La pasta matta (crazy dough for savoury tarts and pies)

Italians have a soft spot for torte salate (savoury tarts/pies), particularly now a primavera, at spring time. Torte salate are not extravagant with cream and eggs in the way French quiches are, they tend to be simpler, lighter, casual dishes that lend themselves to endless improvisations and impromptu suppers: some cooked vegetables, a little ricotta and/or a couple of eggs, a generous fistful of parmigiano or pecorino to jazz things up, all enclosed in a thin, crisp, lean pastry, called pasta matta, which literally means “crazy dough”, probably on account of the very little fat that is used to make.

Pasta matta is the poor relative of richer brisè and puff pastry, but I find it more useful in every-day cooking and often better in fact Continue reading

Timballo con ragu di maiale speziato e intingolo di fegatini (Timballo with spiced pork ragù and chicken livers)

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 TableTimballo 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).

 

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Malfatti di spinaci e ricotta (Spinach and ricotta gnocchi)

 

Malfatti literally means “badly shaped” and the name fits perfectly these misshapen, fragile dumplings. Under different names (gnudi, strozzapreti, gnocchi verdi, rabaton) malfatti appear in many parts of northern and central Italy and they share the same logic: cooked, chopped leafy greens (chard, spinach, nettles) are mixed with a binding ingredient (eggs, ricotta, breadcrumbs, flour), formed into fragile gnocchi-like morsels, poached and dressed, generally, with melted butter and Parmigiano or with a light tomato sauce They are delicate but not insubstantial. Continue reading

Torta Pasqualina (Easter chard and fresh cheese pie from Liguria)

 

To say that we Italians are food traditionalists is an understatement. Time and time again we go back to dishes that we have known since we were kids and we still enjoy them immensely. Come Easter and torta pasqualina will appear on very many tables. “Torta pasqualina” translates as Eastertide cake but it is actually a savory pie: layers of a golden, shatteringly flaky olive oil pastry, encasing a substantial filling of chards (biete, in Italian), fresh soft cheese, Parmigiano or pecorino , eggs and marjoram. It is a centuries old dish and one of the highlights of the Italian vegetarian canon – the quintessential spring dish. Continue reading