A timbale is a moulded French dish made of a starch such as rice or pasta, or a ground meat.
The actual manifestation of it can be several things.
It can be a round mould with high, straight sides, usually goffered (“crimped, wavy”) that is lined with a pie crust. For some recipes, you bake the pie crust blind, then fill it. For other recipes, you put the filling in the unbaked pie crust, then bake. It is not turned out of the mould to serve; the timbale is served in the mould.
It can be made with a crust that consists of brioche cooked in a Charlotte mould, as it is for Timbale Brillat-Savarin.
It can be made from a pastry that you cook flat in the oven that comes hot of the oven pliable, then is placed over an upside down dome-shaped mould to shape it.
Or, it can be an unbaked, cold dish, for which cooked items are pressed in a mould to shape them, chilled, then turned out to serve (as in Vegetable Timbales.)
Cold ones can be made of cooked rice, macaroni, forcemeat, etc.
Macaroni timbales include Macaroni timbale à l’américaine, Macaroni timbales à la milannaise.
Sweet timbales include Timbale Brillat-Savarin, and Timbale Elysée.
A timbale can be one large one, meant to serve several people, or individual ones. Short individual ones often don’t have the characteristic tapered shape; they will have a shape more like a slightly tall, small wheel of Brie cheese.
Cooked ones are usually cooked in a water bath, or baked and served in a pastry shell.
Literature & Lore
Charles Ranhofer, a famous chef from Delmonico’s, tried to discourage the broadening of the term timbale to denote other forms of food:
“There are several kinds of timbales; those made with a very thin timbale paste; those of quenelle forcemeat and those of cream forcemeat, either of chicken, game or fish. The name timbale should only be applied to those made of paste cylindrical-shaped like a footless goblet, or a silver mug, or else half spherical-shaped in imitation of the kettle-drum used in an orchestra and filled with a garnishing of some kind.
A “bung” would better represent the idea of what is commonly called timbale, and I would suggest the adoption of the French of bung “bondon,” for I scarcely believe that the elegance of the bill of fare would be marred by reading: “Bondons of Pickerel à la Walton,” or “Bondons of Chicken à la Reine,” or “Bondons of Woodcock à la Diane,” or “Bondons of Pheasants à la Benois.”
I have not the slightest intention of changing the conventional name. I only suggest an idea that might be advantageously followed if so desired.” — Ranhofer, Charles. The Epicurean. A Complete Treatise of Analytical and Practical Studies on The Culinary Art . Ranhofer. 1894. Page 392.
“Dresser en timbale” means to mount food up on a plate or presentation platter in a pyramid shape, or to serve in a large bowl.