In the days leading up to the Christmas Eve feast, the Bolognese traditionally eat tortellini en brodo for lunch. Tortellini are ring-shaped pasta stuffed with pork and Parmigiano-Reggiano first made circa 1500 in Bologna, Italy, to resemble Venus’s navel.  The consommé they swim in this time of year in Italy’s culinary capital is a clear, rich, broth made from chicken and veal bones.

The army of middle-aged women who make literally tons of tortellini (and larger tortelloni, which are stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach) in this part of Emilia Romagna is called the “sfogline.” I’ve wandered the ancient, portico-lined streets of Bologna on several occasions and have always stopped to peer into the second story widows of laboratori (workshops) to watch members of the sfogline roll out egg pasta dough, cut it into perfect squares, dollop filling in the middle of each, and deftly form the rings around the tip of their little fingers. The very physical, highly choreographed, quick work needed to assemble stuffed pasta while the dough is still supple enough to fold neatly into the desired shape is mesmerizing. Records show that an adept sfoglina makes about two dozen tortellini per minute.

I don’t have an army of Italian pasta ladies at my disposal here in Brunswick, so I recruit children to help me play with pasta dough.

Maddie Brown, 11 of Brunswick, a fifth-grader at North Yarmouth Academy, makes fettuccine noodles with Christine Burns Rudalevige. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“This one is going to be a bit wonky because you cut the pasta into more of a rectangle than a square, Christine,” warned my fabulous 11-year-old friend, Maddie Brown, as she fashioned a tortelloni while standing at my kitchen island. She and I spend several hours a week together making up puns, listening to audiobooks from “The School for Good and Evil” hexology of fantasy fairytales by Soman Chainani, taking American Girl Dolls on imaginary adventures to India and Japan, laughing at Garfield cartoons, doing jigsaw puzzles and making snacks.

Pasta-making is a recipe for spending quality time with kids while they learn how to turn simple raw ingredients – flour, eggs, salt and water – into a mealtime staple they love to eat, even if it’s only adorned with melted butter and sprinkled with cheese. Maddie prefers plain egg pasta to the green, spinach-flavored variety we recently experimented with. She’s a pro at rolling it flat through my 28- year-old chrome pasta machine. She prefers, though, to use a cookie cutter to make fish-shaped noodles rather than run of the mill fettucine ones.

The easiest pasta to make with kids is cavatelli using basic semolina pasta dough, says Washington, D.C.-based food writer Domenica Marchetti. “No pasta machine or rolling pin required!”

I use a simple semolina dough recipe Chef Ilma Lopez taught me to make in the kitchen of her and husband Damon Sansonetti’s first (but now closed) restaurant, Piccolo.  You simply combine one cup semolina, one cup all-purpose flour, one cup water and a pinch of salt in a bowl until it comes together.  Then you knead the dough on a clean, lightly floured surface until it’s smooth and supple and let it rest, covered, for 20 minutes before beginning to shape it.

To make cavatelli, Marchetti says to cut off pieces of dough, roll it into thin ropes, and cut the ropes into 3/4-inch batons. You can use your first and second fingers or a butter knife to press into a piece of dough and roll it towards you, dragging it a bit on the surface to create an oval shape with indentations on one side. This is your first cavatello! Maddie and I drag them down a ridged gnocchi maker to give them ridges that our favorite sauces can better stick to.

Continue to roll and shape each nugget of dough. As you work, transfer the cavatelli to a semolina-dusted rimmed baking sheet or tablecloth. Make sure the individual pieces are not touching as they will stick together. Leave the pasta out on the counter if you plan to cook it within a couple of hours; otherwise, place the baking sheet in the freezer until the pasta is completely frozen (about 2 hours). Transfer the pasta to an airtight container and return them to the freezer where they can stay for up to three months. There is no need to defrost the cavatelli before cooking.

To cook fresh or frozen cavatelli, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Carefully slid the cavatelli into the water, return the water to a boil, and cook for about 5 minutes. They should float when they are cooked to al dente, but you can check one cavatello for doneness to be sure. Both Maddie and I are pretty sure you won’t be able stop at just one, especially if you’ve taken the time to make them with little ones you love.

Merry Christmas!

Maddie uses an Italian wooden roller to form the cavatelli. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Cavatelli with Creamy Broccoli Sauce

This recipe is reprinted with permission from Domenica Marchetti’s book, “The Glorious Pasta of Italy.”

Serves 6

1 head broccoli, about 1 pound, stalks trimmed and reserved for another use and head separated into florets
1 bunch rapini (broccoli rabe), about 1 pound, tough stalks discarded
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt, or to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup homemade vegetable broth, homemade chicken broth, or best-quality low-sodium, fat-free commercial vegetable or chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
1½ pounds fresh or frozen cavatelli
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese for serving

Bring water at a depth of about 1/2-inch to a boil in a steamer pan placed over medium-high heat. Arrange broccoli florets on the rack, place the rack in the pan, cover and steam the broccoli until bright green, 4-5 minutes. Transfer the florets to a bowl and set aside.

Check the water in the steamer pan and add more as needed until it is 1/2-inch deep. Bring to a boil, put the rapini on the steamer rack, cover and steam until the leaves and florets are wilted. Transfer to the bowl holding the broccoli.

Warm 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the garlic in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, 1-2 minutes. Add the broccoli and rapini and cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are very tender, 12-15 minutes. Stir in the salt and cayenne pepper and raise the heat to medium-high. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring frequently, until some of the wine has evaporated about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the vegetables cool for about 10 minutes.

Transfer the vegetables and their cooking liquid to a blender or food processor, add the remaining 1/4 cup oil, and puree until smooth. Gradually add the broth, about 1/4 cup at a time, and process until the puree is the consistency of a thick sauce. You should have about 3 cups of sauce.

Return the sauce to the sauté pan and place over low heat. Stir in the cream and heat until warmed through.

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the cavatelli and stir to separate. If using fresh pasta, cover the pot until the water comes back to a boil, then uncover and cook until al dente, 5-6 minutes. Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water.

Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl and spoon about two-thirds of the sauce over it. Toss gently to combine the pasta and sauce thoroughly, adding a splash or two of the cooking water if you need to loosen the sauce. Spoon the remaining sauce over the top and sprinkle with the cheese. Serve immediately.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Cavatelli with Creamy Broccoli Sauce. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


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