Timballo di pasta con melanzane

FrankCampania, pasta, primi piatti, Sicilia42 Comments

Timballo di pasta con melanzane

If you like pasta—and who doesn’t?—and if you like cake—and again, who doesn’t?—then you’re sure to like timballo di pasta, pasta baked in a mold then served as a kind of pasta cake.

Italian cookery has some quite elaborate timballi di pasta, dating back to the days of the monzù, with decorative pastry crusts and elaborate fillings, like one featured in the flim Big Night with Stanley Tucci. But especially in summer, I like to keep things relatively light and simple. And today’s timballo di pasta con melanzane from Sicily fits the bill quite nicely. The pasta—traditionally the ring-shaped pasta called anelletti— is dressed in a simple tomato sauce, then mixed with cheese and baked in a shell of fried eggplant slices.

The recipe involves multiple steps, but all in all it isn’t terribly hard to make. And the results make quite the impression, a nice way to start off a special occasion or Sunday dinner in style. It is also quite nice served at room temperature, so you can make it ahead if you like. In fact, according to the fascinating Encyclopedia of Pasta, in and around Siracusa this timballo is sometimes called pasta ro bagnu because of its popularity for beach picnics. Nice image, that…

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 300g (10-1/2 oz) anelletti or another pasta of your choice (see Notes)

For the sauce:

  • 1 bottle of passata di pomodoro
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • a sprig or two of fresh basil leaves
  • salt
  • olive oil

For assembling the timballo:

  • 2-3 medium to large eggplants, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 75g (2-1/2 oz) freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (or pecorino romano)
  • 250g (1/2 lb) mozzarella, scamorza or caciocavallo cheese, sliced or cut into cubes
  • Olive oil

Directions

Slice the eggplants lengthwise in thin (but not paper thin) slices, say about 1cm (3/8 inch). Lay the slices in a colander, salting them lightly on both sides. Let sit at least an hour. Then pat the slices dry and fry them in olive oil until they have softened and lightly browned. Lay out paper towels to soak up the excess oil and set aside until needed.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, sauté the garlic cloves gently in abundant olive oil. When the garlic is just beginning to brown slightly around the edges, add the passata and let it simmer for about 15 minutes, until it had reduced and separated from the oil. A few minutes before it’s done, throw the basil leaves in the saucepan and season with salt to taste.

Cook the pasta until it’s slightly underdone. Drain and pour into a large mixing bowl. Add as much of the sauce as you need to coat the pasta nicely (without drowning it!) along with the grated cheese. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Now to assemble the dish: Gingerly lay the fried eggplant slices in a decorative pattern to cover the bottom of a well-greased springform pan about 19cm/[7-1/2 inch] in across (see Notes), slightly overlapping. I like to place them starting from the center outwards, covering and flopping over the sides, as if they were the spokes of a wheel, like so:

Timballo di pasta

Pour half the pasta into the mold. Lay the slices of mozzarella or scamorza here and there over the pasta, leaving a small border at the outer edge of the pan. Cover with the rest of the pasta and flatten it out with a spatula. Take the ends of the eggplant and fold them in over the pasta. Cover the bottom with any remaining eggplant slices. Using paper towels or parchment paper for protection, gently press down on the top to flatten things out and consolidate the filling.

Bake the assembled timballo in a moderately hot (190C/375F) oven for 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes.

Flip the timballo on to a serving dish and unmold it. Serve cut into wedges with some more sauce on the side for those who want it.

Timballo di pasta con melanzane

Notes

The main trick to success when making this dish? Like any dish that has to be unmolded, you need to make sure it doesn’t stick to the mold. Using a nonstick mold is obviously one option but I’m here to tell you it’s not foolproof. You still need to grease the mold generously. Even better, use some fine parchment paper to line the mold, in particular the bottom. In fact, they sell parchment paper circles which for my money, does the job perfectly.

It is also important to avoid slicing the eggplant too thinly. If you do, the slices will tend to fall apart and/or stick to the mold. And you want to fry them in oil hot enough so it bubbles up when you place the eggplants in the oil to avoid their absorbing too much of the oil. The pre-salting, though not strictly necessary, also helps to reduce oil absorption. It softens the eggplant, too, which reduces frying time.

In Sicily, the classic choice of pasta is anelletti, a small ring shaped pasta that dates to the Middle Ages. The story goes that their shape was inspired by the earrings worn by the women of the Moorish nobility that then reigned over Sicily. They are not particular easy to find, but they are sometimes marketed as “pasta rings”. If not available at your local supermarket, I found La Molisana brand anelletti (pictured at left) on Amazon.com, which proved to be an excellent choice. (La Molisana, by the way, is a fine brand of pasta in general and at least in our area fairly easy to find in better supermarkets.)

Anelletti, also known as anelli or anellini, are a popular in Puglia as well. And besides their use in timbales, like other small pastas they are served in soup. Although I shudder to mention it, for Americans they are probably best known as the main ingredient in that abomination known as “SpaghettiOs“.

