An imagined pie, lost splendours and a Sicilian timballo (macaroni pie)

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Update: recipe added!!

Recently, work has been intense, crazy-good-intense, plus I have been cooking for friends: lingering, laughing, food-laden, wine-tinted dinners where people meet old friends and make new ones. All of which means I’m catching up on the blogosphere this weekend.

The good thing about cooking for a bunch of friendly guinea pigs friends is that I can foist “out there” dishes on them. And unlike a family Christmas lunch, I run less risk of offending the mother-in-law-of-cousin-in-law.

Dishes like a macaroni pie from the novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

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Like the Triumph of Gluttony, the idea of the pie has haunted my imagination since I read the book years ago:

“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.”

Yes, another dish from a book, another Sicilian recipe. Must be something in the water there.

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It turns out – unlike the triumph of gluttony – other people have had the same idea and have shared recipes for that pie of dreams. Although Ms Taylor Simeti thought the passage from the Leopard is ‘perhaps the summa of an ancient [Sicilian baronial cuisine] tradition rather than the product of a single recipe’ (in Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle), both she and Ms Anna Pomar gave recipes for timballo bianco that come close to recreating that masterpiece of nostalgia. I have made the pie, or timballo, a few times now (a rare thing in our household) for dinner parties, family Christmas lunch, and a New Years Eve potluck.

Mostly, people are intrigued by the idea of a macaroni pie, then wowed by the flavours and smells. Once, someone said it reminded them of an old, old Lebanese dish made by their grandparents, which now has me looking for old Lebanese cookbooks that go beyond flat bread, fatteh and kibbeh – if anyone knows a likely one please tell me?

All that time, I never got a photo of the pie! The pie comes out of the oven, onto the table, a flurry of carving, plating, eating, and we are left with an empty tin. Until last Saturday, when I made sure to save a (small!) slice of the pie for photos. And finally (finally!), I can share this with you.

I still don’t have a photo of the whole pie. So, imagine, a large dome of browned and patterned pastry, preceded by the waft of sugary cinnamon, a heady mix of savoury and dessert-sweet like the description in the book. The pastry almost shatters to release a rich, savoury smell laden with porcini mushrooms. Then the macaroni, quail eggs and other fillings, spilling out of the thin, crisp crust and tumbling onto your plate. All the while, that blissful smell of porcini mushrooms.

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We don’t have the traditional bronze pie dishes that gives you the proper domed shape in the pie. Its entrance into a room carried by a liveried footman would be so, so spectacular. Instead I use the biggest quiche tin we have, remove it from the tin and present the quiche-pie-timballo with as much non-liveried flair as I can summon.

Two notes on ingredients:

This recipe from Ferrara uses pigeon meat, pork and beef to make a ragu. The recipes by Anna Pomar and Mary Taylor Simeti use chicken liver (and other ‘bits’ if you can get your hands on them). The Leopard talks about chicken and liver, so I’ve made the livered version – chopped up into small pieces, it doesn’t turn into “mmm liver pie”; instead, it’s more of a final savoury note, an extra meaty idea, that enriches the buttery, parmesan-rich sauce, and rounds out the mushrooms, eggs and pasta.

Also, the descriptions and Ms Taylor Simeti’s recipe asks for the unlaid eggs of hens (! – !?). I’ve seen them, once – an unlikely incident from a childhood in China. Egg yolks are good substitutes, but I prefer to use the smaller quail eggs, as they mix with the other filling ingredients better.

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A baronial fiesta

As a fitting follow up to the Sicilian cocktail party, I’m bringing this imagined pie to a virtual fiesta – Angie’s one and only Fiesta Friday.

If you are curious about The Leopard, Sicilian history and food, and Tomasi Lampedusa himself, find a quiet corner and read this.

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White Macaroni Timbale / Timballo di Maccheroni Bianco

(From Mary Taylor Simeti: Sicilian Food, Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle)

Serves 8-10 (or more as entree)

Ingredients

Pasta frolla pastry

425g / 15oz flour (to get the same effect as ‘soft’ flour, I mix about 25 grams of cornflour with 400 grams of flour)
2 tbsp sugar (I use castor or granulated sugar)
Pinch of salt
125g / 14oz cup unsalted butter
75g / 3oz lard (I use good quality leaf lard from a butcher, but I think you can sub vegetable shortening or maybe even margarine)
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk, at room temperature
125ml / 4 fl oz white wine (I’ve used all kinds of white wine, ranging from sweet to very dry, all have turned out well)

