Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pasta Al Forno: The Exquisite Baked Pasta of Sicily--Part 1

Pasta al Forno

Pasta al forno is by far one of the most impressive dishes of Sicily. There are as many nuanced versions of this baked pasta as there are regions in Sicily. This is an elegant dish, most often served on Sundays or at holiday meals.
One of my favorite and funniest movie scenes of all time is the unmolding of the timpano of baked pasta in The Big Nightttp://

Anyone who has ever made pasta al forno, or any molded Sicilian baked pasta, knows what that’s all about.  The anticipation is palpable as the sum of all your effort hangs on a string—one wrong move and your oeuvre implodes in a messy heap on the serving plate! Even my husband recently confided to me that watching pasta al forno being unmolded makes him a nervous wreck!  
The ragu

Pasta al forno is essentially a richly seasoned pasta that is baked in a molded pan. Pasta of any shape may be used but it is most commonly made with short pasta such as anelletti or penne.  
The pasta is cooked and then tossed with ragu.  Then it is transferred to a deep, round, molded baking pan called a timpano or drum, which has been oiled and dusted with bread crumbs. It is arranged in in the timpano in alternating layers  of pasta, sautéed eggplant, caciocavallo or pecorino cheese, sliced hard boiled egg, and sautéed sausage or mortadella followed by more ragu and pasta. It is baked in the oven, cooled, and served unmolded.

The flavors of pasta al forno
The ragu itself is very richly spiced with ground beef, raisins, called sultanina, peas, pine nuts, and nutmeg. The element of surprise of the varied textures and flavors is especially pleasing.    The result is  an elegant structured pasta that looks much like a torte, and in fact it is sliced and served in wedges like one. Your guests, I will promise you, will be impressed.

Pasta al forno is sometimes referred to in Sicilian dialect  as  pasta ‘ncasciata.  I’m told that this is a reference to the  cacio cheese that is used, although I find it curious that the Sicilian word “incasciare” also means to press something down, as for example into a mold or box. This pasta is a great dish for entertaining because it can be prepared in advance, even frozen, and it reheats beautifully. I always try to keep one or two in the freezer in the event of unexpected company.

Zio Tannino and Zia Pia
In part 2 of this blog I will share with you the recipe for a pasta al forno from my region of western Sicily. I learned to make this particular version from my aunt Pia, whose pasta al forno is without question the best I’ve ever had.  Zia Pia is my late father’s youngest sister and growing up I spent as much time in her house as I did in mine …and still do whenever I am in Sicily!  
Zia Pia’s recipe varies slightly from traditional baked pastas, because it's made with sheets of  uncut pasta, and  does not include eggplant or hard boiled egg or sausage. She often refers to it as millefoglie or  "thousand layers" because the layering of pasta sheets is so delicate and numerous that it resembles pastry. The result is truly extraordinary!

With my Zia Pia on her balcony.

My aunt and uncle have a summer home on the beach at San Teodoro in  Marsala.  It is the very beach we went to as children and it has many important memories for me. Summers at my aunt's home are a constant coming and going of family and friends. Over the decades, her modest patio dining table has provided heavenly gastronomic experiences to an untold number people from far and wide. Her culinary abilities, and most importantly her loving nature are recognized in our entire family as a true gift, which we all get to partake in.
Join me for Part 2 of this blog to see how Zia Pia's pasta al forno is made.  Until then,
Ciao a presto!

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