The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mario Batali's Timpano di Maccheroni A Kitchen Nightmare

Whether on TV or in person, I love to watch Mario Batali cook. He's incredibly personable and has a great rapport with his audience. He's knowledgeable and passionate and you learn a lot just watching him regardless of whether you ever intend to prepare any of the sometimes exotic and arcane dishes he demonstrates.

Well, I caught Mario's act on ABC's The Chew not long ago on a day when he was preparing a Timpano di Maccheroni. An impressive stuffed pasta pie, he billed it as a great dish for parties and celebrations. He also touted how very easy the dish was to prepare. Perfect, I thought, for an upcoming event I'm supposed to cater.

But first, there's Easter. A big family food holiday and an opportunity to guinea pig a new recipe. I'll wow family and friends with a timpano before I try it out on a client. Only, I was the one who got “wowed.” As in, “Wow! Was that una grande dolore in culo!” (That's “a big pain in the ass” for those of you who are Italian-challenged.)

See, the thing is, it's easy for Mario to say something is “easy” because he has a huge team of prep cooks working behind the scenes to make it look easy. But when it's just you and your long-suffering spouse, it's a whole 'nuther story. Especially if you're trying to turn out cheesecake and various other side items at the same time. Easy-schmeezy!

To be somewhat fair to Mario, the actual assembly of the dish is easy. It's ten-minute easy. BUT......

Let me describe this kitchen nightmare. You make a crust that's somewhere between pasta and pastry. You lay said crust in a big metal bowl that's been buttered and breadcrumbed so that the edges overlap the rim of the bowl. Then you add a layer of rigatoni that's been cooked in a besciamella sauce and to which a little ham or prosciutto has been added. Top that with some freshly-grated parmigiano-reggiano. Add a layer of meatballs that have been cooked in a tomato sauce. Top that with more cheese. Then you add a layer of a nice ragu, or meat sauce. Fold the “flaps” of dough over the whole thing, cover with foil and bake. Easy!!

And if I would have had somebody pre-make my crust, pre-cook my pasta, pre-make my white sauce, my red sauce, my meat sauce, and my meatballs so that all I had to do was dance around on my little black Crocs – mine are black, not orange – putting it all together, why, I'd be a happy camper, too!

Of course, if I were one of those kind of cooks, I would have used the pie dough that comes in little rolls in the dairy case and combined it with some jarred sauces and frozen meatballs. That, also, would have been pretty easy.

But, no-o-o-o. I spent hours making all the sauces from scratch. I even cut up and ground the meat that went into the ragu and the meatballs. And the dough was scratch-made, too. And then there was the time it took to grate piles of cheese and the time to cook the pasta and cutting up the prosciutto and a dozen other “little” things that all had to be done before the final “easy” assembly and baking, which, by the way, took an hour-and-a-half.

My wife has threatened to hurt me if I ever again utter “easy” and “Batali” in the same sentence.

And then there's the recipe issue. I went to The Chew's website for the recipe. I don't know who wrote it, but it's whacked.

First, there's the dough. The recipe says you can hydrate 2 ½ cups of flour with a teaspoon of water. You can't. My wife made the dough while I was working on sauces and she kept adding and adding water to achieve the “lumpy mass” the recipe called for before kneading and resting the dough. And things got worse instead of better after the dough rested. Worse to the point where we almost remade the dough. We finally got it to work, but only by following our experience and instincts, not by following the recipe.

The recipe was full of weird instructions. For instance, they wanted me to make the ragu, or meat sauce, by cooking the meat in tomato sauce for three hours and then removing the meat. Huh?

And the ingredient proportions were equally ridiculous. The recipe called for two pounds of rigatoni. The biggest metal mixing bowl in my kitchen measures 12-inches across the top. I struggled to get a little more than half of the cooked pasta into that bowl. I do have a small metal washtub that probably would have worked, but it wouldn't fit in my oven.

Ultimately, the dish was – as most Batali dishes are – a triumph. When we finally got the cursed thing put together and baked, we upended it onto a serving platter, lightly thumped the bowl, lifted it and revealed an absolutely perfect golden dome of pasta and meat-filled deliciousness that awed our guests into numerous expressions of admiration.

And we vowed to never make it least not according to that recipe.

Timpano di Maccheroni is a great concept and one of these days I'll write out the recipe in a way that won't leave you cursing, mumbling, and panting when you try to make it. In the meantime, I hope the guests at my upcoming event won't mind lasagne.


  1. google search the Timpano Recipe from the movie Big Night. The recipe is excellent and explains every process in great detail. If you ever decide to do another Timpano, might I suggest that you plan ahead and when you make your ziti, sauce and meatballs: have ziti with meatballs for dinner one night a week or two before you make the Timpano, make extra pasta, meatballs & sauce as the recipe calls for and freeze them. I do this, and my drum turns out fabulous every time.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Gina. I did look up that recipe and it looks great. Actually, though, I have made other iterations of the dish from similar recipes and they all turn out fine. The bug I had with Mario's version was the funky crust. In your recipe -- as in most others -- the outer crust of the drum or dome is made up of sheets of pasta. Mario's recipe is a cross between a pasta and a pastry crust and it's just weird. You can make a timpano with rice. The Romans used to use breadcrumbs. I've even seen one done with thin strips of eggplant. And perhaps if the recipe we were following would have been better rendered, Mario's pastry crust creation might have turned out better as well. But as it was, it was a nightmare.