un bel pasticcio and other sticky situations


‘O mamma’ cries the child, ‘ho fatto un pasticcio’ is one of those lovable Italian expressions, translating roughly as ‘I’ve made a mess’ and most often heard in situations that involve play dough, cake mix and mud pies, and less frequently in those involving adult style misunderstandings.

Pasticcio in the Italian kitchen can describe both a simple pie or cake, or a sticky – be it physical or metaphorical – situation.  A shepherd’s pie, for example, would be classified as a pasticcio, as would a classic meat pie, the one dish really missing from the Italian culinary landscape.

Pies are largely left over food, and as I love cooking to the last scrap, doing it less and saving money, pies represent the finest of solutions for making everything in the larder go further.  As Italian slow cooked stews and braises, meat ragùs and stuffatos make the best of fillings for pies, my own repertoire has morphed over the years into a sort of Anglo-Italian love child.


I grew up with shepherd’s pie a regular fixture on the weekday menu, and it was made the real way – that is with the left overs of the Sunday roast carefully minced and then mixed with finely chopped vegetables.  I admit to not roasting often enough for the aforementioned leftovers, but when I cook a meat ragù or stew up beef chunks with vegetables and wine, the quantities are always such that at something is left in the pot for the day after.

Classic meat Ragù – otherwise known in English speaking countries as a Bolognese sauce, the region of Emilia Romagna being the heartland of satisfying meat sauces.

Quantity for at least 2 family meals.

800 g fine beef mince (there are those that use a mix of beef and pork)
2 small brown onions – finely chopped
1 large carrot – finely chopped
1 large stick of celery – leaves on – finely chopped
2 cloves garlic – peeled and squashed
60 g pancetta or guanciale – diced
1 bottle of passata
1 cans crushed tomatoes
Couple of bay leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Splash of red wine

In a heavy based deep frypan or casserole pot, heat a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and gently fry off the finely chopped onions, carrots and celery along with the whole but simply crushed cloves of garlic.  (Crushing the garlic allows the flavors to escape during the cooking process, as opposed to chopped or minced garlic which burns easily and can overpower the sauce).  Include the celery leaves as these impart lots of flavor, they can be discarded down the track.  This is the all important soffritto – the basis of the cooking process for soups, sauces and slow cooked meats.

I like to use all beef mince, but every cook has her own theory on this.  I like a touch of pork, in the form of a little diced pancetta.  This gets tossed into the pan with the soffritto mix.  Some ragù recipes dictate chopped rather than diced mince.

Once the vegetables are soft and translucent, gradually add the beef mince and a good pinch or salt and sprinkle of pepper.  Increase the flame a little and mix well in order to lightly color all of the meat before sloshing in some red wine to deglaze the pan; stirring the wooden spoon well around the edges in order to incorporate all the chunks of flavor that have accumulated around the pan.

Add the tomato passata and crushed tomatoes – if you like a really tomatoey sauce add a generous tablespoon of tomato paste or even another can of crushed tomatoes. Once the pot is bubbling nicely add a couple of bay leaves, reduce the heat, and simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally to ensure the ragù doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  Add a little water if it seems to be reducing too quickly.


To make shepherd’s pie – alla Bolgnese

Left over meat ragù or other stew
Mashed potato
Grated parmigiano
Polenta or breadcrumbs for dusting

Fill one large or smaller pie dishes with a layer of ragù.  Cover meat sauce with mashed potato, level off with the pie dish and then run a fork over the top.  Polenta (or breadcrumbs) can be sprinkled over the top to help the crust, along with grated parmigiano.

If the pies are assembled hot they need only to be given 5 minutes under a grill to down their tops.  If they are assembled cold they will need 10-20 minutes in a 180C oven before the 5 mins under the grill.


Pasticcio di pane e prugne – Bread and plum bake

I stumbled upon this recipe in an old issue of La Cucina Italiana – which is perhaps the most highly respected Italian food monthly.  It was on the menu piccoli prezzi page, and uses stale bread, in sort of the same way that bread and butter pudding does.

250 g ripe plums (or peaches or apricots)
200 g milk
80 g raw sugar
50 g rice flour
40 g butter
5 g baking powder (Vanilla flavoured if available)
1 small – medium free range egg
120 g stale bread – from an unsalted loaf

Break up the stale bread, cutting of the hard, crusty bits, so that you have approximately 70 g worth.  Place it is a bowl and cover with milk, letting it soak, mixing occasionally, for at least 2 hours.

In the meantime wash and cut the fruit into eighths, eliminating the stones.  Heat the butter in a heavy based frypan add the cut fruit – stirring over a high heat for 2 minutes, then adding the sugar, mixing well and letting the mix cool a little.

Once the milk has soaked well into the bread, rub the mix between your fingers so that it breaks down completely, eliminating any stubborn hard bits.  Fold the fruit into the bread mixture and add the egg, rice flour and baking powder, mixing everything well.

Line (or butter and flour) a baking tray or tart tin and pour in the mixture.  Sprinkle the top with the a little raw sugar and bake in a 180 C oven for 40 minutes.  Serve at room temperature cut into slices or squares.




2 thoughts on “un bel pasticcio and other sticky situations

  1. Love “fare un pasticcio” – and love a good pasticcio. Things like shepherd’s pie and fish pie are such a big part of British cooking, even though some Italian friends were somewhat nonplussed when I made them the latter.

  2. Leonardo loves a good shepherd’s pie, thank goodness. Watch this space Daniel Etherington – I’m trying to get a kitchen with a Roman cook and a photographer, you can be guest baker when you next come over.

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