Jhe apartment, on the third floor of a 1900s building just off Viale Angelico (it means Angelic Avenue) was warm and smelled of wax, clementines, simmering broth and fabric softener. Everyone arrived at noon and put their coats on the extra bed. Conversation and laughter filled the room as family members and two friends (some of whom hadn’t seen each other since the previous Christmas) swapped stories of their trip and the fun of parking when half of Rome is elsewhere. Presents were placed under the tree, contributions covered with aluminum foil in the kitchen and bottles on the sideboard next to the figs. Children were hugged and teenagers congratulated for growing up.
Just after 12:30 p.m., a glass cart with gold handles was rolled up and parked near the buffet. On top were crisps, pretzels, huge olives (each impaled with a toothpick) and triangles of white bread – half topped with salmon, the other with what tasted like olive paste . A brief discussion ensued about what to drink, as two bottles were not yet deemed cold enough. Bottles were crushed in the freezer for quick cooling, while other corks were popped and glasses filled.
Just after 1pm, once everyone was seated at a table set the day before with the “finest” linens, cutlery and crystal, a watermelon-sized soup tureen was brought out. There was steaming broth and 200 tortellini floating on its surface. There is a legend about this pasta shape which involves a keyhole and a navel. More interesting, I think, are the diminutives: tortellini – a very small stuffed pastry, is itself a diminutive of tortelli – a small stuffed pastry; which is still a diminutive of torta– a pie or a cake. A friend describes them as pasta signet rings filled with a pâté-like batter of bologna, pork, prosciutto, and parmesan cheese. They are laborious to achieve and, on Viale Angelico, are greeted with great appreciation: “incredible, incredible, wonderful”.
The sound of a lambrusco cork stopper was followed by near silence as everyone concentrated on how many tortellini they could get on a spoon. Noisy again, and the bowls cleared, roast veal stuffed with chestnuts appeared, various vegetables too, and more wine was opened. After that came a large bowl of raw fennel, nuts, and fruit, for which the men took out carving knives and scooped out the skin in a single jumbled strip. Someone unwrapped the panettone, while another transferred the contents of the liquor cabinet to the middle of the table. Full of food and wine, and seated around a crowded table, everyone was slightly flushed and the scene warm with a reddish lust.
This is a selective narrative, of course. The apartment also smelled of polish and the days of work of someone wishing they didn’t have such an urge to clean; for whom appearing an effortless hostess required every ounce of effort and a new crown. Two parents stayed on either side of the room and everyone hoped that they and their opposing political views would stay that way, even after the grappa. Two mothers chatted competitively, trying to extract as much information as possible from each other, while a grandson, taller and much thinner than the year before, ate nothing but broth and fennel. And now my narrative has gone too far the other way, to a lunch of hidden resentment, sadness, compulsion and indigestion.
But it comes back again. As the plates were being moved around the kitchen, someone began to sing along with a granddaughter on the piano as one mother told another: “There’s the possibility of a scholarship, you know ? The mistress says she is very talented! The white sheet has been lifted, shaken out of the window and replaced with an elasticated green baize; the cards are out, and the older ones are teaching the younger ones to play broom, seven out of seven, five and one out of six. A movie was planned. By six o’clock the house smelled of grappa, spiced cookies and melted plastic, as one of the apartments in Viale Angelico’s Christmas lights had merged with an angel hanging from the Christmas tree.
Brodo tortellini (top photo)
Small navel-shaped pasta stuffed with pork and parmesan, tortellini are typical of the Emilia-Romagna region. They are much easier to prepare than you might imagine and are cooked directly in the broth they are served with. They also make a typical and sublime Christmas starter. This recipe makes about 220 tortellini; they are small so estimate 30 per person. Lots of hands are useful here. Once made, the pasta will keep, covered, for two days in the refrigerator; they also freeze brilliantly, as do leftover fillings.
For filling 30g of butter 100g minced pork 100g of ham 100g mortadella 1 egg yolk 150g Parmesan cheesegrated, plus extra for serving Salt and black pepper Nutmegto taste
For the pasta 200g plain flour 2ndggs
For the broth 800g chicken thighs 1 veal bone (optional) 1 onionpeeled and cut in half 1 carrotpeeled and cut in half 1 celery stalkhalved 1 bay leaf A few peppercorns
First, prepare the filling. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter, then add the pork and cook, breaking up the mince into the pan and stirring, until lightly browned. Take the pork out of the pan, put it in a bowl and let it cool.
