Saturday, January 06, 2007

An Unusual Pasta Pie

I have certainly been a poor correspondent; a lapsed blogger, if you will. And to all those who’ve been checking in regularly and who’ve sent emails or comments asking after me, thank you and my apologies for going MIA since—how long has it been?—October??

It was a busy last quarter of the year—ironic, since I quit my job in October. The last few months have been filled with exciting new opportunities and naturally, lots of cooking and baking as it happens with the festive season. Between the rushing around and numerous dinners to cook and attend, not to mention the cake orders that came pouring in (just one of the aforementioned new opportunities), there was nary a free moment to document, photograph, or simply sit for a minute to reflect.

Hence, this post, with “action shots” taken just as the pie emerged from the oven, minutes before it hit the dinner table where 12 hungry cousins awaited. It is a late post, to be sure, but hey, better late than never, no?

This Unusual Tortellini Pie from Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s whopper of a book, The Splendid Table , was the reason I insisted Christmas dinner this year be held at my house. Just the thought of constructing this lavish centrepiece alone was challenging enough—especially with a project that took up a good nine hours a day away from home—but I was hooked on the idea, and there was just no stopping me.

A sweet, crumbly crust, bound by lashings of white wine, within which a layering of tortellini, ragu, and tiny meatballs lay. Just before the top crust is put in place, a voluptuous cinnamon-scented custard is ladled over it all, providing an gorgeous accent—both taste and texture-wise—to the pie’s meaty flavours.

As the author suggested, I made each component, one a day (or more like night, when the office and page upon page of magazine were left behind for the day): The meatballs on Monday evening, the ragu on Tuesday, the custard on Wednesday… Alas, by the time Thursday rolled around, I was simply too exhausted and overwhelmed to make the tortellini from scratch, so I went with some leftover dried penne instead. Purists may balk, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Some of the other items on the menu that night included a roasted pork loin with macadamia nut and apricot stuffing, a warm scallop and rocket salad, vichyssoise, grilled wagyu steak (a dish that’s turning into a new Christmas tradition among the Cousins Tan), vanilla bean pannacotta with raspberry compote, and three flavours of home-made ice cream: peanut butter and chocolate, rocky road and vanilla honey. Yes, we certainly ate well.

But back to the pie. In the 1500s, records of Italian court life tell of numerous elaborate and savoury pies. Sugar, being a status symbol, was used with abandon during feasts, so sweet crusts that held savoury or sweet fillings were the fashion of the day. Apparently, “many were designed to be showstoppers: when their lids were lifted, flocks of live birds flew out. Some contained three pounds each of butter and salt pork, four roast pigeons, juice of sour grapes, saffron, nutmeg, cloves, and handfuls of cinnamon and pepper.”

The sweet pastry of this pie is a nice contrast to its intensely savoury insides. On its own, the meatballs were too rich with Parmesan cheese, the Baroque ragu (dominated by chicken and encompassing beef chuck, Italian sausage and chicken giblets) and meat tortellini on top would have just been overkill. But the slightly sweet cushion of custard and the sugary pastry cut through it all nicely, so it was a fine balance of sweet and savoury.

Would I do it again? No doubt about it. But next time, I’m taking the entire week off.

Happy New Year!

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