The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, is a landmark of Italian literature. There are many reasons to read it, but among others it contains some of the great dinner scenes in modern fiction. The meal in Chapter 2 begins with "monumental dishes of macaroni." But this isn't just a pile of pasta, oh no. Di Lampedusa describes the dish in some detail:
"The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a mist laden with aromas, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken, and truffles in masses of piping-hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede."
A few years ago, after re-reading the novel, I began to wonder about making something like that myself. I found a couple of different recipes for "Timballo alla Gattopardo" — that is, pasta pie Leopard-style. It quickly became apparent to me that the only things the recipes I found had in common with one another were the ingredients mentioned specifically in the passage above.
So I tried a couple of experiments, and have finally settled on my own version, which can be made in an afternoon and always gets a good response.
The crust: I make a sweet crust with plenty of cinnamon, as per the novel. Combine 3 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup sugar, a tablespoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of salt, and 5 ounces of butter (1 and 1/4 sticks). You can use margarine if you prefer. Combine the dry ingredients and the butter, either using a pastry-cutter or a food processor, then add water (start with 1/2 cup and add a little more at a time until the dough sticks together properly). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while doing everything else.
The filling: 2 boneless chicken breasts or thighs, sliced; 1 cup chicken livers, cut up into 1-inch pieces; 2 ounces thin-sliced Italian ham, 2 Italian sausages, skin removed and cut into 8 pieces each; 1 cup of peas; 1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese; half a cup of good chicken stock; 2 hard-boiled eggs, and about 2/3 of a pound of small pasta (elbows or mini-penne).*
Sautee the chicken and sausage pieces, then set them aside. Cut the ham into thin strips. Sautee the chicken liver in butter, then add the peas, ham, cooked sausage and chicken, and about 1/4 cup of white wine. Simmer them together until the liquid reduces by about half, and add salt, pepper, 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric. Slice the eggs and put them aside.
Start preheating the oven to 350 F. Boil the pasta, drain it, and combine with the chicken stock and grated Parmesan.
Roll out 2/3 of the dough and use it to line a deep baking dish. I use a 9-inch springform pan about 3 inches deep, but a brave and self-confident cook could use a Pyrex or ceramic casserole.
Cover the bottom of the crust with about a quarter of the pasta-and-cheese. Reserve another quarter of the pasta for later. Mix the remaining half with the meat and peas, and pour that mixture into the crust. Top with the egg slices, then cover that with the reserved pasta. Now roll out the rest of the crust and cover the top, crimping the edge thoroughly to make a good seal. (If you wind up with some leftover crust you can make decorative shapes to put on top — a heraldic Leopard would be appropriate, or the insanely complicated flag of Bourbon Naples.)
Bake 45 minutes or until the crust has nicely browned. It should "rest" a few minutes before serving to give the interior a chance to set, although the novel suggests that was not how they did it under the Bourbons.
Slice ceremoniously and serve. You'll want to have a big spoon handy to round up stray filling. This is a good dinner for four to six people, or an impressive pasta course for a larger group. It would be suitable for a Christmas or New Year's feast, which is why I present it now.
I haven't tried any other fillings, but it seems like a dish which could support variations. Mushrooms are an obvious addition, and possibly chopped spinach if you want to pretend you care about "healthy eating." (Or use spinach pasta for an exciting green interior.) I suspect one could come up with a good seafood variant, substituting shrimp or lobster for the sausages, oysters for the livers, smoked salmon for the ham, and cod for the chicken.
*The observant reader will note the absence of truffles. If someone with a few hundred dollars to spare wants to buy me a couple of ounces of truffles, I'll happily put them in next time I make this and report on the flavor.