I’m officially going to Italy this summer!
In one month, I’ll be hightailing it out of Boston for a month-long adventure of smelling and eating and seeing all the things in Paris and then a bunch of cities throughout Italy. Even with all my tickets booked, Airbnbs reserved and regional food research completed, I still feel like I could wake up one day and find that all these plans were just a dream; something my travel-thirsty mind created to keep me from going totally insane.
All my life I’ve fantasized about eating my way through Italy, and now that it’s just around the corner I find myself both relentlessly giddy and inexplicably anxious. How does someone prepare for experiencing what they’ve always dreamt about? The answer to that question is that outside of practical preparations, there is little one can do – which is quite the terrifying prospect for an anxious planner prone to overthinking such as myself.
Really, though, I’m just crazy excited. You’re allowed to hate me for rambling on about it, but I promise you this: when I return in mid-August, I will not only have a plethora of pictures to show you guys (because you’re totally interested in my random travel pictures, right?), but I’ll also share everything I learn about Italian food – yep, I’ll be taking a couple cooking classes while I’m there too. This won’t be the last pasta recipe you see from me, that’s for damn sure.
Today I’m sharing this deliciously simple and traditional ricotta cavatelli recipe from Chef Jenn Louis’ first cookbook Pasta By Hand. Her book is the only full collection of Italian “dumplings” (her loose definition of which includes all small nubs of dough), with everything from your classic gnocchi to mouthwatering kale and ricotta “strozzapreti” (which, fun fact, means “priest stranglers”. Curious as to why? Get the book! You won’t regret it.)
I’m a big fan of Jenn Louis and her work, and at the risk of sounding quite stalkerish, Wei and I actually went to an event here in Boston a few months back where we ate entirely too much pasta made by local chefs and Jenn Louis herself as part of her book release. When she came out to introduce herself and describe her strozzapreti, I had a major fan-girl moment and wanted to tell her how much I admired her, but told myself to play it cool…which meant I ended up not saying a single word (sigh). But this lady seriously knows her stuff, and her ricotta cavatelli recipe is exhibit-A.
Ricotta cavatelli come from the Basilicata or Lucania region of Italy in the south, and are similar to gnocchi, but are made with ricotta and whole milk instead of potato. The resulting dumplings are ridiculously tender and as fluffy as pillows, but still firm enough when al dente to hold up any sauce you throw at ‘em. They’re also incredibly easy to make, but like any hand-made pasta, they can take up a good chunk of your day to shape.
To shape these cavatelli by hand, you can use either a board specifically designed for cavatelli lined with thin ridges, or you can just use the prongs of a good ol’ household fork. What I discovered to be even more effective was actually the base of a whisk where the tines are closest together. Whatever your tool, the ideal cavatelli shape is ridged horizontally on one side with a long indentation down the length of the dumpling on the other. According to Louis, ricotta cavatelli are traditionally served with pesto in the summertime. But even if they weren’t I would’ve slathered them with the stuff, because as you may have noticed, I love pesto so much I kind of wish I could have its babies.
While most of this recipe sticks to tradition, I can’t help but stray at least a little off the beaten path. I shook up the classic pesto recipe by using toasted hazelnuts instead of pine nuts, and I threw in some of this season’s pea sprouts in addition to basil. This pesto is like sweet springtime in your mouth, and it’s officially on my list of favorite things.
Handmade Ricotta Cavatelli & Hazelnut Pea Sprout Pesto
Cavatelli from Jenn Louis’ Pasta By Hand Cookbook
For the hazelnut pea sprout pesto sauce (makes 2 cups):
1/2 cup hazelnuts
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
2 cups fresh basil, rinsed
1 cup pea sprouts, rinsed
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
pepper to taste
For the ricotta cavatelli:
3 1/2 cups + 1 TBSP (500g) all purpose flour
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cups (480) whole milk ricotta cheese
1/4 cup (55g) whole milk
1 large egg
For the pesto:
Toast the hazelnuts in a small frying pan on medium heat for a few minutes, then rub their skins off with a kitchen towel – don’t sweat it if they’re not perfectly skinless. Throw them into a food processor.
Roast the cloves of garlic, unpeeled, in the same frying pan for a few minutes until slightly tan and aromatic. Remove from heat and use the flat side of a chef’s knife to press the garlic until the peels come off, then add the cloves to the hazelnuts in the food processor and pulse them together.
Add the salt and the basil with half the olive oil, pulse, then add the remaining basil, pea sprouts, and olive oil. When it’s all blended together evenly, add the parmesan and pepper to taste. You’ll need a few tablespoons of pesto per serving; the leftover pesto will keep in the fridge for a few weeks.
For the cavatelli:
Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook (or use your hands) and knead on medium speed for about 10 minutes, until the dough is soft and silky smooth. The dough will be a dream to work with. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, touching the plastic to the dough so no skin forms. Set aside to rest at room temperature for half an hour.
Prepare two sheet pans with parchment paper and sprinkle them with flour. Pinch off a piece of dough roughly the size of two golf balls combined and keep the rest of the dough covered. Roll this small ball of dough into a long thin log about 1/2” wide on a lightly floured work surface. Cut the log into 1/2” pieces. When your small log has been cut into pieces, take each tiny piece of dough and roll it against your tool of choice – if using a whisk, press the dough flat against it where the tines meet the handle, then roll it together to form ridges along the outside of the dumpling.
Lay the shaped cavatelli on the prepared sheet pans, making sure they don’t touch or stick together. Repeat this process with the rest of the dough. If you’re not cooking all the cavatelli right away, freeze the rest: first freeze them on the sheet pan, then transfer the frozen cavatelli to a ziplock bag or airtight container. The frozen cavatelli will keep for a month or two. Don’t thaw before boiling.
Bring a medium pot of heavily salted water to a boil, then add the shaped ricotta cavatelli. Boil for only 1-3 minutes (more if cooking frozen cavatelli) or until they float to the top. As they rise to the surface, scoop them out with a slotted spoon or sieve. Reserve some of the cooking water for serving.
Evenly toss each serving of cooked cavatelli with a few tablespoons of pesto, a little extra olive oil, and a tablespoon of the reserved cooking water, because the starches help bind the sauce to the pasta. Serve with extra salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with pea sprouts and a light grating of parmesan.