Chop the prosciutto and bologna very finely (use a meat grinder, food processor, or very sharp knife), chop almost to a paste, then add to the bowl of pork with the egg yolk, parmesan, salt, pepper and plenty of nutmeg. Use your hands to knead everything into a consistent, even dough, then cover and put in the fridge to rest overnight.
Start the broth: place the chicken and veal bone, if any, in a large, heavy-bottomed container. saucepan, cover with two liters of cold water and add a large pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and skim off the foam that rises to the surface. Add the vegetables, the bay leaf and the peppercorns, bring back to the boil, then lower the heat again, cover the pan and simmer very gently for 1h15. Strain, reserving the broth.
Meanwhile, prepare the pie crust. Combine flour and eggs, then use your hands to combine and knead into a smooth ball of dough. Cut the dough in half, then use a pasta machine to roll it through all the stages to get the thinnest sheets possible. Cut long lengths of pasta into manageable sheets 20cm long.
Using a sharp knife, cut each sheet of pastry into 2½ cm squares. Working a few squares at a time (and covering the rest with a cloth or cling film so they don’t dry out), place a pea-sized dot of the filling in the center of each square . Take the square, fold it in half diagonally, then use both thumbs to press down and flatten the edges to seal, folding the corners down. Now, with the tip facing the sky, close the triangle into a ring around the tip of an index finger, so it forms a pointed signet ring, and pinch hard to make sure it seals. Repeat with remaining pasta and filling.
Bring the strained chicken broth to a constant boil, add the tortellini and boil for five or six minutes, or until tender. Serve immediately, with additional cheese on the side.
Fiona Beckett’s Drinks Match
Under £10 Marks & Spencer Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2021 £8, 13%. Clean, crisp, very dry, not too fruity – and ideal with this delicate dish.
Over £10 Sassomoro Lambrusco from Modena Castelvetro £13.29 Great Wine Co, 11%. According to Rachel, wild, frothy red lambrusco is the classic pairing for brodo tortellini, and is sometimes even splashed into the broth. I would prefer it with a turkey sarnie myself, but give it a try.
A festive pasta bake with two types of mushrooms, cheese and béchamel. It is very important that the mushrooms are well seasoned and full of flavor. Ideally, you’ll do this in a domed pan, a tall pan, or even a deep cake pan – the more dramatic, the better. You will then invert it, so it’s important that the pasta doesn’t stick – be sure to butter and coat the pan well.
Preparation 10 minutes Cook 1 hour Serves 6
50g ceps 500g field mushrooms or chestnutssliced 2 cloves garlic A few sprigs of fresh thymepicked leaves Salt and black pepper 40g butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 600g short, tubular pasta (like tubetti, ditalini or mezze maniche) Butter and breadcrumbsto grease and line the mold 60g of parmesangrated, plus extra for serving 150g of cheesesliced small and thin
For the bechamel 50g of butter 50g flour 700ml milk Nutmeg
Soak the porcini mushrooms in 300 ml of lukewarm water for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a skillet, sauté the fresh mushrooms, garlic, thyme and salt in the butter and oil, until they begin to soften and have released a little liquid: be careful not to overcook them and to boil them however; there should be deliciously rich juices. Remove the pan from the heat, then drain and chop the porcini mushrooms and add them to the mushroom pan.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water for two minutes below the recommended cooking time, then drain and set aside. Butter and breadcrumbs the timpani mold of your choice and heat the oven to 200 C (180 C fan)/390 F/gas 6
Now prepare the béchamel. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the butter and flour and cook, stirring, until the butter melts and they form a thick batter that smells like cookies. Stir in the milk and cook, still stirring, until the taste of raw flour has disappeared and the sauce has thickened. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
In a large bowl, mix the pasta with three quarters of the mushrooms and three quarters of the béchamel. Put half of this mixture in the mold, then level the surface. Top with a layer of the remaining mushrooms, cover with the remaining béchamel, then scatter over the grated parmesan and sliced taleggio. Pour in the rest of the pasta, mushroom and béchamel mixture and level the top.
Bake the timbale for 20 minutes, then remove it and let it rest for a few minutes. Place a plate on top, flip to invert and release the beaker from its pewter, and serve immediately with a huge green salad and more grated parmesan.
Fiona Beckett’s Drinks Match
Under £10 Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore 2019 £7.99 Lidl, 14% off. Cleverly bottled Valpol that would look great on the Christmas table.
Over £10 EH Booth & Co Barolo 2017 £19 Stalls, 14%. Exceptionally elegant own-brand Barolo, perfect for the rich timpani. (Aldi’s and Majestic’s Barolos, while not in the same class, are also decent.)