Saturday, November 13, 2010


This is the third in a series of posts on making fresh pasta. Using Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta [2009] as our guide, we started our survey of shapes, dough and techniques by examining two pastas with Northern Italian origins: pappardelle and toppe. Both of these pastas are simple, flat noodles. Pappardelle is made with all-purpose flour while toppe is made with a tipo 00/durum flour blend. We now turn our focus from the north to the south where durum wheat is the prevalent flour for making pasta. We also transition from making flat noodles to creating sculpted pasta. A classic sculpted, durum wheat pasta from Southern Italy is cavatelli.

Historians believe that Arabs introduced the cultivation of durum wheat to Italy by way of Sicily in the 9th century. Durum thrived in Southern Italy’s soil and climate and a burgeoning dried pasta industry followed. The area around Naples became a leader in this new trade. Cities on the Amalfi Coast had a warm climate and salt air breezes that were ideal for drying pasta. The region also had access to excellent quality durum critical to making dried pastas, especially those with extruded shapes.

Zanini De Vita describes cavatelli as resembling little hats. The shape has approximately forty different names used across seven Southern Italian regions. (My favorite of these names is orecchie di prete or priest’s ears.) Not surprisingly, cavatelli also comes in a number of different shapes and sizes. One common cavatelli shape is made when a small (3/8-inch wide), pencil-thin cylinder of dough is drawn across a board with a blunt-tipped knife. A variation is created when a finger or two (or more) replace the knife.

Making cavatelli is a lot of fun, but mastering some of the shapes takes practice and time.  Although wooden boards are by far the most common work surface, once again, variations exist. Campania’s parmarieddo is made by rolling the dough across the palm of a hand instead of a board. Basilicata’s orecchie di prete is made by rolling the dough across a grooved wooden board called a cavarola.

Another common cavatelli form is machine-made and resembles a small, thin, ridged gnocchi. (Cavatelli is often generically referred to as gnocchetti.) A hard dough is rolled out and cut into strips. These strips are fed into a cavatelli maker. With a turn of a handle, the pasta is shaped and cut into cavatelli. With practice you can transform 450 grams (approximately 1 pound) of dough into cavatelli in less than 5 minutes.

Traditionally cavatelli is made only with durum flour and cold water. (Here's a link to a recipe for a flour and water dough I recently posted.) Alternative regional dough recipes exist. Here is one that I developed for my cavatelli machine, which is called a BeeBo. This dough recipe is based upon an egg and olive oil version from the Marche.
  • 300 grams Giusto's Extra Fancy durum flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Approximately 4 tablespoons cold water

1) Weigh out the flour and sift it into a large mixing bowl.

2) Make a well in the flour and crack the eggs into the well. Add the olive oil and salt. Beat the egg mixture with a fork and incorporate the beaten egg mixture into the flour with the fork until the eggs disappear and a crumbly mixture forms.

3) Clean the dough off of your fork and add this dough to the bowl.

4) Holding the bowl with one hand, reach into the bowl with your other hand and continue to mix the dough by hand. In small increments, add as much of the cold water as you need to incorporate all of the flour in the bowl into a rough dough that holds together.

5) Turn your dough onto a clean work surface. Wash your hands to remove any dough before kneading.

6) Lightly dust your work surface. Knead the dough for a full 10 minutes.

7) Lightly flour the dough and wrap it in plastic. Let the dough rest in a refrigerator for 1½ hours.

8) Unwrap the dough and lightly dust it with flour. With a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 3/8-inch thickness. As best you can, square off the sides of the dough sheet to form a square. Cut the dough lengthwise into 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch wide strips.

9) Attach your cavatelli machine to a sturdy work surface. Feed the dough strips into the machine by cranking the machine’s handle. Perfectly formed cavatelli will magically fall out of the machine’s head onto your work surface. Lightly dust the cavatelli with flour to prevent them from sticking together and spread them out on a floured board. After feeding through all of the dough, you should have approximately 1 pound of cavatelli.

Cook the cavatelli in a large pot full of salty, boiling water. When you add the pasta, the boil may slow or disappear. Mix the pasta in the water to help prevent the pasta from sticking together. After the water has returned to a full boil for approximately 3 minutes, start testing the cavatelli. The pasta is ready when it loses its raw taste. It should be wonderfully chewy but not gummy. Drain the pasta into a colander and shake the colander to remove excess water. Add the cavatelli into your ready sauce and cook the two together for a minute or so.

Zanini De Vita writes that cavatelli is traditionally “served with meat or vegetable sauces, always made with chili and finished with a dusting of local cheese, usually cacioricotta.” Pictured is cavatelli served with a roasted cherry tomato sauce made with finely chopped basil, grated cheese and, of course, a pinch of chili pepper.