Serves 12, with leftovers that can easily be frozen
- 1 batch (about 10 cups) Basic Polenta, freshly made and hot, with or without freshly grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (it will be richer if you include it, but just as good without it)
- 4 to 6 cups Mushroom Ragú
- 2 Tbsp. soft butter for the baking dish, or more if needed
- 1 to 2 cups shredded Muenster or dry-packed mozzarella, Italian Fontina, cheddar, or a soft cheese of your liking
- 1/2 to 1 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 400° F, and set a rack in the center. Make your polenta in a large bowl, then put plastic wrap over the top, to keep it warm and to prevent a skin from forming on top. Be sure to assemble the pasticciata within 1/2 hour, while the polenta is still warm and soft with no lumps.
If necessary, heat the filling sauce to quite warm. If it is too dense for spreading, thin it with some water.
Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or a 12-inch cast-iron skillet thoroughly. Use more butter on the bottom, in particular, if you want to unmold the pasticciata onto a platter.
Pour in half the polenta (approximately 5 cups), and spread it evenly in the bottom of the pan. Scatter 1/3 cup or more shredded Muenster or other soft cheese all over the top, then sprinkle on 2 to 4 tablespoons of grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pour or ladle 2 cups of the warm sauce over the polenta and cheese, and spread it all over—use 3 cups sauce if you want a thicker layer.
Pour on a bit more than half of the remaining polenta (about 3 cups) and spread it, and top with shredded soft cheese and grated hard cheese in the amounts you like. Pour in the remaining sauce, and spread it evenly, reserving a cup, if you have enough and plan to unmold the pasticciata.
For the top layer, spread all the rest of the polenta, and another 1/4 cup sauce on top of that. Sprinkle on more shredded soft cheese and grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you're making a thin pasticciata in a big pan, or want it to have a beautiful deep-golden crust or gratinato, use enough cheese to really cover the top. Do not compress the cheeses, though. (See note below.)
Set the pan on a cookie sheet, and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or more, until the top is deeply colored and crusted, even browned a bit on the edges. Let the pasticciata cool for a few minutes before serving. If serving portions from the baking pan, cut into squares (like lasagna), or wedges if you've used a round skillet or pan, and lift them out with a spatula.
If unmolding the pasticciata: Let it cool for at least 10 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pan, cutting through any crust sticking to the rim or sides. Lay a big board on top of the baking pan or skillet, hold the two together (with the protection of cloths and the help of other hands if necessary), and flip them over. Rap on the upturned pan bottom—or bang on it all over—to loosen the bottom. Lift the board, and give the pan a good shake. The pasticciata will eventually drop out. Serve on the board, or reflip it onto a serving platter, and serve with a cup or more of warm sauce heaped on the top or served on the side.
Note: If you want to prepare the pasticciata and bake later the same or the next day, do not sprinkle the cheese on top. Cover it, wrap it well, and refrigerate. Before baking, sprinkle on the cheeses and make a tent of foil over the baking dish, without touching the cheese. Poke a few small holes in the foil, to vent steam. Set the pan on a sheet, and bake for 1/2 hour at 400° F; then remove the foil and continue to bake until deeply colored and crusted.
To Freeze: When assembling and layering the polenta, instead of using one big dish, do it in 2-3 smaller dishes, seal the ones you want to freeze, label and date, and when you are ready to use, defrost and bake according to recipe.
Excerpted from Lidia's Favorite Recipes by Lidia Bastianich. Copyright © 2012 by Tutti a Tavola, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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