Lark Ascending: Timpano, an elaborate Italian dish
I like to cook.
But I tend to stick to the tried-and-true comfort foods that I am familiar with: roast chicken with rosemary and garlic, spaghetti with a tomato sauce that is mostly butter. I also like to cook or bake things that remind me of my childhood and my mother’s Scandinavian family: homemade bread, for example, or a favorite summer dessert called blåbår pirogue, blueberries on a crust that incidentally also is mostly butter.
My husband, Alan, is more adventurous when it comes to cooking.
The first dinner he ever made for me was some kind of Peruvian dish, covered with a peculiar bright pink sauce and accompanied by a side of some sort of tubers. When I worked at Le Creuset in Silverthorne, I would regularly borrow unusual cookware so Alan could make us fondue, French crepes or exotic Moroccan dishes in a fancy tagine.
A friend of ours, who is a winemaker in Cedaredge, showed up at our house in Breckenridge last week with a truckload of his new wines for us to try. Fearful that the three of us would consume that volume of wine ourselves, Alan and I had decided in advance to invite some of our neighbors in Gold Hill over to meet Dave and share in the wine bounty.
The concept of 20 varieties of wine to taste with 20 friends got Alan’s culinary wheels turning.
“I am going to make a timpano,” he announced.
Alan had settled on this idea after watching an old movie called “Big Night,” which revolves around an Italian restaurant in New Jersey, the anticipated arrival of an important guest and an extravagant baked creation called timpano. In Italian, timpano (pronounced TIM-pano) is a kind of drum.
To make it:
• Take one six-quart cooking vessel and line it with dough.
• Fill it with cooked pasta, meatballs, tomato sauce, salami, provolone cheese, Romano cheese and egg slices. Repeat with additional layers until the cooking vessel is brimming.
• Smoosh it all down with your hands, and cover it with dough to seal.
• Cook for 1 1/2 hours before removing it from the oven and letting it rest.
• Finally, cross your fingers and hold your breath as you flip/heave/hoist the whole thing upside down onto a large platter.
The preparations for our dinner became a major enterprise and included a week of trips to City Market and an expedition to Costco. Disagreements broke out over who would be responsible for the massive amount of dough (me) and who would be in charge of rolling it out to the needed 32-inch diameter (Alan).
Alan was convinced we would need much more sauce than the eight cups the recipe called for, which I had spent the previous day concocting. I was not about to start again to make more. We were stumped by how exactly to slice the required 12 hard-boiled eggs — the recipe was vague — and we each had our own ideas about what would look best.
And the house still needed to be cleaned, and places needed to be found for the 20 mismatched chairs. A hodgepodge of different sizes of wine glasses needed to be polished and organized.
The timpano made it successfully into the oven just before our guests began to arrive. For the next 1 1/2 hours, Dave got to work pouring multiple tastings of wine, and the room erupted in noisy chaos as guests debated the merits of petit verdot versus cab Franc versus malbec, viognier compared to gewürztraminer. Now and again, one of our neighbors slipped out the back door with Dave, in the manner of an illicit drug deal, to acquire a bottle — or a case — of a particular favorite from the back of his truck.
When at last the timpano was ready, a hush descended upon the noisy group squeezed into our kitchen and dining area. Alan hoisted the enormous creation out of the oven and, after a tense moment, flipped it onto a serving platter. Then it sat, cooling in a place of honor on the dining room table. “What is that?” more than one person asked.
A half-hour later, the great edible mound was sliced open, revealing an archeological arrangement of food groups in thick, tall slices. Pictures were snapped. Compliments and expressions of awe were offered to Alan, who was pleased, exhausted and relieved. After multiple glasses of wine, everyone was hungry and ready to dive into a plate of the meatball, sausage, cheese, egg and pasta-laden dish.
There was no way that either Alan or I could even look at the timpano remains for at least the next two days.
The following Monday night, we retrieved two large hunks of the pasta dish from the refrigerator. It was just the two of us now. Alan set out two plates and one of the corked bottles of cabernet sauvignon. The flavors of the timpano had all had time to mellow and blend with each other. As I took my first bite, I was able to appreciate something that I really couldn’t have before, with all the people and all the noise and all the wine. Not only is a timpano elaborate, impressive, excessive and one hell of a lot of work, it also is really delicious.
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