Layered with love
Annual assembling of timpano brings a family together
Family at its best: Timpano is a lot like family: a diverse collection of flavors, textures, layers and colors. It requires work, yes, and is a bit finicky but so very worth it. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Despite this year's culinary hiccups, I'm smiling. This is my family at its best.
My parents, brother and I toyed with the idea of making a timpano for more than a decade, ever since we first watched Stanley Tucci's 1996 film "Big Night." The plot centers on immigrant brothers whose authentic, and thus failing, Italian restaurant pulls out all the stops for a headline-grabbing fete in honor of famed singer Louis Prima. The brothers serve timpano, a timpani-shaped "drum" made of dough, filled with pasta, meatballs, cheese, salami, eggs and sauce and baked for hours.
In a movie full of Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe nominees, the timpano steals the scene.
My father's midlife career change from stay-at-home dad to airline pilot often meant holidays spent apart. Celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas at nontraditional times meant we began venturing into nontraditional fare. One day we gathered the courage and work ethic to give timpano a try. Gigantic, work-intensive and featuring components of varying difficulty, a timpano lends easily to a division of labor ideal for a family holiday meal. We haven't looked back.
Since dad is flying on Thanksgiving, my turkey day begins without the normal clatter of pans and stress-ravaged relatives flaying in and out of my parents' kitchen. I shuffle out of my childhood bedroom late in the morning for a cup of coffee and a run.
I've left my running shoes at home, so I root through boxes for the ones I know my parents have already purchased me for Christmas. Sorry, guys.
That afternoon, mom and I prepare the sauce while my brother sleeps in, possibly beating back a hangover after finishing a particularly brutal medical school exam. When he eventually saunters downstairs in the afternoon, he's put in charge of forming and frying meatballs.
The following Saturday, the real work begins: the dough, which needs to be rolled large, thin and spherically uniform to fill the timpano cooking basin. My extended family arrives as we begin to roll out the dough, but the new recipe won't cooperate. Designed to be lighter and flakier, the dough starts to split around the edges and doesn't seem nearly thin enough to close over the top of the large washbasin. The men of the family offer not-so-subtle critiques.
"Too much cardio, huh, Uncle Russ?"
After some tense minutes, and a bit more "banter" between my parents, the circle is large enough, placed in the greased basin and lightly pressed against the sides. Skylar is carried into the kitchen, a throng trailing her, and the family takes turns layering pasta, sauce, meatballs, hard-cooked eggs, sliced cheese and salami until the drum is filled. The dough closes over the top easily, if a bit unevenly, and the timpano is slid into the oven.
An hour passes as it bakes. Skylar is passed around while we watch "Big Night" and drink wine.
As we slowly remove the basin from the timpano, a tiny stream of sauce squirts from underneath. I wince thinking the flakier crust hasn't held and the contents are about to spill out. But, the pan comes all the way off. It's golden brown and beautiful.
Applause is followed by copious Instagramming.
We eat. The sweetness of the fatty salami brightens the earthiness of the eggs. The herbal quality of the meatballs pairs richly with the buttery, much improved crust. Some ladle additional sauce over the top like a gravy. There is a short moment of silence, with just the clink of silverware on plate.
It's then that I look around the room at my family, a few literally licking their lips. I see my Caucasian parents and their siblings. I see my black cousin and his niece, the child of his sister and her female partner. I see my brother's Persian girlfriend, an Iranian passport holder. I see my own date, born in the Soviet Union of Jewish and Georgian parents. And I see the tension from earlier is gone. We sit, 16 different parts of the same whole, and eat from the same pan we all helped fill.
It's then I realize a timpano is a lot like my family. It's a diverse collection of flavors, textures, layers and colors. It requires work, yes, and is a bit finicky and almost guaranteed to cause a little bickering. But it's so much more than the sum of its parts when it all comes together. It's so very worth it.
Total time: 2 days, or more
Known more commonly as "timballo," the name "timpano" comes from the Calabria region of southern Italy from where Stanley Tucci's family hails. Timpano is a dish that requires quite a bit of time to prepare. But many of the components can be made ahead. The sauce and meatballs can be cooked and frozen, up to a month ahead. The hard-cooked eggs and dough can be prepared the day before, and the cheese and salami chopped. Bring all ingredients to room temperature before assembling. The pasta should be cooked, drained and left to rest at room temperature while rolling out the dough.
The timpano fillings and assembly and baking directions come from "Cucina and Famiglia: Two Italian Families Share Their Stories, Recipes and Traditions" (William Morrow), by Joan T. Tucci, Giana Scappin and Mimi S. Taft. Their recipe has been reprinted in this fall's "The Tucci Cookbook," by the same authors, along with Stanley Tucci. Dough and meatball recipes are from Steve Lindhorst at Tipsycook.com. The sauce recipe was developed by my mom, Jennifer J. Johnson.
To cook the timpano, you will need a large, oven-safe metallic pan. Our family uses a washbasin that is roughly 14 1/2 inches in diameter and 4 1/2 inches deep. A 6- to 8-quart stainless steel bowl works well. Because of the variability of cooking vessels, you may have leftovers of some of the components here. Save them for another meal.
