Monday, December 2, 2013

Cappelletti and making fresh pasta

As so many of you already know from past posts, our family celebrates a mish-mash of American, German and Italian traditions. This makes for some very happy and fortunate children and some very busy and sometimes stressed out parents, especially when it comes to Christmas.

Our Christmas period officially begins with the ending of Thanksgiving (as is customary in the States), is reinforced with the German traditions of the four days of Advent, Advent calendars and Nikolaustag on the 6th of December (when the kids put their letter to Saint Nick in a boot on the balcony that he then fills with candy or a branch), followed by the Immacolata on the 8th of December, when Italians traditionally decorate their tree. We then enter the full swing of things by celebrating Christmas Eve with present-opening the German and Southern Italian way (and thank goodness F and I have that tradition in common), followed by stockings from Santa on Christmas morning like in the US. And finally we close the season on the 6th of January with the Epifania, affectionately called la Befana by the kids, when they get a stocking filled with candy or charcoal by the rag-wearing Italian witch. A lot of footwear involved in our holiday season, eh?

I guess I should consider myself lucky that my Jewish grandmother had a tree (although I apologize to all my Jewish readers on her behalf), because Hannukah presents and a Menorah on top of the rest would have probably caused a nervous breakdown. When we had our ten-year stint in Sweden, there was a risk of Santa Lucia entering our repertoire on December 13th and now that one grandmother lives in Spain, the Three Kings could have been tricky, but the Befana put a quick stop to that with her menacing broom. She was not willing to share her day with anyone else.

And did I mention (I am sure I do every year) my daughter's birthday is a couple of days before Christmas, adding to the - shall we say excitement - of the moment?

Now that you get the picture, just because I wasn't feeling frazzled enough wrapping, baking cookies for Christmas bakesales, organizing a birthday party, googling frosting recipes for cake and writing a million Christmas cards that most Italians don't really 'get' to begin with (but who cares, because we can't skip another one of those German/American  traditions, right?), I thought I would fill this month with yet another tradition. The tradition of handmaking a few hundred cappelletti, or tiny meat-filled tortellini to eat with homemade broth, a very traditional first course of Italian Christmas lunch.

I know what you are thinking, that this was my doing so I should just shut up and stop whining already; that it serves me right; that I never should have asked my mother in law to teach me. But I have my reasons...

...but F grew up eating these every Christmas for almost half a century

...but they are divine

...but somebody has to pass on the tradition

...but we can't expect my mother in law to keep doing all this work on her own for the next thirty years

...but I want my children to have memories of their nonna and mother sitting around the table in a cozy, warm kitchen making cappelletti, Christmas music playing softly in the background

So there goes. I made a wish and my wish was granted. Last week end my mother in law arrived at my house with a bag of flour, eggs, various cured meats and her pasta rolling machine.

At first she instructed, I took pictures. Then I shyly started making a few myself and by the end of the afternoon we were both sitting around the table rolling and pinching.

I wouldn't say I could manage it on my own just yet, but over the next few Christmases I hope to start making a noticeable dent in her work. And perhaps one day I will be able to serve her a bowl of hot, savory broth with cappelletti, while she sits back and rests for once.

Pasta, like so many Italian recipes, is made in as many different ways as there are mothers and grandmothers in this country. People use varying proportions of plain flour to semolina flour, some use eggs and egg yolks, some only use whole eggs. Some people use more eggs, some use less, some don't use any at all. Some use water, others add olive oil. Some fold it while rolling it out, others do not. Some add salt to the flour and eggs, others don't. Whatever way you do it, there will be someone out there telling you their way works better. My suggestion is keep experimenting and choose what works best for you. The same goes for making ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti etc. Choose whatever technique you find the easiest, because this is my mother in law's way, not the right way. What I can say, however, is that her way makes a pretty fine plate of cappelletti in brodo.

Please be warned that the measurements below are for a feast, they make about 1kg of cappelletti which will easily feed 10-15 people. The good news is that if you make them for a smaller crowd, you can freeze the excess for another meal.

Ingredients (about 1kg cappelletti)

250gr mortadella
250gr prosciutto
1 chicken breast
100gr  or more Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
about 3/4 of a grated nutmeg
1 egg

750gr flour (375gr all purpose flour, 375gr semolina flour) + extra for kneading/rolling out
7-8 eggs (calculate about 1 egg per 100gr of flour)
warm water

The first step is preparing the filling for the pasta, which you can do a day ahead.
Have your prosciutto and mortadella cut into thick slices at the store so it is easier to dice. Cut the chicken breast into small chunks and saute in a pan with some butter. Process all the meat in a food processor until finely ground. Add the egg and then the Parmigiano cheese, a pinch of salt and the grated nutmeg to taste.
The filling keeps in the fridge for a few days, which is convenient since you will probably be making the pasta in a few batches if you are using 500gr flour.
Pasta dough
Pour the flour onto a flat, preferably wooden surface or into a bowl and make a well to crack the eggs in. Mix the two together with a fork (or use a stand mixer or food processor), then start using your hands until the egg is incorporated and the flour is crumbly. Now, you can start kneading (unless you are using the dough hook on your stand mixer) until the dough is soft and elastic . Add a few drops of water at a time, until you reach the required consistency (if you are using a stand mixer, follow the instructions, but keep in mind that you will always have to knead by hand for a few minutes at the end).
Rolling out the pasta
When the dough feels elastic, cut it into pieces.  Make sure to cover those you are not using with a damp kitchen towel, as fresh pasta tends to dry out very quickly.
Clamp a pasta rolling machine onto a clean surface (or attach the piece to your Kitchen Aid), sprinkle the piece of pasta you intend to use with flour to avoid sticking and feed it into the machine, starting from the lowest number. Repeat this step several times (many fold the dough into three parts like a letter before doing this), increasing the number on the dial each time, until your pasta is as thin as you need it (about 1 millimeter for noodles, even thinner for filled pasta). If it gets too long to handle, just cut the strip in half. Naturally, you can roll out the pasta by hand like our grandmothers did, but it takes a lot of experience and strength.
If you are making lasagne or filled pasta, this is when you start shaping it. You can do this using a ravioli cutter, a ravioli tray or a ravioli stamp. There are many methods and shapes so once again, do what works best for you.

