I’ve been making a lot of Nonni’s traditional recipes lately. This weekend, I sat myself down and made cappelletti, the little hat-shaped tortellini from the Marche region of Italy where that part of my family is from. Since cappelletti in chicken broth (cappelletti en brodo) are a Christmas tradition, I thought this would be a good time to fill the freezer and update the original recipe I posted a few years ago.
Cappelletti are little bite-sized pasta dumplings filled with pork and Parmesan cheese (though regional versions vary). Traditionally, they are served in chicken soup rather than with sauce. However, tradition doesn’t have to trump imagination all the time. You can sauce them and fill them with all sorts of things. You can make them large, like ravioli, and stuff them with a roasted pumpkin puree and serve them with browned butter and sage. You can fill them with ricotta and garlicky mustard greens and top them with red sauce. Or, you could fashion some kind of celery root filling and dress them with a mushroom cream sauce. Like, perhaps, in the spring when your mushroom logs sprout their first flush! Or in the late summer/fall when the hen-of-the-woods come out. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud. Or maybe you could fill them with the mushrooms themselves! My point is cappelletti are versatile and delicious.
As far as I can tell, the only difference between cappelletti and tortellini (if there’s any at all) is that tortellini tend to have more pronounced holes in the middle and the corners point up like crowns. On the other hand, cappelletti (which means “little hats” in Italian) have almost no holes and the brims of the hats are low like peasant caps. They’re both made basically the same way. Here’s the technique:
Mix up the dough, knead it, and roll it out into thin sheets with a pasta machine. (The recipe goes into more detail on this part.)
Cut dough into 2-inch squares with a pizza cutter or floured paring knife. They don’t have to be perfect.
Place ½ teaspoon of filling in the center.
Fold the dough over the filling triangularly, corner to corner, and seal (you may need to wet a finger in water and run it along the bottom edge of the dough to get it to stick together).
Then bring the two pointy corners on the folded side together, pressing one end on top of the other to seal. For tortellini, you wrap those two ends around a finger before sealing so it retains more of a ring shape (the remaining corner tends to flip up in the process). That’s it!
But doesn’t it get tiresome after you've made the first eight dozen? You bet. At that point, though, it becomes almost therapeutically mindless. It’s a good way to pass a rainy (or snowy) afternoon while the soup is bubbling away. Kids love to play with the pasta machine. It’s also a fun (and cheap) date-night activity if you’re lame. You get 12-15 single meals out of it, which then take all of five minutes to cook right out of the freezer during the week. Plus, you can really stretch a pound of meat that way!
Nonni used to make cappelletti by hand one thousand at a time. I’m not exaggerating. Me, I made a measly 150 in as many minutes. I figure she had an extra 50 years to get better at it, though. If you’re new to pasta-making, here’s a great tutorial. Everyone should try it once. It’s play dough for adults. If you don’t have a pasta machine, just ask a neighbor. People have all kinds of stuff they never use!
You’ll need some good chicken soup to serve these in. Best to make it ahead of time. Nonni’s version is here. You can also make the filling ahead of time and refrigerate it. It’s actually easier to handle chilled. If you find yourself with a little extra pasta dough left over, roll it out, cut it into ribbons slightly thinner than ½-inch, and freeze them for future fettuccine. If you have leftover filling, which I doubt you will, make an omelet.
1½ Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground pork
½ cup breadcrumbs
¾ c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese (the real stuff—NOT from a canister)
Salt and pepper
3 cups flour
1/8 tsp. salt
For the filling, heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Brown pork until cooked through. Remove from heat and let cool for a minute or two. Mix in breadcrumbs, cheese, egg, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mixture should be thick enough to hold together. If too wet, add more breadcrumbs and/or cheese. Let cool in refrigerator while making dough.
On a board or in a large bowl, add flour and make a well in the middle. Crack eggs into the center and beat with a fork, gradually scraping in the flour from the perimeter to incorporate. When it gets too thick to stir, turn out onto floured board and knead. Depending on the flour, your eggs, and the humidity, you may not need all the flour, or you may need more. Wash and dry your hands so the dough doesn’t stick. Knead 10-15 minutes. Put in a lightly oiled bowl and cover to keep from drying out. Let rest for a half hour.
Set up a pasta machine with rollers open to the widest setting. Cut dough into 8 equal pieces and keep covered. Flour the rollers of the pasta machine. Take one piece of pasta, flatten it with your hands, and run it through the machine at its widest setting (1 on the side knob of my Imperia). Fold dough into thirds to make a square-ish shape and run it through again. Repeat several times (this reactivates the gluten to give the dough more stiffness). Decrease the space between the rollers by one and run the pasta through one time. From now on, don’t fold. Continue decreasing the space between rollers and running the dough through once until you reach the thinnest setting (6 on my machine) or the pasta is so thin, you can almost see your fingers through it.
Working quickly, place rolled-out pasta on lightly floured surface and cut into 2-inch squares using a pizza cutter or sharp knife. Place ½ teaspoon of filling in the center of a square and fold into a triangle, corner to corner, pressing on the edges to seal (moisten edges with a finger dipped in water if they don’t adhere). Bring the two pointy corners toward each other, overlapping slightly, and press to join. They should sit flat like the little hats they are. Lay them in a single layer on a rimmed, floured cookie sheet and cover with plastic wrap while filling the rest of the pasta squares. Repeat until all the pasta is used. Freeze the pans of completed cappelletti as soon as they are filled. Once the pasta is frozen, you can transfer them to plastic freezer bags. Makes 125-150.
To serve, bring chicken soup to a boil. Add frozen cappelletti (don’t defrost them). Let soup come back up to a boil, then turn down heat to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook until al dente, about 5 minutes. Serving size is about 10 cappelletti, though my dad would heartily, heartily disagree with that figure.