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The Joy of Making Cavatelli

Cavatelli is one of the great loves of my life.

The rhythmic peacefulness of rolling the dough and shaping each piece by hand, and the great satisfaction of revelling in the first mouthful are parts of each week I’ve come to treasure. Making cavatelli is a ritual in my home; it’s my mindfulness practice, my way of slowing down and connecting with both myself and with my Italian heritage.

A highly celebrated pasta, cavatelli holds a special place in many Southern Italians’ hearts and has done so for centuries. With ties to Molise, Puglia, Calabria and the south in general, the much-loved shape is made from a semolina dough, perhaps the most straightforward dough to create. Semolina flour, semola di grano duro, and water are kneaded and then artfully shaped. 

Beyond the dough, there’s an abundance of joy in the process. Making cavatelli is relatively simple, which is not to say that it requires little skill. After years of making cavatelli at my kitchen bench, I’ve come to understand the joy of making pasta by hand and in eating a meal you’ve prepared yourself entirely. No store-bought pasta will ever be as good as the version made by your own hands. 

Despite their simplicity, making cavatelli takes time to master… understanding the dough, how the weather and room temperature impact it, how the water’s temperature will affect the smoothness, figuring out the correct flicking technique, it all takes time to learn. All part of the joy, something you have to work for and learn over time.

Joy can be described as a source or cause of delight. Often confused with happiness, joy is much more simple and immediate, a momentary experience. Happiness, on the other hand, is a broader evaluation that encompasses a wide range of things. Ingrid Fettell Lee, the founder of The Aesthetics of Joy, describes joy as an intense moment of physical emotion and feeling good in the moment. In contrast, happiness she describes as being more about feeling good over time. In the pursuit of happiness, we often overlook and undervalue joy, says Fettell Lee.

Moments of joy can be short; an hour spent making pasta, for example, a short stroll in nature or harvesting vegetables from your garden. Something you can turn to for comfort, something you can share, perhaps even something to remind you of home.

I grew up in an Italian home, where pasta was on the menu several times a week. It was also one of the first things my Calabrian mother taught me how to cook. The pasta of my childhood was fettuccine, the ribbons of pasta made from a dough laminated with herbs and edible flowers from our garden. We would then cut the decorated sheets into ribbons and, once cooked, toss through butter or a simple sugo. In the kitchen of my childhood home, it was there that I embraced the joyfulness of making pasta. My favourite way to spend time together with family was in the kitchen. Whether cooking, eating or celebrating, the kitchen was and has remained the centre of my mother’s home.

The pasta of my adulthood is cavatelli. I have connected with it on a deep level and dedicated countless hours towards mastering it. In much the same way Italian women happily spend a lifetime perfecting their signature dish, I hope to do this with cavatelli.

At home, Friday lunch is for handmade cavatelli. My husband and I find it the most joyful way to bookend a busy working week. Patrick gets the most satisfaction from kneading the dough until smooth and elastic, however long it takes. Whereas I enjoy the shaping of each cavatello, rolling every piece into the classic cavernous shape. Just as many people must go for a post-lunch passeggiata, I must make cavatelli each Friday – it’s the joy of ritual.

When it’s not Friday, I find comfort in the kitchen. I find myself dealing with stress by taking time out to cook, almost always pasta or vegetables. Some people bake, some people eat chocolate. I roll pasta, it calms me. 

Crucially, and this is very important, you cannot make pasta while angry. The dough will be bitter, just like your mood. You really do need to separate yourself from whatever’s going on, if only for a short time, and just make pasta.

Beyond the making, there’s the eating. Food, eating and pasta is so central to Italian culture that it’s often used as a metaphor to convey profound expressions about life. There are many, too many to list, but perhaps my favourite is ‘La cucina piccola fa la casa grande,’ which translates to ‘The small kitchen makes the house large.’ Meaning that the love at the centre of the kitchen builds the home’s foundation. Almost anything prepared in a home where the kitchen is at the centre of everything will taste good.

Beyond the joy in making, there’s joy in eating. There is nothing quite like the abundant joy of eating a generous bowl of cavatelli, more than you could want or need. Is it possible for Italian parents to stop ladling pasta into your bowl when you say that’s enough? Certainly not. Through food, love is shown, with each extra ladle is a silent ‘I love you.’ As if to say “here you go, more than you asked for, know that you are loved”. There’s joy in sharing a meal together, and there’s joy in generosity at the table.

Moments of joy are hidden in plain sight everywhere, all you have to do is uncover them. From the moment I started making pasta as a child, I knew there was beauty and joy in the process, as well as in the eating. I hope it never leaves me.

Cavatelli 

Makes 600 grams of pasta, enough for four people.

PREPARATION

  1. In a bowl, combine 400grams of semolina flour with 200ml of lukewarm water. Form into a dough, then turn out onto a workbench and knead until smooth, about 8 minutes.
  2. Cover in cling film and rest for at least 30 minutes. Cut off portions of the dough, then roll into long ropes, cut each rope into 2 cm pieces. 
  3. For cavatelli with ridges (as in pictures), press a piece of dough into a paddle with a small knife and roll downwards in a flicking motion. The dough will curl on itself, forming the signature shape. For smooth cavatelli, press your fingers into the piece of dough on a flat surface, then roll towards you in a similar flicking motion.
  4. Let the cavatelli stand for at least 10 minutes before cooking in salted boiling water for about 4 minutes or until they rise to the surface. 

 

Cavatelli with pork sausage and broccolini

Serves 4

Preparation time: 5-10 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 pork and fennel sausages
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • 60ml (¼ cup) dry white wine
  • 30 grams butter
  • 1 bunch broccolini, chopped
  • 600 grams cavatelli
  • salt and pepper
  • pecorino cheese, to serve

PREPARATION

  1. Remove meat from sausage casing, break apart with a wooden spoon while sauteing over medium heat in olive oil.
  2. Once the meat is cooked, deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine, then add a ladle of pasta water, the butter and stir.
  3. Add broccolini and cook for two minutes.
  4. Stir through cooked pasta. Season to taste and serve with a generous amount of pecorino cheese.

 

Cavatelli with cavolo nero

Serves 4

Preparation time 5-10 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 bunch cavolo nero
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 600 grams cavatelli
  • salt and pepper

PREPARATION

  1. Trim stalks of cavolo nero and blanch in boiling water for a few minutes.
  2. Drain, cool and squeeze water out.
  3. Chop, then fry in olive oil with garlic. 
  4. To the cavolo nero, add cooked cavatelli and a ladle of pasta water, then toss together and season to taste.

 

Cavatelli with slow-cooked beef ragù

Serves 4-6

Preparation time: 20-25 minutes

Cooking time: about 4 hours

INGREDIENTS

  • 1.2kg beef chuck, cut into chunks
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 brown onions, finely chopped
  • 3 carrots, finely chopped
  • 3 celery sticks, finely chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, whole
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 300ml red wine
  • 800 grams canned chopped tomatoes
  • 500ml good quality beef stock
  • 3 rosemary sprigs
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp peppercorns
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 600 grams cavatelli

PREPARATION

  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C / 140°C fan-forced.
  2. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a cast-iron pot over medium-high heat and brown the beef in batches until dark, about 6-8 minutes per batch. Rest the cooked meat in a bowl, retain the juices.
  3. Add another 2 tbsp of olive oil to the pan, then saute the onion, carrot and celery for 6-8 minutes over low-medium heat until soft. Stir in tomato puree, tinned tomatoes, stock, red wine, garlic, peppercorns, salt and herbs. Bring to the boil, add in the beef and its juices, cover with lid, and transfer to the oven for 3 hours.
  4. Remove from the oven, stir, then return to the oven for a further 30 mins. Discard herbs, then use two forks to shred the beef. Stir cooked cavatelli pasta through the ragu. Season to taste and serve with a generous amount of pecorino cheese.