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Asparagus and Fontina Sformato

The word sformato comes from the Italian verb sformare, meaning “to unmold.” A sformato is a soft, usually savory, custard that is baked in a mold (or individual molds as here), turned out onto a serving plate and served warm. Besciamella (bechamel sauce) often serves as the base to which vegetables, meat or cheese are added. This cheese and asparagus version can serve as a side dish or the main dish of a luncheon. Buttering the ramekins and lining the bottom with parchment paper assures that the custards will unmold easily.

Ingredients:

  • Unsalted butter for ramekins, plus 2 Tbs.
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup grated fontina cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 bunch thick asparagus spears, about 1 lb. total, tough ends removed
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted

Directions:

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Butter six 3/4-cup ramekins and line the bottom of each with parchment paper cut to fit. Butter the paper. Line a shallow baking pan with a kitchen towel.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk just until small bubbles appear along the edges of the pan, then remove from the heat.

In another saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the 2 Tbs. butter. Using a wooden spoon, stir the flour into the butter to make a roux. Cook the roux, stirring constantly, until it bubbles gently, about 2 minutes. Slowly pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly until the sauce is smooth. Bring the sauce to a simmer and stir constantly until it thickens, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese until it melts. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the sauce to prevent a skin from forming and set aside to cool slightly.

In a large fry pan over medium-high heat, bring about 2 inches of salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook until tender, about 6 minutes. Using tongs, carefully transfer the asparagus to a large strainer. Run cold water over the stalks and drain. Lay the asparagus on a paper towel-lined plate. Cut off the bottom two-thirds of the stalks, leaving 3-inch-long tips. Set the tips aside. In a food processor, process the stalks until pureed.

Whisk the beaten eggs into the cheese sauce until blended, then whisk in the asparagus puree. Divide the custard among the prepared ramekins.

Place the ramekins in the towel-lined baking pan and pour hot water into the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custard is set, about 30 minutes. Carefully remove the baking pan from the oven and turn off the oven. Lift the ramekins out of the water, transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes.

Place the asparagus tips in a pie dish, drizzle with the melted butter and put them in the still-warm oven for about 5 minutes.

To unmold the custards, run a thin, sharp knife around the edge of the ramekins. Place a serving plate on top of each ramekin and invert together. Gently lift off the ramekin and peel off the parchment. Arrange some of the warm asparagus tips around each sformato and serve warm. Serves 6.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking, by Cathy Burgett, Elinor Klivans & Lou Seibert Pappas (Oxmoor House, 2008).