Vita Sackville-West talked about easy on a regular basis pleasures that have been identified in her household as ‘by way of leaves”, named after “the small but intense pleasure of kicking though leaves while out walking”. Her “through leaves” checklist contains: abruptly remembering a reputation you thought you’d forgotten, crushing skinny ice underfoot, writing with an ideal pen, first feeling sand between your toes on the seashore, drawing a cork with a superb corkscrew or a curtain on a easy rail, and studying in mattress. I agree with all of those. I might add taking off footwear and placing on slippers; the primary sip of an ice-cold martini, pondering you will have run out of espresso after which discovering a packet behind the cabinet (likewise with bathroom roll), autumn solar in your face, and inverting a timballo efficiently.
You may keep in mind last week’s recipe was for a sformato, which means unmolded; a permissive term that allows for endless variations and opinions. This week’s timballo is called after the form itself, il timballo – a deep tin with sloping sides (think Tommy Cooper’s fez) named because of its resemblance to a timpani or kettle drum.
What goes into the timballo form varies depending on the time, place, means, occasion and the cook. Historically, timballi could be extraordinary things. In her Gastronomy of Italy, Anna del Conte writes of the timballo offered by Prince Fabrizio Salina to the noblemen of Donnalucata in Giuseppe Tomasi’s novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard): “The burnished gold of the crust, the fragrance exuded by the sugar, the spice-laden haze; then chicken livers, sliced ham, smoked chicken and truffles, the masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni … ” Then there is the timballo in the film Big Night, rippling layers of pasta, moons of hard boiled egg and tiny meatballs bound by rich ragu and thick bechamel – a dish “so fucking good I should kill you”, whispers Pascal, played by the great Ian Holm. Like sformati, timballi are as varied and unique as the people who make them. Some are encrusted in pastry, others strips of aubergine, some fortified with pasta, others rice, others potato. There may be fish, meat, mushrooms or any manner of vegetables involved. There are recipes noted in definitive detail in books, though most are the anarchic and individual results of home cooking.
Nowadays, a timballo can be made in all sorts of forms, tins, bowls and dishes. Regardless of the tin, a timballo is inverted. My version is a relatively modest one, using rice and a loose-bottomed tin. Think of it as a template for timballo, one which is endlessly amenable to different ingredients and occasions. You could bolster the initial soffritto with carrots, celery, herbs or pancetta. The rice could be enriched or spiced, and the vegetable and cheese layer could consist of anything you fancy, including bechamel, peas, hard-boiled egg or tiny meatballs (or all four, in which case it would be most Sicilian).
This template can also be simplified: you could leave out the aubergine, and make a simple rice-and-cheese timballo, in which case be bold with the seasoning. I suggest carnaroli rice, which is actually a relatively new variety, developed in the 1940s by Milanese rice growers. Its kernel is sheathed in soft starch which dissolves during cooking, lending a creaminess; it also contains enough tough starch to retain a satisfying texture. You can cook the rice in the sauce – risotto style – or simply boil it and then unite it with sauce and the enriching cheese.
Whether baroque enough for a celebration or pared down for a weeknight, a just-unmoulded timballo looks wonderful, as does a just-cut slice, its melted cheese thread unwilling to let go. In Italy, the country of plate separatism, timballo is generally served alone as a first course. I think a slice asks for contrast, such as a salad of mixed leaves – some soft, some crisp – and herbs with traditional vinaigrette. On Sunday, we had our timballo with salad; also small, pea-green frigitelli peppers, which I had blistered in a hot pan with olive oil and salt. Followed by a cassata cake I’d made … a good lunch. All of which nearly required a nap, but instead we walked it off along the Tevere river, in the sun, through leaves.
Rice timballo with aubergine
You will need a 20-23 cm cake tin or timballo mould (that said, just about any tin will work here).
30g dried mushrooms
5 tbsp olive oil
A small white onion, peeled and diced
500g tinned plum tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp tomato concentrate
A sprig of basil
600g carnaroli rice
Salt and black pepper
250g cheese – tuma, provola or mozzarella
Butter and dry breadcrumbs, to prepare the mould
80g parmesan, grated
1 large egg
1 Soak the mushrooms in 500ml of barely warm water for 20 minutes. In a large, deep frying pan, fry the onion in the olive oil until soft.
2 Lift the mushrooms from the liquid and add to the pan, along with the tomatoes, concentrate and basil. Cook at a steady simmer for 25 minutes.
3 Meanwhile, cook the rice in salted, boiling water until tender but al dente. Drain and add to the tomato sauce and cook for another few minutes. Season.
4 Cut one aubergine into 3mm thick slices lengthways and the other into 1cm cubes. Either rub with oil and bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 until tender, or griddle or shallow-fry in oil until lightly coloured, then blot on kitchen paper.
5 Chop the cheese into small cubes. Butter a loose-bottomed cake tin and coat with breadcrumbs, then use the slices of aubergine to line the tin.
6 Add most of the parmesan and egg to the rice. Mix, then press half of it into the bottom of the tin. Use half the aubergine cubes to make a layer, cover with cheese, then another layer of aubergine cubes. Cover with the rest of the rice mix, pressing down firmly, and finish with the remaining cheese.
7 Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for 25 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, run a knife around the edge of the tin, loosen the clasp and then invert the timballo on to a plate.
- Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writers food writer and cookery writer awards for this column. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Headline Home) is out now; @rachelaliceroddy
Rachel Roddy from theguardian.com