Ever since seeing Big Night, my dreams had been filled with visions of the timpano. I tried to convince the chefs at Chez Panisse to put timballo on the menu, saying that though it might be a lot of work to prepare, it would be easy on the line, but they never went for it. I decided that I'd make a timballo for myself at my own goodbye party, with pesto, trenette pasta, minty meatballs and hardboiled eggs, but things got really crazy before I left, and I never got around to it. So when I got to Italy and Benedetta asked me to come help her with a cooking demonstration and dinner that the Marchesa di Frescobaldi was holding at her Castello di Nipozzano for the European press, I was thrilled to find out that timballo would be on the menu.
Timpano, which means "drum" in Italian, and timballo are two different names for the same thing. As they put it in Big Night, "A timpano is a drum with the best things in the world inside!" Traditionally from the south of Italy, there are different versions wherever you go -- some with rice, some with pasta, some with both -- the timballo is a slightly sweetened pastry crust filled with all sorts of savory treats, ranging from hardboiled eggs and meatballs to chicken livers and mozzarella cheese. It's a party dish, brought whole to the table and sliced with theatrical flare before the guests, accompanied, of course, with plenty of oohs and ahhs and in Italy, usually applause.
I love rich, dramatic foods, which explains why I am especially drawn to the party dishes of southern Italy, such as timballo and riso sartu', a savory cake similar to timballo with a crust of risotto crisped in the oven. For me, there is just something so thrilling about the buildup to a dish like timballo: spending one whole day to gather the perfect ingredients and the next to create a masterpiece. I love becoming obsessed with a food, learning about its many possible variations, and then making it just the way I see fit. I was lucky, because Benedetta also loves southern food, and when I got the chance to make timballo with Benedetta, I was in heaven, getting to make the timballo of my dreams alongside my own personal timballaia.
It was the kind of late September day that people picture when they think of Tuscany -- the sky was clear and blue, the air just turning crisp, and our car was loaded with all of the makings of my first timballi. As we drove out of Florence to the east, toward the outskirts of Chianti, apartment buildings turned to farmhouses and the cypress trees that line the hills started to appear. The year's vendemmia had come and gone, but the olives were still on the trees, and we could see workers laying tarps in the groves in preparation for the harvest.
At that time, I really had no idea who the Frescobaldis were, but once I saw their amazing castello, I realized that they must be quite a family. Later, I learned about their wines, and their Luce project with the Mondavi family; I also came to know that their oil is included in the prestigious Laudemio. But the views from their home into the hills were enough to convince me of this family's place in the Italian wine world.
Once Benedetta and I were settled in the kitchen, I got to work preparing the meatballs. I ground the beef, mixed it with parmesan, egg, soaked bread, parsley and garlic, and seasoned it. Then I formed tiny, pea sized meatballs and rolled them in bread crumbs before I fried them until they were just golden brown.
Next, Benedetta fried the chicken livers with sage and garlic, and I parboiled the pasta. We used huge zitoni that I broke up by hand before cooking. Once they were completely cooled, I tossed them with abundant ragú that we had brought with us from the restaurant while Benedetta started on the pasta frolla for the crust. It was easy enough to make, just a little flour, egg, butter, salt and sugar kneaded together to form a dough. She let it rest for about 30 minutes before we rolled it out to cover our 10-inch springform pans.
Then, we just filled the timballi: first, a layer of pasta, then pieces of chicken liver and bufala mozzarella, some meatballs and a little extra ragú to keep it from drying out in the oven, and and then another layer of pasta and stuffing. The last layer was pasta, and then we carefully sealed up the entire thing with a sheet of pasta frolla. From there, we just stuck it into the oven for about 40 minutes, until it was a lovely shade of golden brown. We pulled it out and let it rest when it was done before serving it to the journalists, who were stupefied at the beauty of it all. It took me a few bites to get used to the sweet crust, but now I can't imagine the timballo without it. I've made different versions of the timballo since; I think the only way to ruin one is to go nuts adding too many different ingredients. Tomorrow, I'll post Benedetta's recipe, which I think is a great standard.