If you love baked clams in restaurants, you’ll adore these! My rendition of this old time favorite, known as “clams oreganata” uses the broiler instead of the conventional bake setting on the oven. The raw clams sit, opened and on their half shell, perched on a bed of coarse sea salt and topped with an insanely savory compound butter and then broiled until golden. If desired, you can raw rice under the clams instead of the salt (although it’s not as dramatic looking). I usually make a double batch of the compound butter and store it, in long thin logs, in the freezer. Because opening raw clams is quite challenging-and can be dangerous-I just ask my fish monger to do this. I ask that the clams be totally removed from their shells and placed, along with their nectar, into a plastic tub. I also take only half the shells home. It’s important to wash and dry the shells well, before putting things together, which will eliminate any chance of a stray piece of shell getting into the mix. And each clam, because of it’s size variation, will require a slightly different amount of butter. I like to be generous, and enclose the clam fully. When ordering Little Neck clams for this, remember that smaller clams are a bit more tender and are also easier for people to eat in one bite-something to think about if serving them with drinks at the start of the evening.
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Place the softened butter, garlic, crumbs, cayenne, herbs, pepper and wine (and lemon, if using) into a bowl and, using a fork or sturdy rubber spatula, combine well. (If the butter is not very soft, and especially if making a double batch, I usually just use clean hands to squeeze the mixture together, which really distributes the butter more evenly throughout.) Lay two separate sets of long, tripled, 14-to 16-inch sheets of plastic wrap on your work surface and divide the compound butter on the centers of the plastic. Working with one half at a time, fold one long side of the wrap over the butter mixture and roll it over, totally enclosing the butter in plastic, but not twisting the ends shut. Using your hands, roll gently, helping the mixture to start to resemble a log. Now, lift the log and, while holding one end of the plastic, pull the butter mixture down-going away from you, so that the butter travels down toward the other end. Rotate the log now and pull down on the other end. Keep doing this until you have a long, thin log, no more than 1 inch in diameter. Chill the log until firm. (The compound butter can be frozen for several months. If so, wrap the plastic covered log in foil before placing into the freezer. Thaw in the refrigerator for several hours to thaw.)
Sprinkle a baking sheet or flat, heat proof, decorative serving tray (mine is a large round cast-iron almost-rimless pan, with handles, by Lodge), with an even layer of coarse sea salt (use the coarsest grind you can find). Rinse and dry the clam shells. Place them on paper towels, opened sides up. Have the prepared baking tray close to the filling and clam shells. Unwrap the compound butter and slice it into 24 slices (each about 1/2-inch thick). Place each clam (allowing the nectar to cling to the meat) on its half shell (still on the paper towels). Lift one slice of butter and flatten it in your hand to help it be able to cover (and enclose) the clam. Place the flattened butter mixture onto the clam. Do this will all the clams, then place them, side by side, on the salt. If the clam tips forward, use your working hand to help plant the bottom of the shell in the salt. The clams can be assembled 1 day ahead and kept well chilled, covered with plastic wrap.
Position the oven rack place about 6 to 8 inches from the heat source (in my oven, it's the second shelf from the heating element) and preheat the broiler. Broil the clams for 5 to 10 minutes (depending on their size and the intensity of your heat source), rotating the pan to cook the clams and brown them evenly. If using parmesan, remove the tray and sprinkle the tops of the clams very lightly with the cheese, for the last 2 minutes of the cooking process. Serve with cocktail forks.