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Testa sliced with bread, mustard, and pickled padrons

Coppa di testa, or testa for short, is, from sourcing to slicing, the most difficult food project that I have undertaken. From finding a spot in the fridge for an entire pigs head to shaving the pig to attempting to deal with bones, brains, and teeth after braising for six hours, you see quickly why you do not see many people making testa at home. It is difficult. Taking on the task for me was as much about making a delicious testa as it was seeing if cooking snout to tail at home is a reasonable expectation.

Coppa di testa, or cup of head, is head cheese. It is traditionally less jello-like than Eastern European versions. With charcuterie showing up left and right on menu’s in Chicago, testa has been available in many, many places and with each different version you get to see how each chef approaches the process. There is no definitively right answer, but I prefer to keep the seasoning light and let the textures and tastes of the pig take over. The finish product was delicately porky with great variation in texture ranging from the tough ears, to the skin, to the tongue, to the cheek meat, to the jowl meat, and finally to the fat. Note that since the head was split, the secret ingredient is brain and it is small and somewhere in the testa.

The Pig's Head Split

The process starts with ordering a pigs head (and some trotters, if you want insurance on the mix coming together). A butcher should be able to get it for you with a little notice. I got mine from Slagel Farms and, as mentioned above, had them split it for me. Making testa is not for the squeamish. Even before tearing the meat from the skull post cooking, you are working with an animal’s head. It has teeth, hair, ears, and the like. Disposing of the hair was step one.

The Pig's Head with all of the solid ingredients

In preparing to do this, I had read a descriptions of removing the hair before cooking. The options were blowtorch or razor. Blowtorching sounds very cool, but burning hair never appeals to me, so shaving the pig’s face, ears, etc. was the choice. After a quick shave, I assembled the ingredients and combined everything in a very large roasting pan. Typically, the head is boiled, but given my kitchen equipment and some sound advice, braising seemed to be the best way to approach this pig’s head (a positive of braising is the crispy skin that you get when you cook the last hour uncovered in the oven). With the cover on the pan and the pan in a low oven for six hours, I sat back and relaxed. This was the easy part.

The Testa Ingredients after a 6 hour braise

After the cooking was finished, I used a spider and tongs to remove the half heads and trotters to another large roasting pan. The cooking liquid was strained and a quart was reserved and reduced by 3/4 (the remained was strained an additional time and kept for future use).

The Stock on the day after: No Longer Liquid

While the liquid reduced, I took on the head, separating the meat from the skin and the bones. It is like meeting (meating) old friends, you see the jowls that look like the guanciale that you made, the cheeks that you ordered last night at dinner, the snout on Rob Levitt’s twitter, and the ears that you fed to the dog. About 5 minutes into this process, it was clear how this would go down without gelatin being added, my fingers were sticking together. Please note that if you try making this at home, this is where you question whether it is the gelatin or than your hands are actually melting. This is heat, uncomfortable heat. Another note is to avoid doing this on one of the hottest days of the year. Keeping the A/C rolling with six hours of oven heat is no joke and once you are standing over fifteen pounds of melty pig’s face, sweat is inevitable and copious, even from bystanders and children.

Meat on the Left -- Skin on the Right -- Bones in the Trash

Once the meat is separated from the bones and skin, discard the bones and chop the skin and meat into odd sized pieces. Make sure that you peel the tongue as no one likes an unpeeled tongue and be very gentle with the ears as they have been cooking for a very long time and the cartilage can slip out. I used the snout, but not the eyeballs and, in general, if it looked rough, I tossed it. Also feel around the skin for stubble that you missed or that emerged in the cooking process. Use as much skin as you want, but if it is crispy and you haven’t eaten it yet, do not miss it. Mix up the chopped meat and skin. At this point, taste and reseason the meat/skin. I used a little kosher salt, but Bertolli hits it with a ton of extras as do some others. It is all good and it is up to you, but keep in mind that you are serving this cold or room temp which will affect the flavors.

While you are waiting on the cooking liquid to finish reducing, line two terrines with plastic wrap. Scoop some of the meat/skin mixture along the bottom of the terrine. Taste the liquid. It should be very assertively seasoned. Too salty for regular consumption. Once this chills, the flavors will be less strong, so plan for that. Once it is right, spoon some this liquid into the terrines, but do not drown the meat/skin. Then alternate meat/skin with cooking liquid until you have filled your terrines. Wrap the terrines and weigh them down in the fridge overnight.

The next day remove the testas from the terrines and unwrap. Cut a few slices from one of them and rewrap both loaves with clean wrap. These store well in the fridge and hopefully freeze because there is a ton of it.

Coppa di Testa

Cobbled together from recipes from a number of books

  • 1 Pig’s Head
  • 2 Pig’s Trotters
  • 2 onions roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk celery roughly chopped
  • 6 cloves of garlic smashed
  • A handful of fresh herbs (I used lemon thyme, rosemary, and parsley)
  • 1/2 cup madeira
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 3 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 3 tablespoons coriander
  • 1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 100 grams kosher salt
  • 1 gallon water

Ingredients that are not animal heads or spices

Step one: Shave pig’s head with disposable razor.

The Salt and Spices.

Step two: Combine all spices, toast them, and pound them with a mortar and pestle.

Step three: Combine all ingredients in a roasting pan, cover, and add to a 300 degree oven for 5 hours.

Step four: Remove cover and return to heat for 1 hour.

Step five: Carefully remove the head and trotters from the pan. Strain cooking liquid. Store all, but one quart.

Step six: Reduce pint to 1 cup. While reducing. Strip meat, skin, and fat from head. Separate, meat/fat from skin. Dispose of bones.

Step seven: Chop meat and skin and combine in two plastic wrap lined terrines adding reduced liquid as you go.

Step eight: Wrap in plastic wrap and weigh down in fridge overnight.