I always feel a bit disappointed when January comes and spring is not already here. The days are still grey, the nights are still deep and long, vegetables are still cabbage and roots, and I’ve already had my fair share, thank you: I’m ready for spring. Not that it is cold, not here, and not that I expect spring or summer to be any less rainy – if anything, I know from experience they will be more.
Christmas day this year was just like that. A grey, overcast day, warm, short. We woke up suitably late, opened our presents, had pancakes for breakfast, and then we got to work. Our family was in Italy, we were here all by ourselves. It felt unusually quiet and intimate. We spent the morning making roasted squash tortelli. We ate them for lunch, and they were like little pockets of sunshine.
It reminded me of more than a winter night when we drove from Milan to the border with Emilia, often trespassing, with my parents or friends. We always seemed to do that in winter, maybe because summer is unbearably hot in the plain, maybe because if it is nice and sunny we usually headed for the mountains. Winter was always humid, way colder than here, and there was always some fog – although not too thick, you don’t want to be driving in that. While waiting for dinner time, there was always some aperitivo of wine or gingerino (a non alcoholic version of campari) in some beautiful square piazza under the portici of some paese lost in the flat landscape (why don’t they do portici in the rest of the world? They are brilliant for cold and rainy days).
And then there was dinner, in some countryside trattoria or slightly more upscale restaurant. Filled pasta was invariably the highlight of the dinner, no matter how good the rest of it was. You’d always get a chat with the chef, more often than not a woman, and they’d always had wholehearted recommendations on how to cook and eat the pasta. I remember the outraged horror of a lady chef when one of our friends asked for some pepper to put on her delicate, thin tortellini in brodo. Never! I ate there the best tortelli di zucca of my life (on several occasions). The filling is so dense, sweet and savoury. We asked once what the secret ingredient was for that thick punch of flavour. The answer was, zucca mantovana: a dense, floury and sweet variety, not unlike a very good kabotcha in flavour, but with a green and thick skin. The secret was to cook it whole in their huge, hot wood oven. They added nothing else to it apart from a bit of parmesan, which is unusual. There is no hope to try that at home. With ordinary pumpkins this would just be bland. Usually tortelli di zucca contain some ingredients reminiscent of medieval fests, a time when the border between sweet and savoury was more elastic. These include amaretti, a natural pairing for zucca, and sometimes mostarda, a fruit compote with added mustard extract, sweet, punchy (good mostarda is supposed to make you cry, and not because it is good) and addictive.
My home recipe usually contains both, if I have them, but deciding the right amount for amaretti is tricky. The balance is subtle and you need a very flavourful pumpkin to stand it. Also, the flavour tends to come out more in the cooked pasta than in the cold filling, making it really tricky to decide when to stop. Some recipes add just one amaretto to one kilo of pumpkin, and I tend to say this is correct. I also like to dress them like they did once at the Ochina bianca in Mantova, one of the epic places where the slow food movement started: melted butter, parmesan, a tiny bit of tomato sauce for acidity, and toasted almonds for crunch and nuttiness. This is in no way traditional, but it works.
To adapt the recipe for here, I already knew that roasted butternut squash would be an acceptable substitute for zucca. They are consistently better than most pumpkins I can get in Italy. The problem was the amaretti. They are never very good, and you need the best you can buy for it. Also, I think mostarda is important to balance it out, and there is no way I can get it here: mustard is just completely different, the acidic note would ruin everything. I decided to go for a creative variation which worked quite well, if I may say so. A friend once gave me one of my most treasured kitchen possessions: a little pack of bitter almonds*. I used one of them together with other almonds, milled, to flavour the pumpkin: it was really tasty and very rich. I dressed the tortelli the traditional way, with parmesan, brown butter and a lot of sage.
* The question is controversial, but apparently bitter almonds are poisonous: they contain hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous and which is resposible of their characteristic smell and bitter flavour (like every reader of Agatha Christie knows) . On the other hand, they are used, as well as apricots kernes (which have a similar taste and are similarly dangerous) to make amaretti and other sweets in Italy. I also ate prune kernels – again, similar taste, similar chemistry – relatively often as a child and survived to tell the tale. If you want to be safe, especially if you plan to feed this to children, use an amaretto for the recipe below – since they sell them, I assume they are safe for human consumption. Apparently cooking destroys the dangerous chemicals.
Tortelli di zucca (serves 4 as a small starter, two as a main)
For the pasta:
200 gr ’00’ flour (or buy some Italian or some pasta flour)
pinch of salt
For the filling:
1 medium butternut squash
1 bitter almond(substitute apricot almond, or prune almond, or see below)
20 gr normal almonds, the best you can find, possibly unskinned (substitute 1 dry amaretto for these and the above bitter almond)
50 gr parmesan, or more
1-2 tablespoons fine breadcrumbs
pinch of nutmeg
a small bunch of sage leaves
parmesan, to taste
about 50 gr butter
Make the pasta:
Arrange the flour in a cone shape on your working surface. Make a hole in the middle, break in the eggs, add a pinch of salt. Start mixing the eggs with a fork until they are uniform, then start mixing in some flour. When this is too hard to make with the fork start using your hands until all the flour has been added in and you have a uniform dough. It should feel hard and elastic, not sticky, and quite smooth. Let it rest wrapped in cling film.
Make the filling: preheat the oven to 200 Celsius. Cut the squash into large chunks without peeling, put it in a oven try with some salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast until soft, but not too brown. Let cool, then take the pulp off the skin (don’t skip on this recipe). Put all pulp in a bowl. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, put in the sweet and bitter almonds and let them there five minutes. Lift them a few at a time and squeeze them out of their skin. Toast them in a warm oven for five minutes, but you don’t want them to brown. Mince finely using a food processor. If using amaretti, crush one to the finest dust in a food processor. Add to the squash together with the parmesan, salt, pepper, and a grate of nutmeg. Using a fork or a potato masher mash until smooth. Don’t use a blender or a processor. Taste and adjust everything – nutmeg if you want more spice, but it should almost be non noticeable, salt and pepper a little bit more than what you think you need, parmesan if it is too sweet. You are unlikely to want to add more amaretti or almonds: if you can taste it vaguely, it’s ok. If the filling is very wet add breadcrumbs until quite dry, otherwise the pasta will break.
Make the tortelli: Roll the pasta really thinly, using a machine or by hand with a rolling pin. Don’t roll too much at a time if you are inexperienced, or it may dry out. Cut into squares about 10X10 cm. Using a brush wet slightly two borders of the square, then put a teaspoon (scant) of filling at the centre, and close to a triangle. Make sure you press well and sear all the border. Put your index finger on the long side in the middle, using the other hand close the two extremities over it pressing slightly, bend the triangle tip up and you have your tortello. Proceed with the rest; you will probably have leftover filling, but I always err on the side of making too much.
When all the tortelli are made, bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. Cook them until the pasta is soft but still al dente – it will take about 5 minutes to cook, because of all the bendings: taste one to make sure. Meanwhile melt butter in a pan and let in brown slightly, then fry the sage leaves in it until crispy (don’t let them burn). Serve the tortelli with butter, sage and parmesan (no pepper, please :))