Serves 12 with leftovers that can easily be frozen
Polenta pasticiatta is a layered baked dish, just like lasagna, but made with warm, fresh polenta instead of pasta. And like lasagna, it is marvelously versatile: you can put all manner of good things in between the layers of polenta—cheeses, vegetables, meats, or sauces, or a combination of everything. People absolutely love it for the complexity of flavor, and because it can be prepared in advance. It is a great family preparation and I have a rendition of it in Lidia’s Family Table, and can be made ahead of time, just like lasagna.
- 1 batch (about 10 cups) Basic Polenta, freshly made and hot with or without freshly grated Grana Padano, (it will be richer if you include it, but without it is just as good) (Basic Polenta Recipe)
- 4 to 6 cups of any of the following sauces: Mushroom Ragu, Marinara Sauce, or Tomato Sauce
- 2 tablespoons soft butter, or more, for the baking dish
- 1 cup Besciamella, optional, (it will render the pasticciata richer and more complex)
- 1/2 to 1 cup grated Grana Padano
- 1 to 2 cups shredded Muenster or dry packed mozzarella, imported fontina , cheddar, or a cheese of your liking
Preheat the oven to 400° 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 pasticiatta 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.
If you’re extending the filling sauce with Plain Tomato or Marinara, warm them up together. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish or 12-inch cast iron skillet thoroughly. Use more butter on the bottom, in particular, if you want to unmold the pasticiatta onto a platter. Put 1/4 cup besciamella in the dish or skillet and spread it around the bottom; it doesn’t have to cover every bit.
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. Spread another 1/4 cup of besciamella on top, 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 pasticiatta.
For the top layer, spread all the rest of the polenta and another 1/4 cup besciamella on top of that. Sprinkle on more shredded soft cheese and grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano. If you’re making a thin pasticiatta in a big pan, or want it to have a beautiful deep gold crust or gratinato, use enough besciamella and 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 pasticiatta cool for a few minutes before serving. If serving portions from the baking pan, cut in squares (like lasagna), or wedges if you’ve used a round skillet or pan, and lift them out with a spatula. If unmolding the pasticiatta: let it cool for at least 10 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pan, cutting through 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 pasticiatta will eventually drop out. Serve on the board, or re-flip 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 pasticiatta and bake later the same or next day, spread the last layer of polenta and coat it well with besciamella, but don’t sprinkle on the cheeses. Cover it, wrap it well and refrigerate overnight. 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°, remove the foil and continue to bake until deeply colored and crusted.