About 15 years ago, I had the good fortune to take a week long cooking class with Lorenza di Medici at her home Badia a Coltibuono in Tuscany. A small group of us were given the opportunity to stay at her incredible estate and spend several hours each day cooking with Lorenza di Medici. Each morning, we awoke to a breakfast of warm, freshly baked breads and pastries topped with homemade preserves, honey from her personal bees, locally cured prosciutto and cheeses made from cows and goats on the estate.
After breakfast we spent hours cooking, using vegetables and herbs that had just been picked from the garden. The setting was stunning, the food amazing and experience magical. I was a good cook before this but this experience changed my approach to food and cooking. I started to think about using seasonal ingredients and adding subtle layers of unexpected flavors, and generally playing with recipes.
One of the dishes we prepared was a pasta timballo. Basically this was a molded pasta formed in a springform pan. The original recipe involved lining the bottom of the pan with tomato halves, so when it was baked, unmolded and flipped over, it created a dramatic presentation. I tweaked the recipe and have made it many times.
For this party I thought it would be fun to make mini versions of this timballo. They aren’t as dramatic as the large size but they are totally irresistible.
The recipe calls for tomato sauce. Please make it from scratch. It’s easy and canned tomato sauce, which is watery and tasteless, just won’t do. Make your own and freeze it so you have it when you need it. See the difference it makes in all your dishes.
This is one of the things I learned from Lorenza di Medici: Don’t take shortcuts where flavor is concerned. If it doesn’t affect flavor, shortcuts are fine.
One of the secrets she shared was that most Italian women never make homemade pasta. This idea of fresh pasta was a totally American notion. She learned to make fresh pasta for her PBS show and American book tour. Who knew? The one shortcut I do take is using pitted olives. Lorenza doesn’t do this. I know that for a fact because in class I was assigned olive pitting duties. Lorenza kept her steely blue-grey eyes on me making sure I did a careful, thorough job. If you buy really good Kalamata olives, I don’t think it affects the flavor of the dish. Lorenza might now approve so please don’t tell her.
A NOTE: You need really tiny pasta to make these in a mini muffin pans. Use either small shells, tiny elbow macaroni or ditalini.
MINI PASTA TIMBALLOS WITH SMOKED MOZZARELLA CHEESE
EVENT: Apps & Alcohol
SERVES: Yields 48 Pieces
For the tomato sauce:
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
6 tablespoons olive oil
One 2-lbs can Italian tomatoes, coarsely chopped or crushed
1 tablespoon fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste
For the timballos:
8 oz. uncooked pasta (use either small shells, small macaroni or ditalini)
3/4 cup Italian homemade tomato sauce
8 oz. smoked mozzarella cheese, diced or grated
1/2 cup pitted and chopped Kalamata olives
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
2/3 cup panko breadcrumbs, toasted
1 oz. goat cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Butter for brushing pans
24-cup non-stick mini muffin tins
Make the tomato sauce:
1. In a medium sauce pan, over low heat, cook the garlic until translucent. Don’t overcook or burn the garlic.
2. Add the canned tomatoes with their liquid and simmer over low heat, covered, until most of the liquid has evaporated (30-45 minutes). The sauce should be very thick and chunky.
3. Remove from heat.
4. Stir in fresh basil.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Keep sauce in refrigerator for 3 days or store in air tight container in freezer for up to 1 month.
A TIP: I double the recipe and keep some in the freezer.
Make the timballos:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Lightly toast bread crumbs and cool.
3. Brush two 24-cup non-stick mini muffin tins with butter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs, tapping out excess.
4. In a large saucepan of boiling water, cook pasta until al dente, approximately 5-7 minutes.
5. Drain past in a colander.
6. In a large bowl, combine pasta, tomato sauce, olives , smoked mozzarella cheese, goat cheese and 3 tablespoons of parmesan cheese.
7. Taste for salt and pepper.
8. Using a mini scoop, place a mound in each muffin cup. Top with a sprinkle of remaining Parmesan cheese.
9. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, until golden and sizzling.
10. Let cool for 5 minutes.
11. Using a small spatula, carefully loosen the mini timballos and serve.
A TIP: The tomato sauce can be made 3 days ahead. Assemble timballos the morning of the party. Bake just before serving.