Saturday night was looming. Kathryn and Tim were coming over, and, inspired by this month’s issue of Gourmet Traveller, I was in an Italian mood. O finished up his job on Friday, so it was a great cause for celebration.
This occasion called for a timpano.
If you’re musically inclined, you’ve probably heard of a timpani. They are those big kettle drums you see in orchestra pits that look like huge bowls with skins stretched over the top. A timpano is the culinary version of one of these drums – it’s a huge big bowl of pastry filled with pasta, meatballs, salami, olives, and any other delicious Italian thing you can think of. This dish caused a bit of a culinary stir in the mid 90s after it was the centrepiece of the foodie movie Big Night.
It takes the best part of the day to prepare, so this is a dish that is worthy of a drum roll.
Timpano is also a Maltese dish (though in Maltese it’s spelled “timpana” and is not quite so elaborate as the Italian version), so it felt good to cook something with ties to my own heritage.
My day started with a trip back to the Mediterranean Wholesalers in Brunswick, where I stocked up on passata, olives, mozzarella, salami, and other items that make life worthwhile. I wanted a wide variety of pasta to choose from, as the texture of the pasta in timpano is very important. You don’t want pasta that is too big or small, as it will squish down under the weight of all the other ingredients and become too dense. You can use any type of cylindrical pasta for timpano: bucatini, rigatoni, penne, even maybe big macaroni. I chose a ridged diagonal penne where you could actually see the fold in the pasta rather than having one smooth tube.
The components of my timpano were as follows:
1. Bolognese sauce (not too runny)
2. Bechamel sauce
4. Pastry for the shell
5. Polpette (little walnut-sized meatballs… possibly the cutest-sounding word in the Italian language)
6. Hard boiled eggs
7. Other ingredients like olives, hunks of mozzarella, salami, capers, peas etc
As you can see, it’s a pretty time-consuming dish to prepare. I think I used every pot in my kitchen twice.
You can find an excellent detailed recipe from Gourmet Traveller, May 2006, but basically you make the pastry first and chill it in the fridge until everything else is done. Then get your bolognese going. While that is simmering and reducing, hard boil your eggs. Then make your meatballs and pan fry them until brown. Next, make a big pot of bechamel sauce. Mix the pasta with half the bechamel and the bolognese. Roll out your pastry and fit to a huge dish (I used my biggest springform pan – I highly recommend this strategy). Make sure there is lots of pastry overhanging on the sides. Place the pasta mixture in the bottom, then layer the other ingredients, including a drizzle of passata here and there. Work in the rest of the bolognese and bechamel. Make sure you include some generous chunks of mozzarella here and there. Next time I will also beat a few eggs together and drizzle some raw egg through it too.
Fold the overhanging pastry over the top and bake for a couple of hours.
Now, the next step is VERY important.
If you make your timpano in a springform pan, don’t be tempted to tip it upside down as is traditionally done when it is baked in a pot. A timpano full of this many ingredients is pretty heavy, and as it is quite exciting to see a dish like this after working on it for several hours, it is very easy to get carried away and accidentally drop it on the kitchen floor in front of your dinner guests.
Everybody was looking at me as though my head were about to explode.
But I honestly believe the joy is in the cooking, so while I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to slice through it and see a cross section of Italian garlic-laced goodness, I wasn’t too upset. We resurrected most of it and ate it anyway. It tasted great (though it lost a little something in the presentation). Luckily I was able to get a photo of it before I dropped it.
When I was a kid, my brother’s friend dropped a plate of mum’s spaghetti all over the floor. For years afterwards we had a family joke about “spaghetti alla floor”. So I guess it’s kind of fitting that such a traditional dish should end up on the floor too.