In Naples, where they also make a very similar timballo, ziti are a popular choice for the pasta filling. But I’ve seen recipes that call for all sorts of other pasta shapes, from stubby pastas like penne, fusilli or rigatoni to long ones like bucatini to fettuccine. In short you can use just about any shape you like!

Variations

The measurements given will feed 4 as a main course or 6 as the primo in a traditional Italian menu. Of course, for a larger crowd—or for larger appetites—you can increase the portions and use a larger springform pan, say 24cm/9-3/4 inch or even 28cm/11in in diameter, in which case you’ll need to increase the amount of pasta to 400g (14 oz) or 500g (1 lb) respectively.

Many folks like to use a ring-shaped mold rather than a round springform pan. It does give your timballo an especially pretty look. A savarin mold works well for this job. Be wary of Bundt cake molds, however, as the central funnel tends to be higher than the sides, which makes unmolding your timballo on to a serving plate a tricky business. For ring molds, you need only lay your eggplant slices horizontally across the mold, slightly overlapping.

You can also mix the mozzarella cheese, cut into cubes rather than slices—along with any extra fried eggplant, cut into bits–into the pasta filling rather than layering them. I actually like this strategem a bit better, as it helps bind the pasta filling together.

You can also play around quite a bit with the dressings for the pasta. There are heftier versions of this dish, for instance, where you dress the pasta with a meat ragù rather than a light tomato sauce featured in this post, as well as adding peas or other vegetables to the filling. (In these versions, you can omit the eggplant shell and bake the pasta “naked”.) Yet other recipes mix in béchamel as a binder. Personally, none of these variations float my boat, at least this time of year. As I said at the top, in summer—which is, of course, is prime season for this dish—I prefer to keep things simple and eat light. But don’t let me stop you from trying these other versions. As they say, de gustibus non est disputandum

Timballo di pasta con melanzane

Pasta timbale with eggplant

Ingredients

  • 300g 10-1/2 oz anelletti  or another pasta of your choice

For the sauce

  • 1 bottle 1 bottle of passata di pomodoro
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 sprigs fresh basil leaves
  • salt 
  • olive oil

To assemble the timballo

  • 2-3 medium to large eggplants thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 75g (2-1/2 oz) freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino romano
  • 250g 1/2 lb mozzarella, scamorza or caciocavallo cheese sliced or cut into cubes
  • Olive oil

Instructions

  • Slice the eggplants lengthwise in thin (but not paper thin) slices, say about 1cm (3/8 inch). Lay the slices in a colander, salting them lightly on both sides. Let sit at least an hour. Then pat the slices dry and fry them in olive oil until they have softened and lightly browned. Lay out paper towels to soak up the excess oil and set aside until needed. 
  • Meanwhile, in a saucepan, sauté the garlic cloves gently in abundant olive oil. When the garlic is just beginning to brown slightly around the edges, add the passata and let it simmer for about 15 minutes, until it had reduced and separated from the oil. A few minutes before it's done, throw the basil leaves in the saucepan and season with salt to taste. 
  • Cook the pasta until it's slightly underdone. Drain and pour into a large mixing bowl. Add as much of the sauce as you need to coat the pasta nicely (without drowning it!) along with the grated cheese. Taste and adjust for seasoning. 
  • Gingerly lay the fried eggplant slices in a decorative pattern to cover the bottom of a well-greased springform pan about 19cm/7-1/2 inches in across, slightly overlapping.
  • Pour half the pasta into the mold. Lay the slices of mozzarella or scamorza here and there over the pasta, leaving a small border at the outer edge of the pan. Cover with the rest of the pasta and flatten it out with a spatula. Take the ends of the eggplant and fold them in over the pasta. Cover the bottom with any remaining eggplant slices. Using paper towels or parchment paper for protection, gently press down on the top to flatten things out and consolidate the filling. 
  • Bake the assembled timballo in a moderately hot (190C/375F) oven for 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes. 
  • Flip the timballo on to a serving dish and unmold it. Serve cut into wedges with some more sauce on the side for those who want it. 

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42 Comments on “Timballo di pasta con melanzane”

  1. Delicious – I love eggplant, so I made it for my bday the other day, with a light coat of meat ragu. Best gift – thanks! 🙂

  2. The thought of eating pasta cake on the beach is pretty darn enticing! I agree that this recipe is visually appealing, and it would be a fun one to make. It kinda reminds me of eggplant lasagna, although the inclusion of both eggplant and pasta is a fun twist. I’d love to try this one – and thanks for the pasta brand recommendation. I’ll have to keep me eye out for that as we’re learning the new area here!

    1. Thanks, David! If a supermarket carries La Molisana pasta, it’s a pretty good sign they know what they’re doing when it comes to Italian food items.

