wine
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 1/4 bunch flat-leaf parsley, minced (1/4 cup)

For the sauce
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the baking sheet
6 tablespoons flour
4 cups whole or 2-percent milk
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 pounds dried fettuccine
1 1/2 cups shredded sottocenere al tartufo (may substitute fontina Val d'Aosta cheese)
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the mushrooms: Place the dried porcini in a small heatproof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes or until softened. Drain the porcini in a fine-mesh strainer lined with damp paper towels or cheesecloth, reserving the liquid. Chop the mushrooms coarsely and place in a separate bowl.
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the garlic is softened but not browned. Add the fresh mushrooms, oregano and thyme; cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the liquid the mushrooms release has evaporated and they are tender.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the marsala. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring, until the wine has evaporated. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper to taste stir once, then remove from the heat. Add the parsley and mix to incorporate.
For the sauce: Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Sprinkle in the flour, stirring vigorously with a whisk until the mixture is smooth. Cook for 2 minutes, and then gradually pour in the heated milk, whisking constantly to prevent scorching. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, to form a nicely thickened sauce.
Add the reserved porcini soaking liquid, mix well. Turn off the heat; season the sauce with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, a few grindings of pepper and the nutmeg.
To assemble: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use a little butter to grease a large (13-by-9-inch) and deep lasagne pan or baking dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until it is slightly underdone (cooking time will depend on the brand of pasta). Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Return the cooked fettuccine to the large pot. Add the sauce, the mushrooms, the sottocenere al tartufo and 3/4 cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. If the pasta clumps together, add a little of the reserved pasta cooking water to loosen the mixure.
Pile the fettuccine into the baking dish, spreading it out evenly. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes, then uncover and bake for 15 minutes or until the top is golden. Serve immediately.

Per serving (based on 12, using whole milk): 563 calories, 24 g protein, 67 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 53 mg cholesterol, 545 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  January 26, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, recipes, sottocenere al tartufo  
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