Made famous in Stanley Tucci’s wonderful foodie film Big Night (here) where the chef’s doomed attempt for a successful restaurant results in a jaw dropping, show stopping dish. Here’s the story of my own doomed attempt for a successful party resulting in a doomed attempt at a successful timpano.
Done well, a timpano is a glorious celebration of the best of Italian comfort food – Recovering carbaholics look away, this is not for you. Pasta, meatballs, provolone, parmesan, eggs, salami, sausages, tomatoes and more all packed tightly into a thin pasta dough drum, hence the name, Timpano. When baked, cooled and sliced, this is a greatest hits of Italian food, a glorious cross section of unctious proteins and carbs. Done badly, this is still great but will be a sloppy mess that has cost you a few afternoons and lots of pennies. You may get away with calling it deconstructed, but technically, surely you needed to construct it first.
Moisture control and patience are the key. Most recipes online are pretty wet with ragu and rough layers of par boiled extruded pasta (that’s tubes to you and I – but how often do you get to use the word extruded?), which can leave lots of air pockets and therefore be quite uneven. To counter this, for the pasta layers I’m making my own fresh pasta fusilli, but shaped in huge coils for even placement – and then cover each layer with mascarpone and ragu. Fresh pasta means less water and, so hopefully won’t be too wet to bake and will have no messy uneven layers or air pockets. In theory.
Let’s start with basics. Ragu. Everyone’s got their own recipe for this, there’s no right and wrong – just make sure it’s quite thick and not too watery.
Here we have softened onions and garlic, then added chopped tomatoes, chopped red pepper, seasoned with salt, pepper, basil, colatura, Worcestershire and bottarga. I’m also making a vegetarian timpano alongside this, so am keeping the ragu
vegetar er, pescatarian friendly for simplicity. This will keep for a few days, so is easy to make in advance. Make twice as much as you’ll need for the timpano, as you’ll want to ladle a couple of hot spoonfuls of this over the sliced timpano. For a 12″ timpano, you’ll need twice the amount in the picture below.
Traditionally, the recipe calls for whole hard boiled eggs, but am switching these for quails eggs, to hold the overall shape better and provide a more varied flavour in a mouthful. Boil and peel the quail eggs. Did you ever peel fifty eggs? Nobody ever peel fifty eggs. “My boy says he can peel fifty eggs, he can peel fifty eggs!”
I can peel fifty eggs.
I can heartily recommend never peeling fifty eggs again.
Meat. Brown off some meatballs, and if you can get hold of it, some sweet Italian sausage.
Prepare your layers before rolling out the timpano case, as once it’s in the bowl you’ll need to work quickly to prevent it getting too soggy. Roll out the timpano casing, as thin as you dare – or in this case use a pasta roller and eggwash seal the overlapping strips.
Having once failed to extracate one of these from a deep casserole dish, I figured this time, I’d use a huge 12” cake tin with a push out bottom instead. Grease the tin, and add a thin dusting of toasted polenta flour. Gently lay the pasta dough in the bowl.
Layer in Ragu. Pasta coil. Marscapone, Provolone slices. Ragu. Quail eggs. Meatballs. Pasta coil. Italian salcissia sausages. Ragu. Repeat repeat repeat. When near the top, pour over a few beaten eggs to help seal the ingredients and then fold over the dough into a ‘lid’ forming a tight seal. Repair any holes or cracks. Do not drop.
* * * * A PASSAGE OF TIME * * * *
I’ve wrecked one of these before by being impatient – try and remove it too early before the cheeses and fats cool and coagulate – you’ll have nothing but a huge pan of party surprise. This is where using a false bottom cake tin was (fortuitously) inspired – the drum seal had broken at some point in the bake (probably by using strips rather than rolling out in one piece tut tut) and I was disheartened when I pulled it out of the oven to see a bubbling ragu round the sides, there was no way this was coming out in one piece. Time to start managing expectations and preparing everyone for a bowl of PAN SURPRISE!
As it was cooling, here came the Christmas miracle – the false bottom was perfect for allowing the rogue escaping ragu juice out of the tin, but leaving the timpano in place. After it had cooled for about an hour, I was amazed I could shuffle the sides of the tin and it wasn’t stuck or completely ripped.
Flip it over onto a baking sheet and then remove the tin, miraculously the walls held, all was not lost. Sure, it wasn’t the dry baked drum I was hoping for, but it was in one piece and looked like it would slice without falling apart.
When feeling brave enough, insert a chef ring into the centre to hold the shape, and cut into the timpano and remove a slice. Ladle over some of the reserved ragu, loosen your eating pants and tuck in!
I now remember why I only do one of these every five years. It’s expensive, terrible for you in terms of fat and carbs, a total gamble whether it works or not, but the taste is incredible, with only one slight drawback. As it’s Christmas, to misquote Bad Santa, with this much stodge and richness, you won’t s*** right for a week.