Timballo is an extravagant, towering pasta pie from Southern Italy: crumbly semi-sweet short pastry enclosing a voluptuous filling of pasta, meat sauce, béchamel sauce, peas, cheese, eggs, ham, mushrooms, giblets etc – the sky is the limit. Timballo is also called timpano and “both words mean the same thing – a drum, as in the timpani of a symphony orchestra” , as Arthur Schwartz says in his splendid book Naples at Table. Timballo has its roots in the kitchens of mid 18th century Southern Italy aristocrats and it has many variations, all of which proudly reject that old adage that “less is more”: the whole point of a timballo is that “more, more, more and even more is better”.
Timballi are festive, celebratory, splendid dishes that only the really wealthy could afford – it was food to impress. In the famous 1958 Italian novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), set in mid 19th century Sicily there is this memorable description of the timballo offered by the grand Prince Salina to his guests at his ball:
“When three lackeys in green, gold and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering macaroni pie, only four of the twenty at table avoided showing pleased surprise….Good manners apart, though, the aspect of those monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of the sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.” (The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translation by Archibald Colquhoun).
Timballi are long dishes to assemble but they are not difficult to make. I recommend spreading the preparation over two days, the first day to make the pastry and the pork ragù, the second day to make all the other bits and pieces, assemble and cook the pie. After lots of researching and multiple experiments (see notes), I came up with my version of timballo, whose relevant features are:
a mildly sweet pasta frolla (Italian short pastry), very rich in butter and bound with white dry vermouth; traditionally lard would have been used but I do not have easy access to good quality lard here in London: if you are lucky enough to have it, use it: half butter and half lard;
a filling of broken ziti pasta, spiced pork ragù, béchamel sauce, sautéed chicken livers, peas, ceps, emmenthal cheese and pecorino romano; in Italy I would have used an Italian, mild, melting cheese of course. To be fair I also had delicious timballi when I used the British cheese creamy Lanacshire, that melts beautifully without becoming stringy:
a spiced pork ragù that was made in the pressure cooker because I now think this is the best method to deliver a deep voluptuous taste
This is my version for a 20 cm timballo, a feast for 6 to 8 lucky eaters. I used a deep 20cm x 9cm cake tin, with a removable base, well buttered.
Timballo con ragu di maiale speziato e intingolo di fegatini /Timballo with spiced pork ragù and chicken livers
Chicken livers – 500g
Full fat milk – 250ml
Wash and trim the chicken livers. Cut them in small pieces, place them in the lightly salted milk and keep in the fridge.
Pasta frolla – the pastry
I make the pastry using my food processor, but do follow your own method if you prefer, of course
00 Italian flour or plain flour – 450g
Wholemeal flour – 50g
fine sea salt – 1 tsp (if using unsalted, as I do)
Icing sugar – 3 teaspoons
butter – 250g, cold and cut into small cubes
Dry white vermouth (or white wine) – 125 ml, approximately
Place two-thirds of the combined flours, the salt and the icing sugar in the bowl of the food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mass begins to resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Add the remaining flour and pulse again, until the mass looks like fine breadcrumbs: the butter must be fully integrated into the flour. Add the vermouth and pulse a couple of times. Transfer to your working surface and finish bringing the dough together by hand, adding a few drops of water if necessary in order to have a dough that is smooth, malleable but not the least sticky. As usual with pastry, a light touch will reward you with a pastry that is crisp but tender – do not overwork. Flatten into a disk, wrap in cling film and refrigerate until the following day.
Ragù di maiale speziato con la pentola a pressione/Spiced pork ragù cooked in the pressure cooker
dried ceps – 30g, rinsed
butter – 50g
onion – one, finely chopped
bay leaf – one
freshly ground cinnamon and sweet paprika – 1/4 teaspoon each
clove – one
freshly grated nutmeg – a tiny pinch
ground pork – 500g
dry white vermouth/dry white wine/red wine – 120 ml
anchovy fillets in olive oil – a couple
full fat milk – 120 ml
concentrated tomato paste – 2 tablespoons
Light beef broth (I used both real broth and one made from concentrated beef extract – no big difference) – 250 ml, hot
double cream – one tablespoon
Barely cover the ceps with water and let them rehydrate for half an hour. Lift them out, squeezing out as much water as possible. Filter the water they steeped in through muslim-lined colander and reserve it.
Warm up the pressure cooker. add the butter and the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onion is lightly golden. Add the bay and the spices: the gas is rather brisk and you must stir almost constantly. After a few seconds, add the ceps, coat them in the spiced butter. When they stop looking “raw”, raise the heat and add the ground pork. Cook for about 15 minutes, without stirring too often: we want to create a light brown patina on the bottom of the pan and partially caramelized meat.
Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping the bits that got stuck at the bottom. Add the reserved ceps water. Let the liquid boil away almost completely. Add the anchovy, stir to dissolve and add the milk. Bring to boil. when the milk has evaporated, add the tomato paste and cook it for a couple of minutes, stirring often. Add the hot stock, bring to boil, salt very lightly.
