This article was first published on The Circle on 2nd December, 2018.
Photos by Rachel Zammit Cutajar
What we eat at Christmas time generally depends on where we were brought up and the cultures we were taught. Whatever we eat tends to be the same year in, year out, though differs in different parts of the world.
As a Catholic country, Christmas is a very important time in Malta and the Christmas feast is one that is looked forward to throughout the year.
Though we have adopted many British traditions when in comes to Christmas culinary fare, there are still one or two traditionally Maltese flavours that colour our Christmas.
The Maltese timpana is a meal in itself, so much so that sometimes I have a ‘Timpana Night’ serving two large timpanas and nothing else. Macaroni mixed with Bolognese sauce, brain, chicken giblets, chicken livers and hard boiled eggs, the mixture is then wrapped in pastry and baked in the oven, this is a complete meal, through and through.
My husband’s family, along with many Maltese families, however will never have Christmas lunch that does not start with a timpana. The starter is then followed more English traditions like the turkey and Christmas pudding and all the extras. Their father, Dr Salvino Mattei, was famous for his excellent timpana where the recipe has been handed down from generation to generation.
The timpana is such an iconic dish it is referred to, with admiration, in literature in the historical novel, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. This is what he says of our Christmas dish.
“ When three lackeys in green, gold and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering macaroni pie, only four of the twenty at table avoided showing pleased surprise.
Good manners apart, though, the aspect of those monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of the sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, 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.”
The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
Another dish served around Christmas is what is known as imbuljuta tal-Qastan – a hot chestnut and cocao soup that is served as a drink after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The soup is made from chestnuts, chocolate, Christmas spices and peel from the citrus fruit that is in season at this time of year. Served warm, with a dollop of whipped cream, this is intended to take the edge off a cold night when you come home from church.
· 1kg minced beef and pork, mixed
· 200g chicken livers
· 6 rashers bacon, chopped
· 1 Maltese sausage, skinned
· 500g chicken giblets, cleaned, boiled and chopped (optional)
· 1 small kidney, boiled and chopped
· 4-6 tins tomatoes, chopped or whole
· 4 tbsp tomato purée (kunserva)
· 2 medium onions, chopped
· 6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
· 1 tbsp sugar
· 1 carrot grated
You will also need
· 1kg macaroni
· 4 eggs, hard-boiled
· 4 whole raw eggs, beaten
· 2 pig brains
· 2 large aubergines
· 1kg puff pastry
· 200g parmesan cheese, grated
· Salt and pepper
1. Fry the onions and garlic in some olive oil until golden.
2. Put pork and beef mince in another pot and cook until browned. Pour out excess liquid and set cooked meat aside.
3. Into the cooked onion and garlic, add the chopped bacon, then the chicken livers and cook for a few minutes until the livers change colour, then take these out, chop up and return to pan.
4. Add the chopped giblets and then the boiled kidney. Fry all these ingredients until well cooked, then add the cooked minced beef and pork and the skinned Maltese sausage.
5. To this, add the tinned tomatoes, the kunserva, grated carrot and sugar.
6. Simmer for 90 minutes, until the sauce is a rich colour with a glaze. Set aside. (This Bolognese can be prepared ahead of time then heated through.)
7. Slice the aubergines, leaving the skin on. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave for 30 mins to drain.
8. Rinse well and pat dry. Then fry until brown in a little oil. Set aside on absorbent paper.
9. Rinse the pig brains in cold, salted water, making sure there are no bones left. Boil these in fresh water until they are pale in colour and cooked through (about 5 mins).
10. Roll out the defrosted puff pastry to line a well-greased, high-sided pot, or very large cake tin that will fit in your oven.
11. Boil the pasta until cooked through al dente.
12. Drain the pasta very well and put into a large mixing bowl.
13. Mix in the prepared Bolognese sauce mixing with a large wooden spoon (so as not to break the pasta tubes).
14. Add to this the raw, beaten eggs and then the grated Parmesan seasoning with salt and pepper.
15. Carefully fit the rolled out pastry into the prepared pot, or tin, leaving enough overlap to wrap around the top of the dish.
16. Into this, put a quarter of the macaroni mix.
17. Place some aubergine on top of this, plus a hard-boiled egg and a piece of cooked brain.
18. Add more macaroni, aubergine, hard-boiled egg and brain until all the ingredients are mixed in. Top up with the rest of the macaroni mix and press down gently.
19. Wrap the pastry overlap onto the top of this, folding over so that the macaroni is completely covered.
20. Bake immediately in a moderate oven for one hour. Set aside, covered with foil, in a cool place overnight.
21. On Christmas day cook for another two hours until the pastry is golden. Turn out onto a round baking tray, and if the underneath needs more cooking, put it back into the oven for another 15 mins, otherwise, slip onto a large flat serving platter.
22. Allow the timpana to settle for 15 mins before slicing and serving.
· 500g dried chestnuts
· 100g bitter cocoa powder
· 100g dark chocolate bar
· 200g sugar
· ½ tsp ground cloves
· ½ tsp nutmeg
· ½ tsp cinnamon
· 2 tsp vanilla extract
· 6 tbsp rum
· 1 lemon, pared skin
· 1 orange, pared skin
· 1 tangerine, pared skin
· 1 lumicel (if available), pared skin
· Fresh cream, to serve
1. Soak the chestnuts overnight, with half of the pared skins of the fruit, in a bowl of water covering the chestnuts well.
2. The next day, discard the water and fruit skins.
3. With a small knife, scrape off any brown skin that may still be stuck to the white chestnuts.
4. Put the chestnuts into a large pan, cover well with water and add the chocolate powder, sugar, and spices.
5. Now add the remaining pared fruit skin.
6. Bring to the boil stirring continuously until the sugar and cocoa have melted.
7. Lower the heat to simmering point and cook for one hour until the chestnuts are soft.
8. Add the vanilla extract, rum and chocolate.
9. Stir well and allow to simmer for another 15 minutes.
10. Serve with lashings of fresh whipped cream.
More of Pippa’s recipes
These two recipes are in Pippa Mattei’s first cookbook 25 Years in a Maltese Kitchen which has also been translated into Maltese.
More Christmas recipes are available in Pippa’s Gourmand award-winning book, Pippa’s Festa, being sold at a reduced price from €35 to €25 this Christmas.
Get any of these three books from leading book shops or buy online at www.mirandabooks.com. Free delivery is available to addresses in Malta and Gozo.