My first memories of Tortellini, the meat-filled pasta rings, were in my mother’s kitchen in Denver Colorado some forty-three years ago. Nearly every holiday–and sometimes for special dinner occasions–My Italian mamma would haul out the little manual pasta machine, connect it with its clamp to the well-used wood chopping block that served as our kitchen’s island, and begin cranking out sheets of fresh pasta for tortellini. I never thought I’d ever make homemade pasta as mamma would say things that made it seem impossible for me to ever achieve such a skill even as I attempted to help her in the kitchen; “ma no, no…no…you are going too slow….you must work very fast otherwise the dough will dry up.” Or “You must shape the dough around the filling to resemble a baby’s head with a bonnet on it…” really.

Some years later, when I was married, I happened to find myself in a kitchen-ware store (I think it was Sur La Table) and I saw the very same pasta machine my mamma had used for years so I bought it on the spot deciding someday to give pasta making a whirl.

My manual pasta machine, just like mamma's!

My manual pasta machine, just like mamma’s!

My first couple of attempts at tortellini-making were stressful not to mention exceptionally messy. Flour could be found in every crevasse of the kitchen (or so it seemed); and, my pasta dough would either be too dry or too sticky and I’d beat myself silly if I couldn’t get the tortellini shapes to be perfect each time. The whole ordeal was so stressful that I just couldn’t see any joy in making fresh pasta.

A shift in my attitude came one year around the Thanksgiving holiday. I knew that my family wanted tortellini and I was, once again, dreading getting out the pasta machine. I happened to mention it to a friend who suggested using semolina flour instead of the traditional, Gold Meadow variety unbleached flour. I honestly didn’t think that it would make a hill-of-beans difference but decided to give it a try. I found a bag of Bob’s Mill Semolina Flour at the local grocery store and there on the back was a pasta dough recipe.

Wow. What a difference! It seemed much easier process; the dough was easy to handle and was perfect from the start. I haven’t used regular flour since! So… for a couple of years I continued to make the same recipe my mother used each Thanksgiving and Christmas which meant a filling of raw ground beef, pork sausage, and egg or two for binding, parmesan cheese and plenty of freshly grated nutmeg. My children loved tortellini in brodo (Tortellini in broth) every Thanksgiving and Christmas day meal and, the following day, any leftover dry tortellini (and there were ALWAYS leftovers) I’d prepare a marinara-type sauce and we’d stuff ourselves silly with heaping bowls of tortellini topped with tomato sauce and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This actually is my favorite way to enjoy tortellini.

I’m not sure what year I started a new trend with my tortellini….sometime when I was living in Northern Virginia…. I decided to try another recipe, one that called for a leek stuffing instead of the heavier, meat stuffing. The recipe was from a Marcella Hazan cookbook. I love her recipes….not to mention that she is born and bred Italian, hailing from a little fishing village (Cesenatico, Italy) a port city on the Adriatic coast (did I mention that I love all things Italian?).

I’ll never forget the first time I served my children the new, lighter, leek-filled tortellini recipe. My son was seventeen or eighteen, my daughter four years younger. I served the leek stuffed tortellini for a Thanksgiving meal; I did not let the kids in on the menu change knowing full well, being the picky eaters they were, that they wouldn’t touch the new version with a ten-foot pole if they knew it was stuffed with a vegetable. When my son took the first bite he immediately asked what I had done to change it. “Well nothing,” I replied as casually as possible. I know…I know…it was a lie…but at the time it was well-intentioned! Besides, I couldn’t pull the ruse off for too long; by Christmas the secret was out and of course by then it did not matter! The kids liked the new version; even my son who is terribly difficult about food, begrudgingly admitted that the leek stuffed tortellini was “just as good, if not better,” than the meat stuffed variety.

Fast forward to Christmas 2012, spent with my sister and her family in Northern Virginia. We truly had a wonderful time with her family during our whirlwind trip. Sis and I did spend a great deal of time in the kitchen and we vowed to make things simpler for ourselves in the future so that we wouldn’t feel chained to the kitchen stove and sink….

Still….we had fun (OK…well, speaking for myself….I had a blast and I think I can safely say my sis did too…wink, wink!)….and this year, tortellini-making was definitely more of a family affair.  Hands in the tortellini shaping process on this frosty Christmas eve were Alessandra (my daughter), Dave (daughter’s boyfriend), my sis as well as helpful onlookers (and jovial commentators) Greg’s witty childhood friend Chad and his equally witty and adoring wife. Over wine, gin-based cocktails (shaken with great strength and form by Dave) and pomegranate martinis, we cranked out rolls of pasta dough and whipped it into about 200 pretty little baby-bonnet shapes in rapid fashion that would have made my mamma proud.

Tortellini; we had two full trays of my holiday favorite!

Tortellini; we had two full trays of my holiday favorite!

The only chink in the cog, if you will, was brother-in-law Greg. And, I say this with great affection (and tongue-in-cheek of course).  Greg was exceedingly curious as to why I changed the recipe from meat to leeks all those years ago. I tried to tell him the story to include my desire to try something new but in his teasing fashion he was not at all convinced of my answer. I can see his point….even our Italian relatives use meat stuffing (prosciutto, mortadella, etc.) for their tortellini. Naturally, Greg’s teasing inquiries prompted me to search for meat-filled tortellini recipes literally at the zero hour…just minutes before starting to prepare the leeks for the frying pan! And of course, now my interest is piqued once again to try something new; I think I will have to experiment with a different recipe or two sometime during the year and perhaps I will be prepared to spring something new on my brother-in-law during our next holiday get-together…if for nothing else so that we may continue what perhaps will become a lovely, good-natured tradition…”so, why did you change the recipe Cristina….?”

As for this Christmas day dinner; Of course the tortellini in brodo, our first course for the holiday dinner, was delicious and the following day our leftovers were heavenly, drenched in tomato sauce. Everyone at the table groaned with pleasure….That is what I call ten degrees of bliss….  🙂