About a week before Christmas I made an improvised, ad hoc, but really tasty supper of buttery braised cabbage, chestnuts and crispy pancetta. Enlightened and wanting to experiment more, I furrowed around in my favourite books and found many of my favourite writers singing the praises of similar combinations and more importantly, sharing all these delicious sounding recipes; A recipe from Auverge in France for cabbage, chestnuts and crispy bacon; Another for cabbage and pork cooked really slowly so the flavours melt together; Madame Glon’s recipe for chou farci, stuffed cabbage; An intriguing Northern Italian recipe for cabbage loaf.
Then Christmas and New Year interrupted everything, as did a happy, indulgent long weekend with old friends here in Rome for a wedding and the inevitable trudge back to school that followed. My bookmarks and my cabbage and bacon shaped plans were sidelined and somewhat forgotten in the flurry and then slump that is this time of year
Then last Thursday my brother Ben called me from London. Ben and I invariably talk about food and Thursday was no exception. First he asked eager questions about broccolo romanesco and got excited – as only family members can – about my post for pasta e broccoli. He raved about a dinner at Le cafè Anglais and last but not least, he recounted with the enthusiasm of a labrador puppy that had just found a very large bone about making a chou farci or stuffed cabbage, better still, a sausage and cabbage cake.
A sausage and cabbage cake indeed !
I’m sure if I hadn’t had my pre christmas experience with the braised cabbage or it hadn’t been Rowley Leigh’s recipe via my brother, Good taste both of them, I might have been less enthusiastic. But I had and it was, so it seemed like fate. To top it all, I’d just bought the rather handsome savoy cabbage at the market, the one above, perched on the chair in the precious winter light.
So I made it. Then I made it again on Saturday, just to be sure.
I have to say this is one of the most surprising and satisfying things I’ve made in a while. It is, as the name suggests, a cake of cabbage and sausage. You could call it a cabbage and sausage pie I suppose, the cabbage leaves in lieu of pastry and a layered filling of sausage meat and cabbage. Maybe it will help if I explain how you make it.
You choose about 7 of the larger outer cabbage leaves and blanche them in boiling water for a couple of minutes so they are floppy and wonderfully accommodating. Then you lay the largest and most handsome leaf in the bottom of a round well-buttered oven dish and then arrange the other 6 leaves so they cover the sides of the dish, they should be fanned out, really overlapping and hanging over the edges. I remember Molly once suggesting you could wear blanched kale leaves as a cape, I think you could make a rather wonderful, very eccentric skirt from these gloriously, floppy green leaves.
You chop and cook the rest of the cabbage, season it with salt, pepper, fennel seeds and olive oil. Now you make a bed of this seasoned cabbage at the bottom of your rather charming cabbage lined dish.
Now the nice bit, you squeeze the sausage meat out of its casing and press half of it into the dish, it is of course easily moulded. Now another layer of cabbage, then another of sausage meat and a last of one of cabbage, you press the mixture down with your hands. Finally you bring across the overhanging cabbage leaves to cover the top and make a neat parcel and press again.
You dot the top with butter and slide it into the oven for an hour. In the oven the cake cooks into a wonderfully compact and tidy parcel, solid and firm. You might want to woop with joy, it is so perfect and unexpected, You let it cool a little and then invert it onto a plate, no fear of sticking, and you have a savory cake topped with a leaf pattern, rather like an old, majestic oak tree.
You slice into the cake, each neat slice is rather pleasing with its stripes green, pink, green, pink, green, playful really, I made some very creamy buttery mashed potato to go beside it, just right for a very cold friday night.
The taste, well, its strange that an unexpected shape seems to change the taste of something very familiar. Yes, it is only buttery cabbage and sausage meat, but the cake shape with a tree on top, the happy striped wedge on the plate somehow makes it all the more delicious.
‘This is real comfort food’, I found myself muttering, ‘elegant too’. I might have even said ‘What a wonderful play on a classic supper of sausages, mash and buttered cabbage’, or something like ‘So very clever, so very simple, why didn’t I think of this’.
And then I cut myself another slice.
I called Ben, who was even more enthusiastic than usual. Now, we could really talk about this simple and curiously beautiful dish. ‘You could add a layer of chestnuts too‘ he suggested ‘we had it with homemade tomato sauce, you have to try that‘ he added, ‘When are you coming back to london? want to take you to Le café Anglais, sausage and cabbage cake is on the menu.‘
So to the recipe which is Rowley Leigh’s very simple way of making, moulding and serving chou farci (stuffed cabbage,) a much loved but rarely seen piece of French peasant cookery. Quality of sausage meat is really important: a good Toulouse sausage or the Italian luganega both work well as does lean English Cumberland sausage, you simply squeeze the meat out of the casing. Ask your butcher for advice. The fennel seeds are optional, I love the hint of aniseed in this dish (I am normally notoriously funny about aniseed) you may not.
Cabbage and sausage cake
- 1 large savoy cabbage
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 500g very lean, well seasoned sausage meat
- 25g unsalted butter
- 30ml olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Remove 7 of the large, handsome outer leaves (discard any that are discoloured or damaged) and wash them carefully. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and drop in the 7 leaves. Wait for the water to come back to the boil and then blanche the leaves for 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon remove the leaves to a colander in the sink, rinse with very cold water to fix the colour, drain and then spread out, flatten and dry the leaves carefully on kitchen towel. Set them aside.
Cut the rest of the cabbage (the heart) into quarters and bring the same pan of water back to the boil, Drop the four quarters into the boiling water for 5 minutes by which time the cabbage should be tender but the stems still firm. Drain the cabbage quarters, rinse with cold water, drain again and squeeze out access water. Cut away the hard central stem and separate the leaves into bowl and dress with the olive oil, fennel seeds, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Squeeze out the sausage meat from the casing.
Take a round, flat, 20cm oven proof dish and smear it with half the butter. Choose the largest and most handsome leaf from the 7 you have set aside and place it in the bottom of the dish, it should fill the base of the dish and come up the sides. Arrange the other 6 leaves so they cover the sides of the dish, they should be fanned out, really overlapping and hanging over the edges.
Using a third of the seasoned cabbage make a layer at the bottom of the dish and cover with half the sausage meat, pressing it down so it moulds in the dish. Repeat the process, ending with a third layer of cabbage leaves. Press everything into the dish.
Fold and bring in the overlapping leaves to cover the top and make a neat parcel, dot with the remaining butter.
Bake in a medium oven (180°/ 350F) for an hour.
Remove from the oven and the allow the cake to sit for 5 minutes before inverting a plate on top of the dish and turning it on to a plate. Be careful and do this over the sink as there will be hot juices.
Serve with creamy mashed potato and a dab of strong mustard if you like.