I recently wrote about the CA-1 farm stand mini-trail leaving San Francisco, where fresh produce and a Pacific Ocean view accompany you all the way to Santa Cruz, ending with a recommendation for Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria in nearby Capitola. I trekked to Gayle’s after baking from the books written by its founders, Joe and Gayle Ortiz. “The Village Baker” (Ten Speed Press, 1993) and “The Village Baker’s Wife” (Ten Speed Press, 1997) were way ahead of their time, with a formative, even seminal, combination of friendliness and hardcore, pro-level instruction. I still refer to both frequently. The Ortizes have come to O.C. at least once, which was pretty cool—I bought a ticket to see them demo at Zov’s Bistro in Tustin. (Zov Karamardian’s always known everybody in food.)
However, one of the best things at Gayle’s isn’t a bread or pastry, though I guess it qualifies as baked. It’s a pasta dish from the rosticceria’s hot case: shells in a creamy sauce streaked with spinach, tangy from three cheeses, with a good hit of fresh California garlic. It’d be the perfect addition to any holiday-entertaining buffet. It’s simple, but like many seemingly simple things, just so, so good. Gayle’s purchasing and media manager Lisa Hindley was nice enough to send me the recipe, along with these thoughts from co-owner Joe Ortiz: “My memory is that it started out as spinach gorgonzola lasagna—we wanted to make it a simpler recipe, and one that would appeal to more people. It also seems like one of those recipes we just can’t take off the rotation because it might cause customers to revolt.”
I can believe that! It’s an easy dish, even easier in stages: make the cheese sauce and thaw the spinach one day (or blanch fresh if using), next day assemble and refrigerate, and then bake when ready to serve.
Gayle’s Bakery Spinach-Gorgonzola Pasta
4 cups milk
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons butter
10 ounces gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
4 pinches nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 pound large pasta shells
2 bunches fresh spinach, lightly blanched, or 1 pound package frozen, thawed; either, squeezed completely dry
3/4 cup ricotta
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Make gorgonzola sauce: In heavy saucepan over medium heat, heat milk until hot but not boiling. Combine flour and butter in another heavy saucepan. Stir over medium heat with wooden spoon or whisk until mixture has gently bubbled for 2 minutes. Be careful not to brown flour.
Add hot milk to flour mixture a little at a time, whisking. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 6 to 8 minutes. It will look like heavy cream. Add gorgonzola, whisking until smooth. Add nutmeg and pepper. Remove from heat and cool.
Cook pasta in salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain.
In large bowl, combine pasta, gorgonzola sauce, spinach, ricotta, and garlic. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Place in 12-inch by 17-inch casserole dish and top with Parmesan. (May make to this point to bake later—cover well and refrigerate.) Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until cheese browns a little.
(Photo courtesy Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria)