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8 Ways To Celebrate National Tortellini Day

Tortellini, little belly button-shaped stuffed pasta, is one of the iconic dishes of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, especially the Bologna and Modena provinces. Credit: Paolo Barone, Emilia-Romagna Turismo

Tortellini, little belly button-shaped stuffed pasta, is one of the iconic dishes of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, especially the Bologna and Modena provinces. Credit: Paolo Barone, Emilia-Romagna Turismo

Italy has dozens of filled pasta that come in different shapes and sizes — ravioli, mezzelune, agnolotti, cappelletti and tortellini. Feb. 13 is National Tortellini Day, a great time to explore these delicious little bundles.

Tortellini is one of the iconic dishes of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, especially the Bologna and Modena provinces. There are many legends on their origin. The province of Modena claims that tortellini were created there after a local innkeeper sneaked a peek though her door’s keyhole and spotted the navel of Renaissance beauty Lucrezia Borgia. Bologna, which in ancient times had a rivalry with nearby Modena, has an even more fanciful claim, believing tortellini were invented there, modeled after the navel of Venus, the goddess of love.

There are many riffs on these stuffed pillows of pasta — tortelloni, tortelli and tortellini — which vary in size. Tortellini, the Italian diminutive of tortelli, are the smallest and tortelloni the largest. Italy takes its tortellini very seriously and on Dec. 7, 1972, Emilia Romagna formally registered the official description of tortellini, including exactly how thin the pasta dough should be (6 to 10 mm), the filling and total final weight of each tortellini (2 grams).

All types of fillings

The traditional filling for tortellini is a mixture of meats seasoned with Parmigiano-Reggiano and nutmeg and served in capon broth. There are also many cheese versions, especially ricotta and spinach filling, that are extremely popular both in Italy and worldwide. For centuries, senior citizens in Italy have eaten meat tortellini plain with just a splash of red wine as a sort of revitalizing pick-me-up. Tortelli are even eaten as a dessert. Tortelloni filled with pastry cream, fried and served coated in powered sugar is a staple at Carnival time in Italy.

Pumpkin is another classic tortelli filling created in Italy’s Lombardy region in the town of Mantua in the 16th century. Pumpkin tortelli was a popular dish for special occasions with poor peasants as, unlike meat, pumpkin was an inexpensive filling. They are still extremely popular in Italy, where they are often served dressed with a bit of balsamic vinegar.

Tortelli are popular with chefs in the United States too, and there are many imaginative fillings and creative sauces that you won’t find in Italy. Chef Tom McNaughton of San Francisco’s famed flour+water restaurant serves an inspired combination of Brussels sprout tortelli with pancetta, red onion and apple butter on his ever-changing pasta-tasting menu. He also makes his own version of classic Italian pumpkin tortelli, filling them with naturally low-in-moisture Cinderella pumpkins and adding toasted pumpkin seeds to the sauce for crunch. (recipe below)

An especially unique version of tortelli, with a cocoon-like shape, comes from Emilia-Romagnia’s Piacenza province. Tortelli piacentini con la coda, “tortelli with a tail from Piacenza” were invented in the mid-1300s in honor of Italy’s famed poet Francesco Petrarch, who was visiting Lord Bernardo Anguissola at his castle in the Piacenza province. They are generally filled with ricotta and spinach, but there are many variations, like the recipe listed below with a mix of asparagus and peas (recipe below).

Another distinctive tortelli, called Tortelli Cremaschi, comes from the province of Cremona in the Lombardy region. They are served as a first course at weddings and for the holidays. They have a unique filling: a mix of bread crumbs, amaretti cookie crumbs, grated Parmesan, raisins and pears, moistened with Marsala wine and seasoned with nutmeg and mostarda, the candied fruit with mustard syrup condiment of that region. There is a festival every year in August in the town of Cremona to celebrate Tortelli Cremaschi, with special tastings, concerts and other entertainments. (recipe below)

Tortelloni With Pumpkin and Sage

From “Flour+Water: Pasta” (Ten Speed Press) by Tom McNaughton

Prep time: 1 hour

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the pasta:

Egg pasta dough (use store bought, or see next recipe, tortelli with a tail, for dough instructions)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 1/4 pounds pumpkin halved, seeded and stringy fibers removed (seeds reserved)

Olive oil for drizzling

Kosher salt, to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

2 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 tablespoon honey (optional)

Semolina flour for dusting

To finish:

3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

1/2 teaspoon olive oil

Kosher salt, to taste

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 fresh sage leaves, finely slivered

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Let dough rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. If resting for more than six hours, store the dough in the refrigerator. The dough will hold for up two days in the refrigerator, but it’s best to use it the same day you make it, because the egg yolks will oxidize and discolor the dough over time. Remove the dough from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.

2. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

3. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter. Once the butter has melted and the foam has subsided, cook, stirring constantly, until the butter becomes a light tan color. Smell the butter; it should have a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat and set aside.

4. To make the filling, cut the pumpkin in half, drizzle with olive oil and season liberally with kosher salt. Place the pumpkin, cut side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Roast the pumpkin until fully tender when pierced with a knife, 45 to 60 minutes. The pumpkin should be soft to the touch but not mushy or deflated. Scoop out the flesh of the pumpkin and discard the rind. Add the warm pumpkin to a blender along with the brown butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and vinegar. Purée until smooth and season to taste with salt. The purée should have a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. If the pumpkin lacks sweetness and depth of flavor, add the honey to balance the flavor. Spoon the purée into a bowl and fold in the cheese. You should have about 3 1/2 cups filling. Cover and transfer to the refrigerator to cool.

5. Dust two baking sheets with semolina flour and set aside.

6. To make the pasta, slice off a section of the ball of dough, immediately re-wrapping the unused portion in plastic wrap. Place the piece of dough on the work surface and, with a rolling pin, flatten it enough so that it will fit into the widest setting of your pasta machine. Begin rolling the dough through the machine, starting with the widest setting. Guide it quickly through the slot once. Then decrease the thickness setting by one and repeat. Decrease the thickness setting by one more and roll the dough through quickly one more time. Once the dough has gone through three times, once of each of the first three settings, it should have doubled in length.

7. Lay the dough on a flat surface. The dough’s hydration level at this point is so low that you’ll probably see some streaks; this is normal, which is the reason for the next crucial step: laminating the dough.

8. Using a rolling pin as a makeshift ruler, measure the width of your pasta machine’s slot, minus the thickness of two fingers. This measurement represents the ideal width of the pasta sheet, with about a finger’s length on each side, so there’s plenty of room in the machine. Take that rolling pin measurement to the end of the pasta sheet and make a gentle indentation in the dough representing the measurement’s length. Make that mark the crease and fold the pasta over. Repeat for the rest of the pasta sheet, keeping that same initial measurement. For best results, you want a minimum of four layers. Secure the layers of the pasta together with the rolling pin, rolling it flat enough that it can fit into the machine. Put the dough back into the machine, but with a 90-degree turn of the sheet. In other words, what was the bottom edge of the pasta is now going through the machine first.

9. This time around it’s important to roll out the dough to three times on each setting at a steady, smooth pace. If you roll it too fast, it will snap back to its earlier thickness, thereby lengthening the time you’re going through each number.

10. It’s also important to maintain a consistent speed while cranking in order to keep a consistent thickness. You should be able to see and feel the resistance as the dough passes through the rollers. On the first time at each level, the dough will compress. It’s time to move onto the next level with the dough slips through without any trouble. The first few thickness settings (the biggest widths) usually require three passes; once you’re into thinner territory, there’s less pasta dough compressing, so it goes more quickly and two passes get the job done.

11. Keep rolling the dough until it is just translucent, or just slightly thinner than 1/16 inch. If you can see the outline of your fingers behind it, or the grain of the wood table through the pasta, you’re in good shape. For most (but not all) hand-cranked pasta machines at home, it’s the second-to-last setting. Cut a 2-foot section of the dough sheet and cover the rest of the dough with plastic wrap.

12. Using a straight wheel cutter or sharp knife and a ruler, cut the dough into 2 3/4-inch squares. Using a piping bag or spoon, place 2 teaspoons of filling into the middle of each square. Fold the pasta in half so the opposite corners meet, forming a triangle. Use a spritz of water from a spray bottle to help seal it if necessary. Gently press out the air around the filling by running your fingers from the tip of the triangle downward. With your thumbs along the base of the triangle and your index fingers halfway down each side of the triangle, gently pinch your index fingers and thumbs together and rotate your left index finger to fit under the base of the triangle. Wrap the corners around your left index and middle fingers and pinch them together to seal. You should have a small gap between the filling and the pinched dough, like a ring.

13. Working quickly, place the tortelloni on the prepared baking sheets, spaced apart, until ready to cook. Don’t let the tortelloni touch each other or they may stick together. Repeat until you run out of dough or filling. You should have 30 to 40 pieces.

14. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

15. In a small bowl, stir together the pumpkin seeds with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread the seeds on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, about 11 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

16. Drop the pasta into the boiling water. Meanwhile, heat a 12-inch sauté pan over high heat. Add 1/4 cup of the seasoned pasta water and the butter and bring to a simmer. Once the pasta is cooked 80 percent through, until almost al dente, about 2 to 3 minutes, add it to the pan along with the sage and swirl until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Reserve the pasta water. If needed, add a few more tablespoons of pasta water to keep a saucy consistency and continue cooking until the pasta is tender, about 90 seconds. Season with salt.

17. To serve, divide the pasta and sauce between 4 plates. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and the toasted pumpkin seeds on top and serve immediately

Tortelli With a Tail (Tortelli con la coda)

These charming bundles are really fun to make. Filled with ricotta, peas, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes and hints of pine nuts, they are seasoned simply with butter, Parmesan and sage. 

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 6 minutes

Total time: 36 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the filling:

1 shallot, finely minced

Olive oil

1/2 pound fresh shelled peas or frozen peas, defrosted

3 to 4 thin stalks asparagus, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons finely sliced, oil-packed sun dried tomatoes

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons pine nuts, chopped

1 cup ricotta

Parmesan cheese

1 egg

4 to 5 fresh basil leaves, finely minced

For the dough:

2 cups all-purpose or 0 flour

3 large eggs

Olive oil

To finish:

3 tablespoons butter

4 to 5 fresh sage leaves

Parmesan cheese

Directions

For the filling:

1. In a medium pan, cook the shallot in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until softened, about 1 minute. Stir in the peas, asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes, cover, and simmer until tender, about 7 minutes, adding a few drops of water, if needed.

2. Lightly mash the vegetables with a potato masher or pulse a couple of times in a food processor, season to taste with salt and pepper, and cool to room temperature.

3. In a bowl combine the pine nuts, ricotta, 1/3 cup grated Parmesan, egg and basil with the pea mixture. Refrigerate until ready to use.

For the dough:

1. Put the flour onto a work surface. Make a well in the center and beat the eggs and 1/2 teaspoon of oil into the well with a fork. Slowly incorporate flour into the eggs until dough forms, adding a few tablespoons of water, if dry. Knead until smooth, about 5 minutes, then form into a ball.

2. Roll out the dough about 1/8-inch thick. Using a cookie or ravioli cutter, cut 3-1/2- to 4-inch circles. Put a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center of the circle and fold down about 1/4 inch of the top edge of the dough. Then fold a little of the top left corner down over the center, then a little of the right corner over that. Continue folding in alternate sides, moving down the center until you reach the end of the dough circle. Pinch closed the “tail.” Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

3. Cook the tortelli in two wide pans of salted boiling water until tender, about 4 minutes. Melt the butter and sage in a small saucepan until the butter browns a bit, about 2 minutes. Remove the tortelli using a slotted spoon and served drizzled with the sage butter and topped with grated cheese.

Tortelli From Cremona (Tortelli Cremaschi)

“My mother and grandmother made these tortelli every year with us children each assigned a different task,” recalls Matilda, the gracious home cook from Lombardy who taught me this recipe. “I still remember our shock at seeing so many disparate ingredients end up in the filling. But the biggest surprise came at the end, when our mother would add a crushed mint candy into the filling! She’d stress, whispering, that it was our secret ingredient and not to tell anyone.”     

 Well, as it turns out, virtually every family in Lombardy who I interviewed added a mint candy as their “secret” ingredient! Yet despite all the sweet ingredients, these tortelli are not a dessert — they are eaten as a festive, unusual first course for weddings and during the holidays.

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 45 minutes, plus 1 hour for dough to rest

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the filling:

Butter

1/2 cup finely ground fresh bread crumbs

1 2/3 cups crushed amaretti cookies

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to garnish

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup mostarda (candied fruit compote in spicy mustard syrup), finely minced

Zest of 1 lemon

1 small pear, peeled, cored, and diced

1 hard mint candy, crushed

Nutmeg

1 egg

1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine

For the dough:

About 4 1/4 cups all-purpose or 0 flour

3 eggs

For the filling:

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a small frying pan over medium high heat and toast the bread crumbs until crunchy.

Directions

1. In a large bowl combine the bread crumbs, amaretti crumbs, grated cheese, raisins, minced mostarda, lemon zest, pear, mint candy and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Add the egg and Marsala and mix until well combined. If it is too dry add a few tablespoons more of Marsala or water. Cover and refrigerate while you make the dough.

For the dough:

1. Put the flour into a bowl, make a well in the center, and beat the eggs and 1/4 cup warm water in the well. Slowly incorporate the flour into the egg mixture, adding a little more water, if needed, until dough forms. Knead until smooth. Form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for about 1 hour.

2. Roll out the dough into a thin sheet, either with a pasta maker or rolling pin. Using a cookie or ravioli cutter or very sharp knife, cut the pasta sheets into 2 1/2- or 3-inch squares. Put a teaspoonful of filling in the center of each square and fold diagonally to make a triangle, pressing the edges closed, then pinch the sealed sides to make three pleats (one at the point, and one on each side).

3. Cook the tortelli in plenty of boiling, salted water. Toss with 4 tablespoons butter and serve topped with grated cheese.

Main photo: Tortellini, little belly button-shaped stuffed pasta, is one of the iconic dishes of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, especially the Bologna and Modena provinces. Credit: Paolo Barone, Emilia-Romagna Turismo



Zester Daily contributor Francine Segan, a food historian and expert on Italian cuisine, is the author of six books, including "Pasta Modern" and "Dolci: Italy's Sweets." She is a host on i-italy TV and is regularly featured on numerous specials for PBS, the Food Network and the History, Sundance and Discovery channels.

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