Risotto cakes

This is one of my favourite treats to make when I have leftover risotto. I just put the leftovers into a mold (usually a square or rectangular plastic sandwich keeper) and refrigerate them. Once they’re thoroughly chilled, usually by the next day, I unmold, cut to shape, bread, and shallow-fry until golden on the outside and warm and tender on the inside.

I used to wonder why risotto cakes don’t fall apart when you fry them. It turns out the answer has to do with the behaviour of starch: gelation, retrogradation and reheating. Any time you cook a starchy food – rice, wheat flour, cornmeal – the starch molecules disperse in the water, forming a gel. Then, when the food is cooled down, the starch retrogrades, with the starch molecules bonding together again into hard clusters. Staleness in bread has long been attributed to this phenomenon; in fact, bread can continue to go stale at temperatures down to -20°C!

Fortunately, when starch is reheated, it re-gels, which is why stale bread gets soft again when you warm it. But some of the clusters that form through retrogradation are firmer than they were before they were cooked in the first place, and harder to break down. This is what gives risotto the structural integrity it needs for the cakes to hold together as they cook.

Incidentally, this is a technique that can be applied to a wide range of starchy foods, not just risotto. It’s frequently seen with polenta, which can be cooked and chilled, then cut into shapes and either grilled or fried. Properly done, the outside should be crisp and the interior meltingly smooth. But there are more esoteric possibilities as well: I once made a dessert based around “fried oatmeal,” using the same technique: I cooked the spiced, sweetened oatmeal, then chilled it in a square pan. To serve, I cut it into pieces, fried them in butter, and plated them with a variety of other elements, including strawberry puree, rhubarb fruit leather, and honey frozen yogurt. It was a hit!

Recipe for risotto cakes

Leftover risotto, preferably without large, chunky garnishes
Eggs, as necessary
Flour for dredging
Panko or breadcrumbs for breading

After chilling the leftover risotto overnight, unmold it and cut it into suitable pieces. Dip each piece in beaten egg, then flour, then egg again, then panko or breadcrumbs. Shallow-fry until the breadcrumbs are golden-brown and the interior is warmed through. Serve immediately.

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