If you are making noodles, put the dough through the noodle cutter (or cut it by hand with a very sharp knife after folding or rolling it). Either way, line a tray or a baking sheet with non-stick paper that you will use to place the noodles or filled pasta on after tossing it with some flour to let them dry. Fresh noodles should generally rest for about half an hour before cooking. We let the cappelletti rest for 12 hours before freezing.
Put a layer of pasta dough onto a flat surface and place little pieces of the filling a few centimeters apart from each other, like in the photo above. Because cappelletti are so small, you will be needing less filling than you think: people often tend to overfill on first attempts and this makes the shaping much more difficult. Fold the sheet over the filling and press closed, making sure you get all the air out, otherwise they blow up and break open when when cooking. Cut them into a half-moon shape using a ravioli cutter and then twist them around your finger to close them, folding over the extra pasta like a hem. It really helps watching someone do it the first time, so I suggest looking for one of the many videos available. There are several ways to form the cappelletti. At the one-and-only pasta making lesson I ever attended last year, for example, we first cut the pasta into little squares, then put the filling onto each square and finally folded it over into a triangular shape.before twisting it around our index fingers.

Let the cappelletti dry before cooking them or freezing them.

To cook them, prepare stock with several cuts of meat and onion, carrot and celery. When the stock is boiling, cook the cappelletti for no more than a couple of minutes (or a little longer if you are putting them in frozen). 

Serve piping hot with plenty Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Pssst! With the rolled out leftover scraps of dough you can make tagliolini or tagliatelle for your evening meal.


  1. Those cappelletti are so darn cute. And I know from experience it takes some practice to get them to come out that way, especially if you have large hands like mine... Complimenti!

  2. These look absolutely beautiful! Pasta making can be so stressful or so therapeutic, depending how much time pressure there is. I love the idea of floruing down my worksurfaces to make these every Christmas :-)

    1. You are so right, stress or therapy depending on your state of mind!

  3. We have our son's birthday on Christmas Eve so that usually means 2 separate celebrations as we make sure his birthday is still his special day but then in the evening it gets into the full Christmas swing.
    I love the idea of keeping those old traditions going, I normally make a Christmas cake using a recipe handed down from my grandmother to my mother to me.
    Have a great Christmas

    1. Hi Chipatronic, nice to meet you!
      I cannot even imagine dealing with both things on the same day, especially if (like us) you celebrate on Christmas Eve and not Christmas morning. You are wonderful parents to make sure he feels as loved as he deserves on his special day, even if it is not always easy.
      Merry Christmas to you too!

  4. Wow and to think that you manage to pull this off year after year! I'm thankful (no pun intended) that we don't celebrate Thanksgiving here in Australia because I need a good lie down after Halloween but I can't imagine contending with all of those cross cultural celebrations and birthdays! I love the look of this home made pasta :D

    1. Of course you need a rest after the incredible Halloween party you organize every year and that we all look forward to reading about from all over the world!

  5. Lovely, lovely and lovely. You pull it all off, Fiona! Happiest of Holidays to you and your family!

    1. Same to you Nicole, I hope your last Christmas in NY will be a magical one!

  6. What a huge month! That's so many beautiful traditions. To be a child in your house would be such a blessing! We have a lot going on in December too and I'm actually relieved I don't have any birthdays to celebrate - that would certainly make things very interesting so good luck with all you have on. I love your pasta and you seem very professional and highly skilled xx

    1. I bet you my kids don't always feel so lucky when things spiral out of control, hehe ;o)
      I am always impressed when I see how much you have going on in your kitchen for Christmas... your various logs, chocolates and Christmas cakes are incredible and the whisky log has become a favorite in our household.

  7. Oh Fiona-lein (as Mommy would say) - This is a beautiful post and very delicious looking tradition! I really hope you enjoy all of the season, your wonderful family and tell that beautiful birthday-mate of mine bonne anniversaire and big kiss! Xoxoxoxoxoxo

  8. What a treat to have you here! There are pictures of your creations from Christmases past on the blog. Thank you for the birthday wishes, will be sure to send them on, and hope you have a great birthday too and that you will all be home together to celebrate a wonderful Christmas together. You have all been in my thoughts this past week. Love you

  9. The act of making homemade pasta is something I truly love.. and homemade ALWAYS tastea best. I take my hat off to you making that amount! Wow!!

  10. Ma che pazienza! This look like a start of a wonderful tradition!


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