It's hard to believe, but Jessi and I have now been together for over seven years, and our two-year wedding anniversary is tomorrow, August 1st. We went out for dinner at Sycamore on Friday evening (that's a separate post, coming soon), and since she's helping with VBS tomorrow evening, we're doing our special meal tonight. And, instead of going for something crazy-fancy that will break the bank and necessitate us cooking all day, we went with an old, long-time favorite.
We had sausage bread for the first time at Johnny's near the beginning of our relationship and were immediately struck by the idea. Delicious, homemade Italian sausage stuffed inside crispy Italian/French bread, with cheese, herbs, et al. Simple concept, delicious result. Since Johnny's wasn't exactly cheap either, we attempted to make this at home. It worked wonderfully, and while I still don't agree with Jess that mine's better than the restaurant version, it's definitely something we come back to as a standby when we need something 'special' for dinner.
The recipe I use for the sausage stuffing is based on Emeril's recipe for mild italian sausage. Our version is really close to Emeril's, with a couple important changes. Here's our recipe.
-1 lb. ground beef, as lean as you can get (we usually use 93/7, but 95/5 is even better)
-2 tbsp. crushed garlic
-1 tbsp. paprika
-1 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds (you can toast/crush them, but I usually get lazy and don't)
-1/2 tbsp. salt
-1/2 tbsp. black pepper
-1 tsp. cayenne (or substitute 1/2 tsp. cayenne and 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes)
-1/2 tsp. anise seeds
-2 or 3 tbsp. dried parsley flakes
-3 tbsp. dry red wine (whatever's left over in the fridge, but Chianti or Cab. Sauv. is best)
Ok, so here are the differences. Emeril's recipe uses 3 lbs of pork butt in his recipe. We use a much leaner cut of meat, and only a third as much. Thus, what we end up with can't really be called 'mild Italian sausage'; it's definitely got a bit of a kick to it. If you want to back off on the spice, halve the cayenne and/or red pepper flakes. We also halve the amount of salt and pepper he uses in his recipe, as with only a third the amount of meat, 1 tbsp. of each becomes overpowering.
Mix the meat and the other ingredients together by hand (only way to get this right, IMO) and then ball it up in a bowl and let it sit, covered lightly, in the fridge for at least 2 and up to 8 hours, or even over-night if you have the time. When you're ready to assemble the sausage bread, fry this up in a non-stick skillet with a bit of non-stick cooking spray and then transfer to a plate/bowl to let cool for 10-20 minutes.
When I said this recipe was easy, I meant it. For the bread, we go very simple, and buy Pillsbury Pizza Crust--Thin Crust style. Yup, that's right. The stuff in the blue can. We've also used the French Bread (also from the can) but find that the thin crust works much better. Lay out some parchment paper (or tinfoil, if you don't have parchment paper) on a large cookie sheet and dust lightly with flour. Remove the dough from the container. You'll notice that there's a seam all along one side. Gently unroll the dough along this seam until you have a flat rectangle on your cookie sheet.
Here's where budget and relative ease of task come into play. If you want to take the flavors up a notch, by all means, go out and get a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a bit of Pecorino Romano to mix in with your garden variety shredded mozzarella. If you're not feeling particularly flush in a given week (unless you get it at somewhere like Sam's Club, Parm-Regg runs something like $15 a pound) you can easily just substitute a garden-variety 'Italian Blend' shredded cheese mixture from the grocery store (We especially like HyVee's). Are the specialty cheeses worth it? Yes and no. If you mix in the Parmigianno-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano (the Pecorino especially is tangy and salty) your flavors will have a bit more depth, but then again, you have to shell out the cash for the cheese and then spend time grating it with a box grater or the like. In the end, it works either way.
Once the dough's rolled out in a rectangle, put about half of your cheese mixture down on the dough, leaving about 2" free around all four edges. Then load on the sausage, in sort of a ridge, running horizontally along the dough (the dough should be laid out w/the long edges on the top and bottom, the short edges on the two sides). Place the remaining cheese on top. If we're using 'bagged' cheese, we typically use between 3/4 of an 8oz package and the whole thing. Just don't use so much that you won't be able to get the crust sealed up. After the meat and cheese are laid out, carefully (it really helps to have two people to do this) bring the short edges together up to the middle. Do the same with the remaining two edges until a seam is made along the top. Wet your fingertips and press the dough of this seam together. If the dough doesn't stick perfectly, don't worry, you just want it sealed enough so all the tastiness inside doesn't come out.
Bake at 350 for approximately 30 minutes, and check for doneness. The bread should be golden brown on top. If it's still a bit doughy in parts, give it another 15 minutes or so. If, on the other hand, the top is getting a bit too brown and the rest of the dough doesn't look quite cooked enough, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top of the loaf. This will slow down/stop any burning. And, if you're lucky (it took us several tries to get this all to work correctly) you'll have something like this...
And the deliciousness inside...