Filling

50g / 2oz dried porcini mushrooms
450ml / 16 fl z hot water
350g / 12oz chicken livers, giblets and where available, unlaid eggs (Note, I definitely haven’t seen unlaid eggs – ! Instead, I use about 350g chicken livers and then add some egg yolks or quail eggs.
125g / 4oz butter
450g / 1lb maccheroni or sedani
1/2 onion, chopped
5 tbsp olive oil
1 egg white
2 tbsp plain tomato sauce
125ml / 4 fl oz white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g / 2oz grated parmesan
125g / 4oz cooked ham, diced

Method

1. Filling: Put the muhrooms to soak in hot water for 2 hours.

2. Pastry: Sift together the flour (plus cornflour), sugar, and salt, cutting in the butter and lard until you get a coarse, lumpy texture. Don’t overmix, the lumpy bits will make the pastry ‘short’ or crispy/crumbly.

3. Stir in the egg and yolk. Add just enough wine to bring the dough together. I start with less wine than I think I need, keep pushing the bits of dough together until they start to form a ball, and add more wine if the dough is dry. The dough should be soft and malleable, softer than play dough.

4. Work the dough for a minute (I just keep pushing the bits of dough together, then knead it a couple of times to ensure the ball stays together). Shape into a ball, refrigerate at least an hour.

5. Filling: Wash the livers and other chicken bits. Cut them into smallish pieces. Saute the onion in the olive oil until soft, stir in the tomato sauce. Turn up the heat, add the livers. Brown on all sides, stir constantly. Then add the white wine, bring to a boil and reduce.

6. When the wine is well reduced, add the mushrooms and the water they soaked in. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to the boiling point, turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir through 50 grams of butter, keep stirring until it has melted. The filling may be made up to one day ahead until this point.

7. Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water, until just barely al dente. Drain well, put in a large bowl, and add the remaining 50 grams of butter, the chicken-liver-and-mushroom sauce, the grated cheese, the diced ham. Mix well, and add salt or pepper if needed.

8. Assemble the pie: Divide the pastry into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Roll out the larger piece to a circle wide enough to line a large pie dish. Fill the pie base with the pasta mixture.

9. Roll out the remaining dough and place it as a lid over the pasta. Seal the edges, decorate the upper crust with scraps of pastry, poke vents in the lid, and brush with a beaten egg white.

10. Bake in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes – I have used 160C (320F) – 170C (340F) successfully.

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52 thoughts on “An imagined pie, lost splendours and a Sicilian timballo (macaroni pie)

  1. birgerbird 12 April 2014 at 11:39 am Reply

    Love that plate too. I must get that book

    • saucygander 12 April 2014 at 2:44 pm Reply

      Thanks, found the plate in a junk/vintage shop, it came from Israel! The book is a great read.

  2. Liz 12 April 2014 at 11:45 am Reply

    those pictures! Lovely. And the pie sounds crazy spectacular. Glad work crazy is good crazy for you. Carry on :-D

    • saucygander 12 April 2014 at 2:43 pm Reply

      The Sicilians sure know how to do crazy delicious food, and also write about food so that you want to rush over and eat whatever they are having!

  3. thepaddingtonfoodie 12 April 2014 at 12:58 pm Reply

    Yum. Now I’m hungry.This post reminds me of the 1996 movie Big Night starring StanleyTucci, Isabella Rossellini and a huge Abruzesse interpretation of timballo, a timpano.

    • saucygander 12 April 2014 at 2:35 pm Reply

      Oh my goodness, I just looked up the timpano recipe on Food52, and it looks delicious but so labour intensive! Maybe a project for a winters day. I might also get the movie tomorrow, you’ve piqued my curiosity. :-)

  4. […] Saucy […]

  5. Patty Nguyen 12 April 2014 at 2:54 pm Reply

    This looks fabulous! What lucky friends you have! :D

    • saucygander 12 April 2014 at 3:26 pm Reply

      Thank you Patty!! Friends +food is the best combination! :-D

  6. Michelle 12 April 2014 at 3:07 pm Reply

    You must have been Sicilian in a past life!

    • saucygander 12 April 2014 at 3:28 pm Reply

      My husband has Italian blood in him. Maybe that gives me some kind of honorary Sicilian-ness?

  7. lapetitepaniere 12 April 2014 at 4:10 pm Reply

    Looks so tasty, Saucy :) and I love the fig and the pistachios on the side!

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 1:02 pm Reply

      Thanks, Linda! We had some figs left over from the dinner party which made the plate look prettier. The figs were eaten pretty quickly after the photos were taken! :-D

  8. sabine 12 April 2014 at 4:34 pm Reply

    What a decadent treat, looks like you and your camera had been beamed right into the scenery of an ancient Sicilian feast! Wonderful!

