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Il timballo di San Silvestro

For some years now Franco and I have been inviting friends, and their friends, to come on December 31 for a buffet supper. As New Year’s bashes go, it’s pretty tame, but we pop the midnight corks on our roof terrace just opposite the Colosseum and watch the fireworks that successive city administrations, of all stripes, have generously provided.

Nor has anyone ever complained about the food. One of my standby dishes is what I call my Timballo di San Silvestro. You won’t find it in SAUCES & SHAPES. It’s not traditional. It’s just me. December 31 is the feast of San Silvestro, St. Sylvester, hence the name. One of the more or less charming New Year’s traditions in Italy—now out of use, at least in its full-scale version—is that of tossing out old stuff on December 31 to start afresh on January 1. Romans no longer heave old sofas and washing machines out the window onto the cars parked below, but the idea of a day of renewal definitely appeals to me.

In that spirit, the timballo di San Silvestro is a pasta al forno made from all those odd little amounts of different pastas, not enough to make a decent portion on their own, that collect in the cupboard. (This is the affluent society version of scraping the bottom of the madia, a wooden chest, for broken bits of pasta lest they go to waste.) I line them all up and check their cooking times, since they probably can’t all go into the water at the same time.

The principal condimento will be a béchamel enriched with all those mystery cheeses that accumulate in the fridge over the course of the year. I don’t care what they are, or were in better days. I just take them all, trim off rind and mold, and cut them into cubes. Sometimes this results in a combination of caciocavallo, caciotta, pecorino di fossa, smoked something or other, and dried out mozzarella.* It’s all good. I often also have grated parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino romano in the freezer (when I have extra freshly grated cheese left over from serving pasta, it goes into a freezer container for emergencies or for that one tablespoon called for in meatball recipes and the like). If I’m short on solid cheese, the grated goes into the béchamel, but if there’s enough, it can be saved for sprinkling on top.

Then I see what else I can add. Sometimes there’s creamed spinach left over from Christmas. I make it with chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with chopped shallots and sometimes, in anticipation of San Silvestro, I make extra, or at least extra mushrooms. In any case, there is almost always a bag of cooked spinach in the freezer. I used to add chopped prosciutto but now make it vegetarian-friendly. But prosciutto is good. So would some diced, sautéed guanciale or pancetta. I would not be above adding some diced salami I was tired of looking at in the refrigerator.

So here’s how it goes. Put a pot of water on for the pasta (any shape or shapes, including spaghetti). Make a béchamel in your usual way, about 2 cups per pound of pasta. Shred the cheese in the food processor and add it. When the pasta water boils, salt it generously, and add the longest-cooking pasta and set the timer. Proceed down to the fastest-cooking pasta. When the pasta is drained, reserve a cup or more of the water, just in case. Drain the pasta and put it in a large bowl or back in the pot. Mix in the cheesy béchamel with a wooden spoon. Toss in your mushrooms, prosciutto, spinach (chopped or at least separated by hand), or whatever your larder offered up, and mix well. Put the mixture in a baking dish, or two, or individual ramekins, or anything. Smooth over the top and sprinkle with grated cheese. Dot with butter too if you like. At this point you can hold it for later. Bake at about 350°F/180°C for about half an hour or until warm through and the cheese on top has melted fetchingly. I always have a houseful of people by the time I put it in the oven, so honestly I have no idea how long it takes. To serve, cut into squares with a sharp knife.

Freeze the leftovers, but eat them some cold evening between Befana (January 6) and Valentine’s Day or you risk finding them next December, which could get entirely too circular.

*Claudio Volpetti taught me this trick. He says don’t put a good mozzarella in the fridge. Put it in a plastic bag in a bowl of water for up to four days. If you’re not going to finish it by then, put it on a plate, uncovered, in the fridge and let it dry out. It is then suitable for melting, as on pizza or crostini. I would add that this is an excellent method, but not a long-term solution. You want to use it when it is no longer exuding liquid but before it has petrified, a matter of single-digit days.
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