For the sauce:
1/4 cup olive oil
7 cloves garlic, smashed
4 ribs celery quartered, chopped
2 1/2 yellow onions, finely chopped
2 large carrots peeled, quartered, chopped
3 cans (28 ounces each) crushed tomatoes
1 can (28 ounces) tomato sauce
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 cup chicken broth
1 large handful fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 large handful fresh parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
Freshly ground pepper
1 pound bulk spicy Italian sausage (or links, casings removed)
1 pound ground chuck
1 tablespoon sugar, optional
For the meatballs:
2 large eggs
1 pound ground beef
1 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
6 to 8 tablespoons finely-chopped parsley
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Olive oil, for frying
For the dough:
4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup cold salted butter, in 1/2-inch cubes
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup ice cold water
For the filling:
2 cups Genoa salami, in 1/2-by-1/4-inch pieces
2 cups sharp provolone, in 1/2-by-1/4-inch pieces
12 hard-cooked eggs, shelled, quartered lengthwise, cut in half
2 cups meatballs, see recipe
8 cups meat sauce, see recipe
2 pounds ziti pasta, cooked al dente
2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
5 large eggs, beaten
1. Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven or stock pot; add garlic, celery, onions and carrots. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent but carrots are still little crisp, 10 minutes.
2. Add crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, wine, chicken broth, basil, parsley, salt, red peppers flakes, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning and pepper to taste; heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally.
3. Meanwhile, brown the Italian sausage in a large skillet until just cooked through. Drain fat; stir sausage into the sauce. Repeat with the ground chuck, draining most of the fat and stirring the browned meat into the sauce.
4. Heat sauce to a simmer; taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, wine and Italian seasoning to taste. Use sugar to balance acidity, if needed. Let simmer at least 1 hour. Cool; refrigerate or freeze if making ahead of time. Any additional sauce not used in the timpano can be served on the side or be frozen for later use.
1. Mix together eggs, ground beef and breadcrumbs in a large bowl. Add parsley, Parmigiano cheese and garlic; mix until combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Form into golf ball-size meatballs. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat; add enough olive oil to cover the bottom well.
3. Add the meatballs, in batches if necessary; cook, turning, until browned. Cool; refrigerate until needed.
1. Stir together flour and salt in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer; cut in the butter until the mixture looks like big crumbs. Mix in egg yolks, one at a time.
2. Dribble water in as needed until dough forms a ball and pulls from the sides of the bowl. If dough will not ball, add small amounts of cold water until achieving the desired consistency.
3. Form the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate, 1 hour or overnight.
Assembly and baking
1. Flatten the dough on a lightly floured work surface; dust the top with flour. Roll out dough, dusting with flour and flipping over from time to time, until it is about 1/16 inch thick and is wide enough to line the inside of your cooking pan, with enough hanging over to form the top. This will be both a time- and strength-intensive process. (Note: You can also roll the top separately. Set aside about a third of the dough. Roll the larger piece of dough wide enough to line the pan with about an inch of hangover. Roll the smaller piece as wide as the top diameter of the pan.)
2. Generously grease the timpano baking pan with butter and olive oil. Fold the dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle; place it in the pan. Open the dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides and draping the extra dough over the sides. Set aside.
3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. For the filling, the salami, provolone, hard-cooked eggs, meatballs and sauce should be room temperature. Toss the drained pasta with the olive oil and 2 cups sauce. Distribute 3 generous cups of the pasta on the bottom of the timpano. Top with 1 cup salami, 1 cup provolone, half the hard-cooked eggs, 1 cup meatballs and 1/3 cup Romano cheese. Pour 2 cups sauce and half the beaten eggs over these ingredients.
4. Continue filling the timpano with 3 cups pasta and the remaining salami, provolone, hard-cooked eggs and Romano, and 1 cup meatballs. Pour 2 cups sauce over all.
5. Add a thin layer of pasta at the top; spoon the remaining 2 cups sauce over the pasta. The fillings should be nearly to the top of the pan. If not, add some additional pasta and fillings.
6. Pour the remaining beaten eggs over the filling. Give the pan a gentle turn, and shake to settle the contents within the pan. Fold the pasta dough over the filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough. Again, give the pan a gentle shake to distribute the ingredients inside the pan.
7. Bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour; cover with aluminum foil and bake until the timpano is cooked through and the dough is golden brown, about 30 minutes.
8. Remove from the oven; allow to rest, 30 minutes. The baked timpano should not adhere to the pan. If any part is still attached, carefully detach with a knife. Invert a large serving platter over the top of the timpano; hold the platter and timpano pan tightly together. Invert, so the timpano pan is resting on the platter. Remove the pan; allow the timpano to cool for 20 minutes.
9.Using a long, sharp knife cut a circle about 3 inches in diameter in the center of the timpano, making sure to cut all the way through to the bottom. Then slice the timpano as you would a pie into individual portions, leaving the center circle as a support for the remaining pieces.