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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.