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 1:00 pm Reply

      Thank you Sabine! It was a fun evening cooking and eating with friends, we also had other Sicilian dishes so it did feel like a Sicilian feast! :-D

  9. Nancy 12 April 2014 at 11:19 pm Reply

    Beautiful creation Saucy! It sounds delicious too! It’s very similar, in theory, to the angel hair timbale I make. Next time I prepare mine, I’ll definitely switch it up taking cues from this beauty :) Lovely!

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 12:57 pm Reply

      Thanks Nancy! Your timbale looks awesome, I’ve been meaning to try your recipe and see what difference a tomato-based sauce makes compared to this non-tomato sauce – so many different ways with pasta, hurrah! :-D

  10. ladyredspecs 12 April 2014 at 11:19 pm Reply

    Great job. A dish I have always intended to make, but alas……Lampedusa’s The Leopard is an amazing read and the passion of the Siciliani aspirational. You’ve inspired me to resurrect plans to make timballo

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 12:54 pm Reply

      Thanks! It’s worth making, I think. After a few goes, I’m finding it’s reasonably easy to put together though takes some time, as the filling just bubbles away while you make and chill the pastry. And all the components can be done a day ahead, so they are ready to be made into a pie.
      The Leopard is a great read. We also liked the movie based on the book – all that brooding sombre atmosphere.

  11. chef mimi 13 April 2014 at 1:49 am Reply

    Beautiful! Almost reminds me of a Greek pastitsio, but that has a bechamel in it, so I guess there’s no similarity!!! Beautiful photos!!!

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 12:41 pm Reply

      Thank you Chef! ;-)
      The Sicilian pie is probably influenced by the Greek pastitsio (or vice versa)? I recall reading Sicily was controlled by Greece at one point in its history. Paddington Foodie also pointed out the timpano from the movie Big Night, which looks way more complicated but I’d love to try making that one day!

  12. Aneela Mirchandani 13 April 2014 at 4:33 am Reply

    I love that you get your inspiration from old novels.

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 12:38 pm Reply

      Thanks Aneela! I’m a bookworm, so combining my love of reading and cooking is heaps of fun – will probably play around with a few more recipes from novels in the future! :-D

  13. weebirdiecafe 13 April 2014 at 6:06 am Reply

    Such a beautiful picture, but somehow the name of ‘macaroni pie’ made me laugh. I guess it is about huge gap between a bad name of ‘macaroni cheese’ here and your beautiful picture and wonderful words about this pie in the book.
    It must be great fun to recreate dishes from books. My dream dish as a kid was pancakes stuck up high into the sky, served with butter made of melted tigers, which was in a picture book I had! ;)

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 12:37 pm Reply

      Oh I know, right? I also thought of mac & cheese when I first saw the recipes. Though I actually made a gorgonzola mac n cheese last night, maybe inspired by your comment! :-D
      A pancake tower sounds like the ultimate childhood dream!!

  14. chefjulianna 13 April 2014 at 6:15 am Reply

    You continue to amaze me,Saucy! Your recipes and photos will be haunting me all weekend. I really admire your desire to recreate these old recipes and you do it with such flair and finesse! 8-)

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 12:35 pm Reply

      Thank you so much Juliana! This recipe was much less, um, improvised than the last one, it’s actually become a dinner party staple in our house!
      I’m a bit of a bookworm, so combining reading and cooking was probably only a matter of time. :-D

  15. tinywhitecottage 13 April 2014 at 12:41 pm Reply

    Unlaid hen eggs?! And Mimi took the words right off of my keypad…I thought of pastistio too. This is a beauty Saucy.

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 12:50 pm Reply

      Yeah unlaid hen eggs, sounds a bit medieval doesn’t it?? I guess it’s taking the “nose to tail” eating to an extreme level? But using egg yolks or quail eggs is much more, um, friendly for the modern city cook who does not have to raise and then pluck her own chicken!

      Now I’m curious about making pastistio, and also the timpano from the movie Big Night – who knew pasta could look so sculptural?

  16. Sally 13 April 2014 at 6:11 pm Reply

    Enjoyed this post for many reasons. First the pics – those figs…divine. Secondly, I’ve been part of a book club for over 10 years and we try and theme the food to the book at our discussions. I remember the feast after reading The Leopard and ‘that pie’ – the description in the book is just so sensual. I found a recipe in Antonio Carluccio’s A Passion for Pasta which seemed to fit the bill (my friend cooked it).

