This updated timpano is just as delectable as more authentic versions but faster, easier and even a bit lighter.
Ages ago, after the movie “Big Night” was released, a friend served a timpano at a dinner party.
It was an oversize torte made out of a giant homemade sheet of pasta meticulously rolled thin, just as it was in the movie. What was inside was three days in the making: little meatballs browned in oil, shreds of slow-braised beef ragù, chunks of cheese and hard-boiled eggs, everything anchored by penne in a homemade tomato sauce.
Baked and then unmolded, it was a gorgeously bronzed mountain rising above the dining table. We stood up and applauded before cutting into it.
Every timpano I’ve had since has followed in that same traditionally laborious mold, whether it was made by an Italian grandmother, a novice cook or a professional chef.
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But is it possible to streamline the process and modernize some of the parts without losing any of the razzle-dazzle?
After some experimentation, I can tell you that the answer is an emphatic yes. This updated timpano is just as delectable as more authentic versions but faster, easier and even a bit lighter — in the context of timpani, that is.
The first shortcut is using purchased fresh lasagna sheets rather than homemade dough. The downside of not rolling the dough to fit your specific baking vessel is that you will end up with at least one visible seam.
This did not bother me, but if you think it will bug you, go traditional and make your own pasta dough. You will still save time and effort on the filling.
The biggest timesaver here is skipping the meatballs and ragù, and relying on sausage and salami for meatiness. The chunks of tender porky sausage I use here are just as satisfying to bite into as meatballs, but a lot easier to prepare: Just slice and brown.
To deepen the flavor, I build the tomato sauce around the sausage drippings in the pan. I think this added enough meat to dispense with the proper ragù, with nuggets of chewy salami helping the cause.
I also nixed the hard-boiled egg, substituting chunks of roasted winter squash. The orange squash has a similar visual effect to the sliced egg but a richer, sweeter flavor that can hold its own, whereas the mild egg always seems to get a little lost. Sautéed broccoli raab also added color, along with a welcome bitterness that sharpened all the other flavors.
And the added vegetable matter lightened everything up slightly, too, which was welcome next to the pork and the requisite pieces of cheese, in this case soft and milky ricotta and bits of buffalo mozzarella.
Just as in the original recipe, you can make all of the elements a few days ahead, and then assemble everything right before baking.
Also just like the original, you’ll end up with a richly filled golden dome that’s truly worthy of your guests’ applause.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
¾ pound sweet or spicy Italian sausage (or a combination), sliced ½-inch thick
4 peeled, smashed garlic cloves, plus 2 additional cloves thinly sliced
1 onion, peeled and diced
Pinch red chili flakes
1½ teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 (28-ounce) can puréed tomatoes
¼ cup chopped basil, plus 1 large basil sprig
1 medium butternut squash (about 1¾ pounds), peeled and cut into 1½-inch chunks
1 pound (about 1 bunch) broccoli raab, thick stems discarded
12 ounces fresh ricotta
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
12 ounces penne rigate pasta
10 ounces buffalo mozzarella (drained weight; usually about two balls), torn into bite-size pieces
4 ounces salami, cut into ½-inch dice, or 2 ounces prosciutto, sliced into ½-inch strips
Unsalted butter, as needed
1 pound fresh pasta sheets (usually sold for lasagna)
1. Make the sauce: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm 1 tablespoon of oil. Add sausage and cook until well browned, about five minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.
2. Return pan to heat, add another tablespoon of oil and stir in smashed garlic cloves. Sauté for one minute, then stir in the onion, red chili flakes and a large pinch of kosher salt. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until garlic is browned around the edges and onion is softened, seven to 10 minutes.
3. Pour in wine and let simmer until reduced by half, about five minutes.
4. Stir in tomato purée, basil sprig and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to a very gentle simmer and cook until thick and deeply flavored, 40 to 50 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, roast the squash: Heat oven to 425 degrees. Place squash on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil, salt and pepper, and toss well to coat. Roast until browned and tender, 35 to 40 minutes, turning the squash pieces after 20 minutes so they cook evenly. Let cool.
6. Prepare the broccoli raab: Roughly cut up the raab into 1-inch pieces. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add sliced garlic and sauté for one minute. Stir in broccoli raab and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, tossing frequently, until just barely tender, five to seven minutes. If the garlic starts to get very brown before the raab is tender, add a tablespoon of water to the pan if necessary. Let cool.
7. Prepare the ricotta mixture: In a medium bowl, stir together ricotta, egg, ¼ cup chopped basil, the black pepper and the nutmeg.
8. Cook the penne in a large pot of very well-salted water for four minutes (it won’t even be halfway cooked, but will finish cooking in the timpano). Drain and put penne into a large bowl. Toss with the sauce, sausage, mozzarella, and salami or prosciutto.
9. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter bottom and sides of a 3- to 4-quart Dutch oven.
10. Assemble the timpano: Brush any clinging cornmeal or flour from the pasta sheets if necessary. Use pasta sheets to cover bottom and up the sides of the pot, patching as needed to make sure there are no gaps. Leave any overhanging dough draped over the sides to help cover the filling.
11. Spoon a third of the pasta mixture into the bottom of the pot. For the best presentation when you cut this, you could try to make sure that all the penne face the same way, but it’s not essential. Top with the ricotta mixture, then another third of the pasta. Arrange squash pieces on top of pasta, and tuck broccoli raab around and over squash. Finish with a layer of the remaining pasta mixture.
12. Tuck the overhanging lasagna over the filling, and fill in any gaps with more pasta dough. You want to make sure the whole top is covered. Brush top of the timpano with water to make sure that the casserole is tightly sealed. Cover the Dutch oven with its cover or with foil.
13. Transfer pot to oven and bake for one 1 hour. Uncover pot and continue cooking until it reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees, about 15 to 20 minutes longer. Let it cool, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Run a butter knife along the edges of the pot to make sure the timpano isn’t sticking. Place a large platter or cutting board over the pot and flip, unmolding the timpano from the pot. Let cool 10 to 20 minutes more before slicing and serving.