Making Tortelli on a Winter Day: A Food Memoir

It was always on a wintry day.  A Neapolitan winter, of course, cold, maybe picturedamp, somewhat gray, though not always.  Not talking about the arctic zone that we are experiencing here in New York.

Anyway, she was always running around, stressed, multi-tasking, my mother, dashing from one chore to the next, between school and home and daily food shopping at the fresh market.

But then, we had Saturday afternoon, work set aside for the weekend, and the kitchen clamoring for activity.  I would pass by the kitchen door, perhaps on my way out to hang with friends and/or boyfriend du jour, and notice that the Formica kitchen table had been fully covered by the great tagliere, the thick wooden board that my mother would take out when making tortellini, usually at Christmas or Easter time.

But on this anonymous winter afternoon, she was just putting together a fragrant sweet dough for her famous Tortelli.  A specialty of her beloved hometown of Modena, delectable Tortelli are little pastries encasing a dollop of thick jam, preferably amarena, sour cherry preserves that is very popular in the Emilia-Romagna region, where these tart, brownish-red cherries grow abundantly though briefly.  They have a unique flavor that marries flawlessly with pastry.  Think Crostata di amarene, a culinary dream.

I already had my pocketbook slung over my shoulder and my high-heeled leather boots on, but I paused and peeked in.  Quietly, not to unsettle her, since she didn’t take well to distractions (or, usually, demands) from family, when she was concentrating on a task that wasn’t routine.

The yellow, buttery dough smelled of lemon and egg yolks, and she was methodically cutting circles with a glass, making neat little rounds.

Sometimes, I would stop by the table and just steal a scrap of the raw dough, which tasted like happiness, sunshine and spring.  She would mumble something, but continue to prepare her little tortelli shapes.  A jar of dense, intensely-flavored jam was waiting on the counter, and soon she would start to carefully and minimally fill the center of the dough rounds.  Then she would deftly fold the pasta frolla over the jam, and seal the edges securely.  Beautifully plump and smooth, the tortelli waited, enticingly lined up, for the oil to heat in a large frying pan.  Oh, the aroma of the first perfectly golden pastries draining on absorbent paper on a plate!  I was going out, damn, why did she have to do this now? 

I remained frozen by the kitchen door, considering my next step: wait for these delights to be cool enough to taste, or just hasten out, and enjoy them upon my return?  But, would there be any left?  Seriously, the greediness of my siblings was acute, and once they pounced on them, nothing at all might remain…A dilemma, for sure.  Boyfriend or a fewtortelli?  You might not believe this, but usually I just ran out, period.  Yes, I did have my priorities and food was not one of them.  So I would shout at my brother and sister (already on stand-by), Lasciatemi dei tortelli o vi ammazzo!, Leave me some pastries or I’ll kill you, or something along those lines, and quickly leave.  Did I find any, a few hours later?  Yes, I did, my mother always made sure, because I know that the two of them wouldn’t even think of it, my dramatic threat notwithstanding.

Here I am, today, in this glacial February morning, gathering my ingredients and channeling my mother of those many years ago (yes, I’m always hassled and anxious myself, genetics, I guess), and looking forward to surprise my children with this delicious sweet of my childhood memories.

I’m working on the translation and the adjusting of the measurements for this recipe.  Also, I’m perfecting it, especially since I baked thetortelli instead of frying them, which is the current way of cooking them.  This is sure to be added to my upcoming cookbook!


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