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Timballo is an Italian dish that essentially is a savory casserole made in such a way that the exterior of the casserole hardens, allowing it to be unmolded and served as if it were a cake. There are numerous variations throughout Italy, but many use either pasta or rice as a base along with cheese, eggs and cream or a bechamel sauce. Some other type of ingredient — sausage, eggplant, more cheese or ground meat, for example — also may be used. In some areas of Italy, a timballo is prepared with wide sheets of fresh pasta or thin crepes that are layered with tomato sauce, cheese and meat in a lasagna-like preparation, although the dish still becomes molded as it bakes. A few very elaborate and sometimes less traditional recipes for timballo wrap the ingredients inside a thin layer of pastry.
A classic timballo made with pasta, meat, tomato sauce, cheese, eggs and a bechamel sauce can be prepared in one of at least two ways. One of the easiest ways is to cook the meat with aromatics such as garlic and onions before combining it with the rest of the ingredients and mixing everything together thoroughly with the pasta sauce and the bechamel sauce, incorporating the eggs near the end. This is a very simple preparation that can then be poured into a greased, deep-bottomed baking pan similar to one that would be used for a sweet cake.
A second way to prepare timballo is to make layers, starting with pasta on the bottom of the baking pan. In general, the ingredients are layered in a way so that the bechamel sauce and eggs, if eggs are being used, can reach the pasta and help to form the solid crust that makes the timballo a molded dish. The pasta that is used usually is a short shape such as macaroni or ziti, although recipes sometimes use spaghetti or vermicelli.
Some recipes for timballo use rice instead of pasta. This version can be made by first preparing the rice in the style of risotto, slowly allowing the rice to absorb stock or water until it is fully cooked. The rice is gently pressed into the bottom and sides of a deep baking dish, forming the walls of the casserole. A filling — perhaps consisting of beef, onions and tomatoes — is prepared in a separate pot, poured into the center of the packed rice and covered with cheese, more rice or pastry.
Whichever method is used, the filled pan is placed in an oven and cooked until all the ingredients have heated through and the outer crust of the casserole has set. When served, timballo can be unmolded like a cake onto a serving dish. Depending on the ingredients and the final consistency, slices can be cut from the unmolded casserole or a spoon might be necessary to serve particularly moist fillings.
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