Anna was a professor of mathematics at the University of Palermo and she had three children. The eldest, Giacomo, shared his love of numbers and sausages. The second, a girl named Rosetta, was also good with numbers, but preferred history and eggplant. The youngest, Lucio, meanwhile, was the fastest runner in his year and loved anything covered in breadcrumbs. Unfortunately, Anna’s husband and father of the children, an engineer, had passed away several years earlier. Not unexpected, for he had suffered from an incurable disease since childhood and had lived many more years than any doctor had expected, and at twice the speed. The day before he died, dressed in a red sweater, he had made the four of them promise that, as soon as they could, they would try something: whenever it occurred to them, they should imagine it popping like a trumpet. Which mostly worked and made them laugh, even when they cried.
In the block opposite, on the same floor, so that the kitchen window faced the kitchen window, lived his cousin. Most of the time, someone in the family saw him. Which was uncomfortable for Anna, because her husband’s cousin, although close to him as a child, had aged into his exact opposite and was not nice at all. Over the years she had said all kinds of things about how Anna washed and raised her children. This cousin hated bechamel.
In Sicily, sausages, aubergines, breadcrumbs and bechamel are everyday and ubiquitous, which made the children happy at the table, something they knew was important to their mum. But, over the course of a summer and for a variety of reasons, they forgot about that and started looking for opportunities to bicker. Each decided that the others were getting preferential treatment, in all sorts of ways, but including food. The quarrels spread in the fall, until one evening 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 what whether with eggplant, sausage and breadcrumbs, and quickly came out of the kitchen.
The next morning, the children (who had silently stripped and then talked under duvets) came to lunch to apologize and ask if they could make their dad’s favorite, al forno pasta, For dinner. Anna said yes with a hug and agreed that it was great to include their three favorite ingredients. She suggested they wait, however, until the following Sunday, so they can bring it to lunch for the extended family. “Béchamel goes well with sausages, eggplant and breadcrumbs – add that too?” she suggested, her eyes sliding to the kitchen window. “Batches of bechamel.
Pasta al forno with sausage, eggplant and béchamel
6 pork sausages
1 onionfinely chopped
1 stalk of celeryfinely chopped
1 carrotfinely chopped
2 bay leaves
300ml dry white wine
Salt and black pepper
1 large (or 2 medium) eggplantscut into 2cm cubes
50g of butter
600ml whole milk
500g large pasta shells or tubes – I used paccheri
Squeeze the sausage meat from the casings and break it into small pieces. In a heavy-bottomed skillet, gently sauté the onion, celery, carrot and bay leaf in a little olive oil until the vegetables start to soften and become translucent. Add the sausage meat and fry until all the pink is gone, stirring so the meat crumbles rather than clumps together. Add the wine, allow to boil a little, then lower the heat for 30 minutes, until the sausage is cooked and the sauce reduced and slightly thickened. Taste and season.
Rub the eggplant cubes with oil, spread them on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and bake at 180 C (160 C fan)/350 F/Gas 4 for 25 minutes, until tender. they are golden and tender. Stir into sausage mixture.
Now prepare the béchamel. Over medium-low heat, combine the butter and flour and cook, stirring, until the butter melts and they form a thick batter that smells like cookies. Whisk the milk and cook, still stirring, until the mixture thickens and the taste of raw flour is gone. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, cook the pasta three minutes less than the recommended time, then drain.
Arrange the pasta – shells open up, tubes like chimneys – ideally in a single layer, in a large baking dish previously brushed with butter. Put a little of the sausage and aubergine mixture in each hollow, the cooking juices too, then pour the béchamel on top, again making sure that it fills the hollows. Top with breadcrumbs and bake in the oven at 200C (180C fan)/390F/Gas 6 for 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the béchamel is bubbling around the edges.