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 10:20 pm Reply

      I’ve heard about Antonio Carluccio’s recipe, and will look out for it. The Leopard is an interesting read, and the author’s voice so unlike others. It’s a shame Lampedusa died before knowing that his book had been accepted for publishing.
      Your book club sounds like a great one!

  17. spiceinthecity 13 April 2014 at 10:00 pm Reply

    Good God!! this pie should be titled, ‘Triumph of Gluttony – the savory version’!! Love that you get your inspiration from novels. I remember getting ideas like that when I was reading ‘Like water for chocolate’. Must go find my copy now ;)

    • saucygander 13 April 2014 at 10:27 pm Reply

      I like your title!! :-D
      Funny where food ideas can come from, right? :-)

  18. Lisa 13 April 2014 at 11:38 pm Reply

    That pie looks awesome – and I absolutely love the figs on the side. I’ve been searching to find fresh figs, as they are so wonderfully gorgeous!

  19. Laura 14 April 2014 at 12:32 am Reply

    That pie looks so good – and loving the colors in the figs!

  20. Ngan R. 14 April 2014 at 1:13 am Reply

    What a beautiful slice of pie. The golden top and lovely rich centers are calling to me. Quail eggs, too! What a delight. I used to just eat quail eggs on their own, like candy, and haven’t thought to use them in savory dishes. Looks terrific, Saucy, and your friends are so lucky to be your guinea pigs!

  21. lovinghomemade 14 April 2014 at 3:35 am Reply

    I’m not surprised you didn’t manage to get a picture of the whole pie, it looks delicious!

  22. cookingwithauntjuju.com 14 April 2014 at 6:04 am Reply

    When I read “macaroni pie” I thought of our common “macaroni and cheese” but your dish is far from it. I enjoyed reading your post and how you express something you have read in a novel through a great looking recipe. Good job :)

  23. Sugar and Cinnamon 14 April 2014 at 9:34 am Reply

    The plate you use in your photos is beautiful! And macaroni pie? Hello that sounds incredible!!!

  24. Gather and Graze 14 April 2014 at 9:38 am Reply

    Love the fact that you’ve recreated this dish from a novel! Very creative! It sounds delicious – particularly with those porcini mushrooms tucked in there.

  25. deliciouslynell 14 April 2014 at 9:39 am Reply

    That sounds absolutely delicious! It’s no surprise you couldn’t get a picture of the whole pie!

  26. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella 14 April 2014 at 11:15 am Reply

    That looks absolutely divine! I’d gladly be one of your guinea pigs for this sort of food! :D

  27. lapetitecasserole 14 April 2014 at 3:18 pm Reply

    Ah Saucy! this is another great recipe! Are you sure that you do not want come with me in Sicily at the end of May??? I read the book you mentioned “Il gattopardo” and I also watched the movie. I felt in love with both, even though I was really young. In our (italian) “book culture” is a masterpiece!

  28. Karen 14 April 2014 at 10:24 pm Reply

    I know your friends must have been duly impressed with your timballo…even without liveried footmen. :)

  29. Amanda 15 April 2014 at 3:57 am Reply

    Wow this is really stunning. Beautiful photography. Your story telling is really cool too. It seems like such an interesting pie and people seem to really love it from all backgrounds. I think I need to do some research. I’m going to try to read the book too :) Thank you for this.

  30. The Novice Gardener 15 April 2014 at 9:00 am Reply

    Okay, looks like I will have to eventually make this timballo myself. Despite having a bajillion Italian friends, not one of them ever fed me this. I shouldn’t have any problem. Between Nancy’s and your recipe, I should be able to turn out something safe. If you ever post your recipe, that is. :-)

  31. whatjessicabakednext 15 April 2014 at 7:57 pm Reply

    This looks divine- I love Sicilian food, one of my favourites!

  32. Tea with Erika 16 April 2014 at 1:50 am Reply

    Brilliant! All those flavours put together in a pie topped with cinnamon sugar! Can I crash your next dinner party? Please? ;) Love your idea of cooking from books other than cookery books :) Recreating those recipes must be really fun – I think I should buy a renaissance costume before I show up :)

  33. Mary Frances 16 April 2014 at 5:58 am Reply

    Oh my goodness, this pie is insane! It sounds a little like a bastilla on steroids.

  34. petra08 28 April 2014 at 3:41 am Reply

    What a interesting recipe! Unlaid eggs?! Wow, your version looks amazing

    • saucygander 28 April 2014 at 7:43 am Reply

      Yeah, unlaid eggs sound pretty crazy, right? Luckily the pie was still good with normal eggs! :-D

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