Lock the lid, bring to high pressure, move the pressure cooker to the faintest gas your stove allows and cook for 15 minutes at high pressure. Naturally release the pressure. Stir and add the cream. Check the seasoning after ten minutes, you might want to add more spices.
Take the pastry out of the fridge and after half an hour transfer it onto a lightly floured surface. Place a rolling pin at the top and press it down firmly. Repeat this pressing action all the way through top to bottom. The aim is to soften the pastry and make it pliable and workable. Give the pastry a quarter turn and repeat, always making sure it does not stick to the working surface, which should always be lightly dusted with flour. Repeat until the pastry can be comfortably rolled – we are aiming at one pound coin thickness. You can also roll the pastry between sheets of parchment, of course. Cut out a circle to fit the base and place it in the tin. Cut out a couple of wide strips to fit around the tin and place them, pressing well where they join. Cut out the lid and reserve in the fridge. There should be some pasty left to make a few decorations, if you feel inclined. Keep them in the fridge too.
Put the cake tin in the freezer and proceed with the rest of the recipe
Place a baking tray in the lower part of the oven and preheat it to 200C.
I piselli/The peas
frozen peas – 200g
unsalted butter – 15g
Place the peas in a large bowl and pour hot water over them. Drain them after ten minutes. Dress them with the butter, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. reserve
La besciamella/the béchamel sauce
full fat milk – 750ml
bay leaf – one
cloves – two
butter – 60g
plain flour – 30g
egg – 1, separated
Warm the milk with the onion, the bay leaf and the cloves. Leave it for 30 minutes and filter it.
Melt the butter, add the flour and cook on low for about five minutes, stirring often. Add the milk gradually, off the heat, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Bring the sauce back on the heat and cook it for about 10-15 minutes, or until thickened, bearing in mind that this is a rather thin béchamel. Add the yolk and still well. Reserve the white – it will be used to glaze the timballo in the end.
L’intingolo di fegatini/the chicken liver sauce
Chicken livers – 500g (from day 1)
onion – one, finely chopped
butter – 30g
dry Marsala/sherry/vinsanto – 50 ml
balsamic vinegar – 1 tablespoon
sultanas – 50g, soaked in warm water with a dash of vinegar
Remove the chicken livers from the fridge, rinse them but do not pat them dry.
Melt the butter, add the onion with a pinch of salt. When the onion is golden, add the livers, still keeping the flame on medium-low. Cook them for 4-5 minutes, turning them once, add the wine and the balsamic vinegar, let it evaporate almost completely. Cover and reserve.
Assemblare il timballo e cuocerlo/Assembling and cooking the timballo
short tubular pasta or broken up ziti – 500g
Pecorino romano – 100 g, grated
Emmental – 120g (any melting cheese, not too strong), finely cut
Remove the pastry top and the decorative leaves from the fridge.
Warm up the ragù and have the chicken liver sauce, the béchamel sauce, the grated pecorino, the peas , the Emmental cheese at hand.
Cook the pasta keeping it very al dente (a few minutes less than what is stated on the box). Drain. Dress it with half the ragù, half the béchamel sauce and the all the grated Pecorino. Remove the timballo from the freezer. You have now to make layers of: emmental, dressed pasta, chicken liver sauce, peas, a little of the reserved béchamel and ragù.
You could also dress the pasta with all the condiments in one go – both methods work (instead of making layers).
Wet the rim of the timballo with water and place the lid securely over, pressing down firmly to seal it. Apply the decorations, if you have made them. Lightly whisk the reserved egg white and brush it all over: sprinkle with a little granulated sugar and a few grains of salt, keeping a little bit aside. Make a few holes in the lid to allow the steam inside to escape.
Place the timballo in the preheated oven and cook for 45 minutes, covering the top with tin foil if it looks as if it is browning too fast. Remove from the oven, let it rest for 10 minutes over a rack and very gently unmould it. Brush the sides with the remaining egg white and put the timballo back in the now switched off oven for 10-15 minutes, just long enough to give the side the chance to take some colour.
Let it rest outside the oven for 30 minutes before bringing to the table and cutting it.
Reference and notes
If you are interested in the food described in The Leopard, this is an interesting paper by Mary Tyler Simeti, whose books about Sicilian Food are still the among the best for reference. There is also a wonderful movie derived from the novel, by director Luchino Visconti.
A culinary curiosity: in the novel’s description of the timballo offered by the Principe of Salina, “hard boiled eggs” are mentioned – these are in fact cooked unlaid eggs, something of a rarity these days. If you want to see what they look like: SPOILER: image of a chicken carcass: clic here.
Pellegrino Artusi, the godfather of Italian food has two recipes for timballo:
Timballo di piccione/squab timbale
Pasticcio di maccheroni/pasta and meat timbale (pasticcio can sometimes be used as a synonym for timbale)
If you read Italian, these are two gems and essential books about Neapolitan cooking with excellent chapters on timballi:
Vincenzo Corrado (Il Cuoco Galante/The Gallant Cook, 1773): Trattato XI, delli Timballi, e Sortù, p 162 and frw