There are some recipes that I’ve been tip toeing around, because of their complexity, because of my ignorance; there’s the fear of being branded a cultural appropriater, the knowledge that I’ll get them wrong, but without a reference point to know just how wrong I got it.
So it is with Pasta al Forno. This is not a formalised recipe, like Pasta alla Norma. But then, it is THE recipe. A simple name, ‘baked pasta’, belies a complex, time consuming holy grail of dishes. YouTube it and there are more Nonna’s out there making Pasta al Forno, than are imaginable. It is a dish for Sundays, for celebration, a dish of a diaspora, for welcoming home the Prodigal Son. But more than anything it is the domesticity of Italian cooking distilled. It is sacrosanct. I’m terrified of this dish. Because I am not Italian, to attempt this feels fraudulent almost.
But it had to be done. I tried. And because I’m not Italian, because I don’t have to play by the rules if I don’t know them all, I tinkered, just a little. Don’t tell the Sicilian.
If you want a lumpen show stopper, something to bring a cheer from the family that will stretch far enough to satisfy the hungriest of teenagers, this is it. It is aubergines, ubiquitous to Sicily breadcrumbs, ragù, pasta (of course), more aubergines, cheese, ham, peas (if you like), layered and assembled into something that is satisfyingly homely, maternal and unpretentious despite the effort and detail that goes into it. You can try to prettify and gentrify but you will fail, and in so doing you will fail to grasp the point of it, as a celebration of abundance, togetherness and sharing. Only a fool would make this without guests or family to share it with, you’d be eating it for days.
This though is the Palermitan version, or my Palermitan’s version, with added Milanese input.
Of course, there is pasta al forno, and then there is the proper pasta al forno, as made in Palermo. For starters, there is only one acceptable pasta, anelletti (think spaghetti hoops), most other versions are far less dictatorial. It was described to me as a ‘leftovers, whatever is in the fridge’ dish, with no real recipe. I was then told exactly what those leftovers should be.
So, I’m not going to give recipe of weights and volumes here, as the scale of this thing should shift to match the size of your personal domestic set up.
To begin then, start your ragù, ideally the day before you’re making your bake. (I tend to make ragù in cauldron sized batches that I freeze into meal sized portions – it saves a lot of time and washing up).
Ragù is a complex business. One that I sometimes feel I have no place or right to start getting involved with. There are essays and debates and probably wars raging over what constitutes the proper ragù. The intricacies and complications that have been wound around this sauce are endless. Perhaps, one day, I’ll write something about these; sticking my head above a parapet for the inevitable onslaught. But for now, my ragù is a meat sauce – beef or beef and pork mince, with a soffritto of carrots, onion and celery, passata (plus the same volume of water), white wine, garlic, a bay leaf, simmered for hours – as many as you have (as long as it’s above 3). If it gets too thick, add more water. I add an anchovy, one of those salted, oily slivers from a tin. It dissolves and wallops up the umami. I also add a 50p sized blob of astrattu, the unique salted tomato concentrate created by the sun on the roofs of people’s homes in Sicily. This is unlike anything you’ll have come across outside of Sicily. It isn’t just tomato paste. It is something other. You know how a really good sun dried tomato can taste like sweet marmite? Exaggerate and embellish that thought. This is obviously not an option unless you’re visiting Sicily (although maybe there are places you can find it here that I’ve not discovered yet), so don’t get too hung up on this addition.
My ragù is definitely not canon. The Sicilian I feel disapproves. But it’s mine, and I think it’s nigh on perfect.
Once your ragù has simmered its way to a suitably decadent richness, turn it off, cover it and let it sit in the fridge for 24 hours, where, like the best of soups, stews and curries, it will use this time for inner reflection and self improvement.
The next day you are ready to begin.
Slice two large aubergine thinly into steaks and fry both sides in deep, good olive oil until browned. You can pre salt these slices to draw out some of the water, but make sure to rinse and dry them before frying. While they’re cooking, oil a sprung cake tin, and coat the inside with breadcrumbs.
Drain the cooked aubergine slices and use them to line the tin, leaving any long edges hanging over the sides of the tin.
Chop a third aubergine into chunks and fry these until brown
Hard boil your eggs
Precook your pasta for half the time on the packet (3-4 mins usually). Anelletti is a bugger to find in the UK, so improvise – penne is fine, if not Palermitan, I use ditaloni, which is a short tube, still not Palermo style, but hey! Needs must!
Mix together the pasta and ragù, then layer this with the aubergine chunks, ham and cheese (I mix parmesan and mozarella, but caciocavallo, if you can get it, will add Sicilian authenticity), alternating until you fill the tin, and inserting hidden halves of boiled egg in a symmetrical ring.
Fold over any overhanging aubergine, scatter over more bread crumbs and bake in the oven for 40 minutes.
Best eaten the next day (making this a three day project), this is a rib sticker of a meal. Hearty and calorific, it takes no prisoners. But as it is delicious, fantastic, smothering, you will welcome, and embrace your captivity.