Anna was a maths professor at Palermo university and she had three children. The eldest, Giacomo, shared her love of numbers and sausages. The second, a girl called Rosetta, was also good with numbers, but preferred history and aubergines. The youngest, Lucio, meanwhile, was the fastest runner in his year and loved anything covered with breadcrumbs. Sadly, Anna’s husband and the children’s father, an engineer, had passed away several years before. Not unexpected, because he’d suffered from an incurable disease since childhood and had lived many more years than any doctor expected, and at twice the speed. The day before he died, wearing a red jumper, he made all four of them promise that, as soon as they were able, they would try something: every time he came to mind, they should imagine him farting like a trumpet. Which mostly worked, and made them laugh, even when they cried.
In the block opposite, on the same floor, so that kitchen window faced kitchen window, lived his cousin. Most days, someone in the family would catch sight of her. Which was uncomfortable for Anna, because her husband’s cousin, while close to him as a child, had aged into his exact opposite and was not nice at all. Over the years, she’d said all sorts of things about the way Anna washed up and brought up her children. This cousin hated bechamel.
In Sicily, sausages, aubergines, breadcrumbs and bechamel are everyday and everywhere, which made the children happy at the table, something they knew was important for their mum. But, over the course of one summer and for a series of reasons, they forgot this and started looking for opportunities to bicker. Each decided that the others were getting preferential treatment, in all sorts of ways, but including food. Bickering spilled into autumn, until one night Anna, who felt the cousin watching and had a pile of exams to mark, put down her knife and fork, told them that she was going to stop cooking anything with aubergine, sausages and breadcrumbs, and promptly walked out of the kitchen.
The following morning, the children (who had cleared up in silence, then talked under a duvet) came to breakfast to apologise and to ask if they could make their father’s favourite, pasta al forno, for dinner. Anna said yes with a hug and agreed it was genius to include their three favourite ingredients. She suggested they waited, though, until the following Sunday, so they could take it to the extended family lunch. “Bechamel goes well with sausages, aubergine and breadcrumbs – add that, too?” she suggested, her eyes flicking towards the kitchen window. “Lots of bechamel.”
Pasta al forno with sausage, aubergine and bechamel
6 pork sausages
1 onion, finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
2 bay leaves
300ml dry white wine
Salt and black pepper
1 large (or 2 medium) aubergine, cut into 2cm cubes
600ml whole milk
500g large pasta shells or tubes – I used paccheri
Squeeze the sausagemeat from the casings and break it into small pieces. In a heavy-based pan, gently fry the onion, celery, carrot and bay leaves in a little olive oil until the vegetables are starting to soften and turn translucent. Add the sausagemeat, and fry until all pink has gone, stirring so the meat crumbles rather than clumps. Add the wine, leave to bubble a bit, then turn down to a simmer for 30 minutes, until the sausage is cooked and the sauce reduced and slightly thick. Taste and season.
Rub the aubergine cubes with oil, spread on a baking tray, sprinkle with salt and bake at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 for 25 minutes, until golden and tender. Stir into the sausage mix.
Now make the bechamel. Over a medium-low flame, mix the butter and flour and cook, stirring, until the butter melts and they form a thick paste that smells of biscuits. Whisk in the milk and cook, still stirring, until thick and the taste of raw flour has gone. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Bring a pan of salted water to a boil, cook the pasta for three minutes less than the recommended time, then drain.
Arrange the pasta – shells with the openings facing up, tubes like chimneys – ideally in a single layer, in a large, ovenproof dish that has been rubbed with butter. Put some of the sausage and aubergine mix in each hollow, the cooking juices, too, then pour the bechamel over the top, again making sure it fills the hollows. Top with breadcrumbs and bake at 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 for 20 minutes, until the top is golden and the bechamel bubbling at the edges.
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