My father, a former engineer, looks at the tape measure, scowls and keeps rolling the dough. My mother starts picking at it, which draws more scowling. There's a tension in the room. Perhaps the new dough recipe should have been tested before being handed the ball in such a big moment? After all, this is the Major Leagues of Thanksgiving. Most of the assembled party uses the arrival of Skylar, my 6-month old cousin, as an excuse to abandon the bickering in the kitchen.
Despite this year's culinary hiccups, I'm smiling. This is my family at its best.
Stanley Tucci's 1996 film "Big Night." The plot centers on immigrant brothers whose authentic, and thus failing, Italian restaurant pulls out all the stops for a headline-grabbing fete in honor of famed singer Louis Prima. The brothers serve timpano, a timpani-shaped "drum" made of dough, filled with pasta, meatballs, cheese, salami, eggs and sauce and baked for hours.
In a movie full of Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe nominees, the timpano steals the scene.
My father's midlife career change from stay-at-home dad to airline pilot often meant holidays spent apart. Celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas at nontraditional times meant we began venturing into nontraditional fare. One day we gathered the courage and work ethic to give timpano a try. Gigantic, work-intensive and featuring components of varying difficulty, a timpano lends easily to a division of labor ideal for a family holiday meal. We haven't looked back.
Since dad is flying on Thanksgiving, my turkey day begins without the normal clatter of pans and stress-ravaged relatives flaying in and out of my parents' kitchen. I shuffle out of my childhood bedroom late in the morning for a cup of coffee and a run.
I've left my running shoes at home, so I root through boxes for the ones I know my parents have already purchased me for Christmas. Sorry, guys.
That afternoon, mom and I prepare the sauce while my brother sleeps in, possibly beating back a hangover after finishing a particularly brutal medical school exam. When he eventually saunters downstairs in the afternoon, he's put in charge of forming and frying meatballs.
The following Saturday, the real work begins: the dough, which needs to be rolled large, thin and spherically uniform to fill the timpano cooking basin. My extended family arrives as we begin to roll out the dough, but the new recipe won't cooperate. Designed to be lighter and flakier, the dough starts to split around the edges and doesn't seem nearly thin enough to close over the top of the large washbasin. The men of the family offer not-so-subtle critiques.
"Too much cardio, huh, Uncle Russ?"
After some tense minutes, and a bit more "banter" between my parents, the circle is large enough, placed in the greased basin and lightly pressed against the sides. Skylar is carried into the kitchen, a throng trailing her, and the family takes turns layering pasta, sauce, meatballs, hard-cooked eggs, sliced cheese and salami until the drum is filled. The dough closes over the top easily, if a bit unevenly, and the timpano is slid into the oven.
An hour passes as it bakes. Skylar is passed around while we watch "Big Night" and drink wine.
As we slowly remove the basin from the timpano, a tiny stream of sauce squirts from underneath. I wince thinking the flakier crust hasn't held and the contents are about to spill out. But, the pan comes all the way off. It's golden brown and beautiful.
Applause is followed by copious Instagramming.
We eat. The sweetness of the fatty salami brightens the earthiness of the eggs. The herbal quality of the meatballs pairs richly with the buttery, much improved crust. Some ladle additional sauce over the top like a gravy. There is a short moment of silence, with just the clink of silverware on plate.
It's then that I look around the room at my family, a few literally licking their lips. I see my Caucasian parents and their siblings. I see my black cousin and his niece, the child of his sister and her female partner. I see my brother's Persian girlfriend, an Iranian passport holder. I see my own date, born in the Soviet Union of Jewish and Georgian parents. And I see the tension from earlier is gone. We sit, 16 different parts of the same whole, and eat from the same pan we all helped fill.
It's then I realize a timpano is a lot like my family. It's a diverse collection of flavors, textures, layers and colors. It requires work, yes, and is a bit finicky and almost guaranteed to cause a little bickering. But it's so much more than the sum of its parts when it all comes together. It's so very worth it.
Total time: 2 days, or more