By Clifford A. Wright (Zester Daily) –

Families all seem to have their own Christmas classics — roast turkey, baked ham, crown roast or pork, or prime rib. Many Italian-Americans will have lasagna or a feast of seven fishes. One spectacular preparation for a change of pace is to follow some families and make the classic Sicilian Christmas tummàla.

Tummàla is a timbale of rice, a magnificent concoction of layers of baked rice, poached chicken, veal meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses and a cheesed omelet to create a golden mantle.

Although a Christmas specialty, Sicilian cooks prepare tummàla for all sorts of celebrations when a grand culinary gesture is warranted. It is considered a representative example of cucina arabo-sicula, a contemporary folkloric expression of a supposed Arab culinary sensibility found vestigially in the contemporary Sicilian kitchen, some 800 years after the last of the Arab-Sicilian population disappeared. At the very least, it is considered Arab-Sicilian because the Arabs introduced rice to the island in the ninth or 10th century.

The Italian translation of the Sicilian tummàla is timballo, leading one to believe that this dish is derived from the French timbale, a baking mold in the shape of a kettledrum, hence its name.

In fact, the name comes either from Muhammed Ibn al-Thumna, the 11th-century emir of Catania, or from tummala, the purported Arabic name for a certain kind of plate, although that etymology is not confirmed.

Assembling Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
Assembling Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Assembling a Sicilian classic

Traditionally, this dish is made with a chicken with its unborn eggs. The cheeses called for are pecorino pepato, caciocavallo and fresh mozzarella. Pecorino pepato is a young pecorino cheese made with peppercorns thrown into the curd. Caciocavallo is a spun-curd cow’s milk cheese and can be replaced with provolone.

Mozzarella is used in place of fresh tuma, a fresh pecorino cheese that is only found at the source of production, so it’s not available in this country. It is possible to find a young tuma aged between three and six months in Italian markets in the United Sates. One can also try Internet sources such as Murray’s Cheese or

Finally, don’t let the list of ingredients intimidate you. Great length, in this case, does not mean great difficulty.

Sicilian Christmas Tummala

Prep time: 1 1/2 hours

Cooking time: 3 1/2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings


  • One 3-pound chicken
  • 2 medium onions, cut into eighths
  • 2 celery stalks, cut into chunks
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered
  • 5 fresh parsley sprigs
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 3/4 pound ground veal
  • 3/4 pound pecorino pepato cheese, grated, divided
  • 1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 large eggs (2 hard-boiled and sliced)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons pork lard
  • 1/2 pound mild Italian sausage, sliced 1/2 inch thick
  • 1/4 pound pork rind (optional), cut into thin strips
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 1/2 cups (1 1/4 pounds) short grain rice, such as Arborio rice, soaked in tepid water to cover for 30 minutes or rinsed well in a strainer, drained
  • Unsalted butter as needed
  • 1 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
  • 1/4 pound caciocavallo cheese, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 pound pecorino cheese, grated


1. In a large stockpot that will fit the chicken comfortably, place the chicken with its gizzards, onions, celery stalks, tomatoes, parsley sprigs and peppercorns. Cover with cold water and bring to a near boil over high heat. As soon as the water looks like it is going to boil, reduce immediately to a simmer and cook the chicken until the meat falls off the bone when pushed with a fork, without letting the water boil, 2 hours. Don’t let the water bubble; otherwise it toughens the chicken.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the veal croquettes. In a bowl, soak the fresh bread crumbs in the milk. If the mixture looks soggy, squeeze the milk out. Add the veal, half of the pecorino pepato, the garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Lightly beat 1 egg and add to the mixture. Mix well with a fork or your hands. Form croquettes the size and shape of your thumb. Cover and put aside in the refrigerator.

3. Drain the chicken, saving all the broth in a smaller pot. Remove and discard all the skin and bones from the chicken and cut the meat into small pieces.

4. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon lard over medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining lard to the pan and cook the veal croquettes until they are browned. Add the sausage and the pork rind and cook for 10 minutes. Add the sautéed onion, the remaining 4 tablespoons parsley and the tomato paste diluted in 1 cup hot water. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 350 F.

6. Bring the chicken broth from step 1 to a boil and reduce by one-third. Pour 2 1/2 cups broth into a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, add the rice and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cook, covered and without stirring, until al dente, about 15 minutes. Pour about 3/4 cup broth into the veal-sausage mixture.

7. Drain the rice, if necessary, and mix it with the remaining pecorino pepato.

8. Butter a deep baking dish or baking casserole and spread 1 cup dry bread crumbs on the bottom, shaking vigorously to spread them thin so that they coat the bottom of the baking dish, dumping out any excess.

9. Spread the rice on top of the bread crumbs, about 3/4 inch deep. Spread three-quarters of the chicken and half of the veal croquettes and sausage mixture on top of the rice. Make a layer of hard-boiled egg. Layer the mozzarella cheese on top of the eggs. Cover with the remaining veal and sauce. Spread on a layer of caciocavallo cheese. Mix the remaining chicken with the remaining rice and spread it on top.

10. Beat the remaining 4 eggs lightly and combine with the pecorino cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce evenly over the top.

11. Bake until the top has a nice golden crust, about 1 hour. Check from time to time to be sure it doesn’t dry out. The tummàla can be served directly from the baking dish with the pan sauces or with tomato sauce.

Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright