Christmas tradition

Over the years, my husband and I have created a Christmas Eve dinner tradition of a rich beef daube as our main course, an endive-pear-Roquefort salad to start and prune clafoutis for dessert. It isn’t what I grew up eating on Christmas eve (that always changed) but it’s a nice, cozy meal that just seems right.

I was wondering, though, about real, handed-down traditions. Do many of us really have them? The subject came up when I was talking with my Italian friend, Francesca. There was no hesitation when I asked what her family would be eating on the 25th: “Tortellini in brodo.”  This is the first year that she won’t be going home to Milan for the holidays so she’ll recreate the meal here. First, she explained, they’ll enjoy homemade tortellini in homemade broth, then they’ll eat the boiled chicken and beef that created the broth (with additional cotechino, a fresh Italian sausage) accompanied by an herby green sauce and another made with spicy horseradish. For dessert, it’ll be panettone. Just as it’s always been in Milan.

She told me about the women–her grandmother, mother and aunts–who gathered in the kitchen to make tortellini on Christmas Eve, after everyone had finished their traditional feast of fish. “My family is crazy about tradition,” she told me. “My job, when I was little, was to move the tortellini from the table [where they were made] to the cart [where they could be transported]. Later, my job was upgraded to closing the tortellini.” This year, she’ll be doing it all on her own–from grating the cheese and creating the filling, to rolling out the fresh pasta, to twisting up the cute little bundles. She invited me join her in the kitchen to learn how to make them.

Before starting to cook, Francesca consulted two Italian bibles of cooking, Il cucchiaio d’argento and Ada Boni’s Talismano della Felicita. (Both have been translated!)

Italian cookbooks.

Then she called her aunt in Italy for the real tips. Though the cookbooks call for veal, Francesca’s aunt uses chicken instead. And she adds sausage. “You’re trying to get the most taste in the filling,” Francesca explains. Look for sausage without fennel, a flavor too strong for the delicate tortellini.

Francesca melts a few tablespoons of butter in a pan then sautés chunks of chicken and pork and later adds some sausage meat until everything is cooked through.

Chicken and pork.

As that cooks, she prepares her pasta dough. Nothing is really measured out. She breaks two eggs into the mixer and adds about a cup of flour. But then she adds more eggs and flour as needed. Francesca does insist on “00” Italian flour, however, which she buys at Bay Cities deli in Santa Monica.

She lets the dough sit for a while and checks on the meat mixture.

She grates a big hunk of parmesan in her food processor then adds the cooked meat, some prosciutto and  mortadella and blends it all together into a fine mince. She tastes it and adds more cheese. “There’s no such thing as too much parmesan,” she says, laughing but serious. I put a pinch in my mouth and am so surprised at how Italian it tastes. It’s that mortadella combined, I think, with the parmesan. Then she adds an egg to help bind the delicate filling.

The filling.

Next, she prepares her work station, flinging a white table cloth over her dining room table. She clamps the pasta attachment on to her mixer, twists off some dough from the large ball and gently guides it through the rollers. “You have to roll out the dough in batches so it doesn’t get dry,” she explains. “Or you need lots of people helping out. At home, it’s all hands on deck. Everybody knows what to do.” Today it’s just the two of us–and I, a true novice, don’t really count. She takes the flattened dough, pats it with more flour, folds it, puts it through the machine again, and repeats the process (adjusting the machine’s settings) until the dough is very thin and almost translucent.

Rolling out the dough.

She lays the long pasta dough out on the tablecloth and, with a pasta cutter, slices it into little squares. She dabs a tiny bit of filling onto the middle of each square,  folds each one into a triangle, then nimbly ties it into an adorable Little Red Riding Hood of a dumpling.

Adding the filling.

I try but my fingers seem a little thick. They’re supposed to be small, she tells me. “My grandmother would say that three should fit on a spoon.” The tortellini I make don’t leave much room for the other two.

Our efforts.

As we work through our batches, we chat about life. She tells me about her grandmother and mother, both of whom have passed away, and her aunt who now does most of the cooking. I try to imagine Milan at Christmastime.

Little Red Riding Hood and friends.

We talk about our kids and plans for the winter school break. We bemoaned the current state of the magazine business. (Francesca’s a journalist, too.) We laugh and nibble at bits of filling that have fallen out. Next thing you know, we look up and have a table full of tortellini! Quite the accomplishment! Time has flown by. I have to pick my daughter up from school soon. Francesca gathers up a basketful of pasta for me and I leave happy.

Tortellini, tortellini!

As I sat down to dinner of tortellini in (chicken) broth later that day with my husband, I realized that my time spent in Francesca’s kitchen, watching her cook and chatting as we worked, was a real gift. Not only did I learn how to make something new, but I became, in a small way, part of her holiday tradition. In Santa Monica, that one year she didn’t go back to Milan, Francesca made Christmas tortellini with me. I truly feel honored.

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About cdhla

I'm a former editor at several lifestyle magazines who's been freelancing since moving from NYC to LA. I call my blog The Chipped Platter to remind us that chips are better than perfection. The platter in question, a round one made by Gien, has traveled the world with me, visited with friends and family, celebrated milestones, and offered sustenance. My cherished Chipped Platter is part of the family. (I love my chipped plates, too!) On this blog, I'll be sharing my adventures of cooking for my family and friends, venturing out into restaurants and learning tips from people I meet. Come along!
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6 Responses to Christmas tradition

  1. Cathy Krinsky says:

    I am 1/4 Italian and this looks yummy, but more work than I enjoy. This year on Christmas Day we are serving latkas and brisket as it coincides with Chanukah. Ah the joys of blending family religions! We usually have tamales on Christmas Eve.

    • cdhla says:

      It is a lot of work, but it was sure fun! When Henry and I first got married, we started our tradition of lox and bagels on Christmas morning. I love it and look forward to that part of the day. I also love the idea of tamales on Christmas Eve, but because we never made them ourselves, they didn’t seem like enough work!

  2. I, for one, will be missing Francesca, Cesare and the children in our foggy Christmas in Milan. Your post dearly reminds me of an other piece of my personal and familiar diaspora which took residence in California, albeit up north from you, in the Silicon Valley, where my late father’s cousin, more than an aunt to me, was employee #3 at Xerox PARC. In Palo Alto Giuliana Avanzini Lavendel is still able to recreate her culinary roots (going back to the Renaissance traditions of her native Mantua) thanks to her Valleywide famous tortelli di zucca, a slightly bigger version of tortellini where meat filling is replaced by a surprising mix of yellow pumpkin and amaretti cookies. Giuliana is not very well with her Parkinson, but I’m sure she’ll do her best to put at least some of the Italian backtaste you describe so effectively in her Xmas’ Eve dinner. Thanks, and Buon Natale to you and Francesca.

    • cdhla says:

      I love knowing it’s foggy at Christmas in Milan! I had a wonderful time with Francesca. I’m sorry you won’t get to see her and her family this holiday season.

  3. Patrizia Valentini says:

    Hi, I am Francesca’s cousin who lives in Vienna, Austria. I will be doing the Tortellini with my whole family on the 24th of december. All the women will be in the kitchen laughing, chatting and singing while cooking the good tortellini. It is one of the BEST moments in the year and a real holy moment for everyone. Two years ago, my little niece did her first tortellino, she was 3 years old. We were all standing in the kitchen and applauding the little cook. Thankk you for this wonderful article and cari saluti e baci a Francesca, Patrizia

  4. I love the Little Red Riding Hoods! This looks absolutely delicious and sounds like a wonderful holiday tradition.

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