The word ‘agnolotti‘ itself is a delicious mouthful.
Agnolotti are a type of square ravioli typical of Piemonte (the region of which Turin is the capital) made with very thinly rolled yolk pasta that’s folded over the filling. What makes agnolotti what they are, as opposed to ravioli, is the ground meat and vegetables in the filling.
Traditionally, agnolotti are made with leftover cooked meats, either from pot roast or from bollito misto. They are yet another example of how the peasant habit of reusing leftovers in Italy can result in an elegant and very tasty dish.
Naturally, each area of Piemonte––my nonna’s birthplace––claims a different agnolotti recipe, with fillings prepared in a variety of ways: in Monferrato and Turin, it’s made of only roast pork and veal with the addition of calf brains; in Ivrea locals add cabbage and sausages to the ground leftovers, in Tortona and Alessandria the filling is ground stewed beef only. Equally widespread in the Langhe is agnolotti del plin (dialect for “pinched”). These are tiny, boat shaped and filled with meat only. Lastly, there’s the all-meat, nickel-sized square agnolotti boiled in bone broth called anolini.
I have been insecure in my pasta-making skills since an unfortunate incident with a poor quality pasta machine a while ago. But this year I decided to change that. I polished off my old hand-cranked Imperia as well as my kneading skills, and I resolved to make more pasta. Yes, I could have started with a simple water and flour dough, but no. I had to go for the most challenging. Crazy, yes. But not completely: in fact, I sought the advice of my mother.
After what felt like an eternity––and several Covid tests later,––my mother and I finally got to cook together in the same kitchen last week. She and I made a batch of agnolotti for Sunday lunch, and it was perfect. It felt like a guided meditation. It initially took me a moment to get it, but then muscle memory set in.
The recipe that follows yielded 70 agnolotti pockets. We cooked half and froze the rest in sealed freezer bags.
For the pasta dough
500 g (1.1 lbs) flour, possibly “00” + more for dusting
5 medium eggs (350 g total)
2 yolks (on standby)
For the filling
400 g (14 oz) leftover beef roast
150 g (5 oz) roast veal, turkey, chicken or other cooked white meat
150 g (5 oz) mortadella, grilled sausage or any other cooked pork meat (no prosciutto)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
500 g (1.1 lb) fresh baby spinach
1½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
½ tsp of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Making fresh pasta from scratch
This is nonna’s recipe for homemade pasta from scratch, which I translated straight from her tattered and handwritten recipe journal, one of my most precious belongings.
You’ll need to work on a flat, possibly wood surface (porous is ideal, cold marble less so), lightly dusted with flour. I use my mom’s spianatoia, a pastry board with lipped edges. Empty the flour on your work surface and shape it into a mound. Burrow a hole in the middle, crater-style. Crack the 5 eggs and drop them in the crater.
Start stirring the eggs with a fork at first, incorporating parts of the flour. The walls of the crater work to contain the egg mixture, be patient and move only small quantities of flour into the eggs. Keep stirring and trust that it will come together. A positive attitude is half the work done.
Use a bench scraper to bring the shaggy mass together. It will not be homogeneous at first. But keep pressing the mixture together. You may not use all the flour. If on the other hand your kitchen is humid and hot, you may have to add a little more. Once you have a solid mass, get in there with your hands. Continue kneading regardless of the messy, sticky onset.
Fold the dough over and flatten it with the heel of your palm several times, pushing down and away from you and turning it repeatedly until the dough feels smooth and satiny. Ideally to develop the gluten tissue and obtain a good dough you’ll have to knead continuously for about 10 to 12 minutes this way. Put your weight into it, consider it the best workout bar none.
Be persistent, the love you put into this part of the process ensures best results. Continue kneading until the pasta dough reaches a smooth and satiny texture. It should not flake or feel too dry. If this happens, add an egg yolk, not water. The result at the end of this sensual massage is a large, heavy ball of dough that springs back when pressed into. Wrap the ball tightly in plastic wrap and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes.
Making the agnolotti filling
First of all, blanch the spinach for 3 minutes, drain, squeeze well in a clean kitchen towel to extract moisture, and when cool enough to handle, mince finely. Sauté in the butter for 5 minutes and set aside.
Next, remove the bones, sausage casings and any sinewy parts from all the meats, and mince quite finely (you can use a blender, but be careful not to make a paste). The meats should be somewhat dry, not tacky.
Combine the ground meats, sautéed greens and all other ingredients for the filling in a bowl, and mix thoroughly with your hands to obtain a homogeneous mixture, seasoning to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Divide your ball into 4 parts and roll each piece dime-thin. If you’re using a pasta machine, start from the widest setting and work your way thinner by increments. Keep the pieces of dough covered to avoid them drying out. A pasta machine produces long and narrow sheets that are ready to be stuffed and cut into perfect agnolotti. However, you’re free to roll out the dough by hand with a rolling pin, obviously!
Assemble the agnolotti
On a work surface dusted with a fistful of flour, lay the first sheet of pasta flat and dot with blebs of filling about the size of a small walnut, about 2 inches apart. Make sure the row is in the bottom half of the pasta sheet.
Fold over the top part of the sheet, and lay it over the filling. Crimp down around the filling to make the pasta sheet stick, and cut the square agnolotti free with a serrated pastry wheel. This ensures that your agnolotti won’t open during cooking.
Boil the agnolotti in salted water in batches to avoid stickage, and then fish them out with a skimmer as soon as they rise to the bubbling surface. Transfer into a serving bowl.
Since a rich condiment like Bolognese or Pesto would play down the flavors of the agnolotti, consider only some melted butter and grated Parmigiano; or a fresh sage and brown butter sauce. The regional tradition is smothering them in drippings from braciole (aka involtini). With mom we dressed our agnolotti with a simple tomato sauce dusted with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano.
Living in quarantine for ten months taught me the importance of pushing outside of my comfort zone. Going beyond the familiar, the convenient, the easy. It taught me patience, it taught me to see resilience as a strength. This new me urged to re-learn what I thought I had forgotten. As a result, you’ll see more fresh pasta in my online cooking lessons. Definitely another silver lining of 2020.