  3. Anelli siciliani are one of my FAVORITE pasta shapes! This looks wonderful, especially with scamorza! What a beautiful and impressive dish, Frank! My mother is salivating next to me! I’m just catching up on old posts as I was gone for 6 weeks (some of that was in Italy)! 🙂

    1. Welcome back, Christina! I trust you had a wonderful trip and that we’ll be reading all about it in the near future…

  4. Dear Frank
    I have been following your magnificent recipes for years, I have a lot of cookbooks but rarely have I found the ‘authenticity and right measure as in your recipes. You can’t imagine how many people you make happy and I think that is something that is a great credit to you. Regarding your refusal to go on TV and the reasons you gave I think there is only to say that people like you do not meet every day.
    Thank you very much for everything.
    John Martines

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

    1. That’s so kind of you to say! I truly appreciate your lovely description of the blog. 🙂 Making people happy is what it’s all about, at lest that’s my hope…

  5. Frank – heartfelt auguri on your decision to retire from corporate life!!🥳 I am on week 2 post-corporate life and loving every single minute – especially being able to write and cook for the blog *during the day* – so liberating and fun! Look forward to following on your journey forward! Michele

    1. Thanks so much, Michele! I can imagine how lovely it is to have all the time you want—when you want—to dedicate to cooking and blogging! Lucky us. 🙂

  6. Hate to tell you Frank – you will work harder during your retirement years than ever before – and you will love it !!! Just love the elegant look of your dish and would not know how to live without eggplant – so, thank you ! . . . oh, three cloves of garlic and a loving small handful of basil when i can get hold of eggplants again . . .

  7. Congratulations on your retirement, enjoy it ! I understand turning the the cooking show down, I would do the same. There comes a time in our life when we don’t want to compete anymore .

  8. Frank — you are going to love (LOVE) retirement! And how exciting that you were invited to “audition” for your own show! Most of us only can dream of such! But I understand why you decided not to. It would be hard, especially when you are just retiring from a super stressful gig!

    The timballo? Sheer perfection! As I said in FB, I am making it this week! (Probably a week from Sunday.) Can’t wait.

    1. Thanks, David! I think I’m going to really enjoy my new life. And stepping from one stressful job right into another kind of stress was also a part of the decision not pursue it. Perhaps if it had come up after a year of retirement I would have considered it more, though I really meant it about the competitive aspects. Just not me…

      Do let us know how it goes with the timballo!

      1. This was just wonderful, Frank — anf it fed the two of us for days! Not difficult at all — hardest part was finding the annelleti. Luckily, a local Italian store had them. Definitely one to add to special occasion meals. Grazie!

  9. This sounds wonderful, Frank! Two questions. If I make my own passata di pomodoro, how much equals one bottle? Also, could I substitute zucchini- prepared like the eggplant? I’m the only one of my tribe that loves eggplant! And, a bit late in sharing, I made my first pasteria napolitano at Easter. It was fantastic! Thank you so much for these gems!~Mary Gangemi

    1. You should be fine if you make the full batch recommended in the recipe, i.e. with 1 kilo/2 lbs of tomatoes. And yes, you can substitute zucchini perfectly well. Of course, you’ll need more than 2 or 3 since they’re so much smaller than eggplant.

  10. That looks stunning and I bet it tastes as good too! I was lookng at some “horse cheese” in an Italian deli just a couple of days ago. I will have to go back and get one to make this!

    1. Thanks, MD! Horse cheese is the best—and you’re lucky to have it at ready hand. It’d very hard to source in these parts and super-expensive when you do.

  11. Parchment paper is a life saver for dishes like this. And what a dish! This look excellent — neat mix of flavors. And that texture! Plus it’s eggplant season here, and I love the stuff — this is a good way to use it. But most important, congrats on your forthcoming retirement. I predict you’ll love it — work has its moments, but it’s much more fun and interesting to indulge yourselves in your personal interests. Also congrats on being selected to try out for that TV gig. What an honor! Although I do understand why you turned down that opportunity. Besides, not exactly retirement, is it? 🙂

    1. I’m a big eggplant fan myself. It might just be my favorite vegetable! And thanks for the encourage on retirement and not purusing that TV opportunity. Yes, the prospect of jumping into a cooking content right now and all the stress it would have inevitably involved was a big part of my decision. Perhaps had it come up a year from now I would have had a different reaction…

  12. Thank you for this blog! I use it frequently and your recipes please my homesick Italian husband, whose nonne prepared many of these dishes for him.

  13. Do you have to flip it if you’re using a spring-form pan? Can’t you just un-spring it?

    1. Sure, you could just open it up without flipping but if you’re been careful to arrange the slices on the bottom decoratively, it will present the prettier side. But if you’re happy with the way to top looks, then no need. Really up to you, though.

  14. How exciting!!!!! You will love retirement. And I don’t blame you for turning this contest down. It goes against the love and passion for cooking from the heart and soul. But still a nice pat on the back for sure!

    1. That’s exactly why I did turn it down. Even if most of my family thinks I’m crazy to have done so, lol! But as you say, it’s a nice feeling to have the blog recognized in that way. 🙂

  15. Frank many thanks from a beach in Torvaianica. Will try for tomorrow’s lunch. Was going to make involvtini di melenzane. But will give this a go. You are a great recipe writer. I always feel confident with your instructions. You remind me of learning from Armida who unfortunately is no longer with us. God bless her.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Forbes. So happy to hear you’re enjoying the blog and if in some small way we’re anything like your wonderful Armida, then that’s quite the honor!

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