September 18, 2009


"The tradition of Italian cooking is that of the matriarch. This is the cooking of grandma. She didn't waste time thinking too much about the celery. She got the best celery she could and then she dealt with it."

~ Mario Batali

The other day I had some extra ricotta cheese in the fridge and I didn’t want it to spoil. I was baking and had the mixer going anyway so I took the opportunity to make some Cavatelli. If you aren’t a member of my family, you are probably saying what is Cavatelli. Except for Manuela. Do you know what these are Manuela?

It is, in my opinion, the finest pasta there ever was. It was very common in the part of Italy where my grandmother’s family came from. It must be a very localized recipe, though. As I have never seen it in any of the hundreds of cookbooks I’ve read. Even those written by full blooded Italians.

I learned to make this at my grandmother’s side. I would stand in awe as she mixed this dough in a flour well on her counter and formed each piece with her hands. She could work so quickly that in a matter of minutes she would have enough for dinner for a house full of company. With all our gang we can roll about 3 pounds in a half hour, if that gives you any idea of how swiftly her arthritic hands could work.

For those of you who don’t know what a well is let me explain. The traditional method for making pasta is to make what looks like a volcano out of the flour for your recipe. After you make this pile on your counter top, make a little indent in the top. You then add your eggs and other ingredients to that little dent. With your hands you work the flour in bit by bit until it is all incorporated. Then you would continue to knead your dough until it is smooth and ready to form the pasta.

I don’t make mine this way. I have tried. But it is so messy! I end up with dough stuck everywhere and it takes a long time. Especially to clean it up. I make mine in the kitchen aid. As I was mixing my dough on Monday, I was thinking about whether my Gram would approve of this. I think she would. She always loved things that made work easier and she delighted in new kitchen gadgets. She was the first person I knew to own a microwave oven.

So, I mixed my dough and put it in the fridge to sit. And I forgot about it. So when I went in at 7 that evening to make dinner, I saw the bowl and was wondering what was in it. I had already made the sauce so I called the family in and together in the hot and humid kitchen we made this specialty.

As I always do when we make Cavatelli, I couldn’t help talking about this special women. The kids always ask me to tell them about their Nanny. Unfortunately, she developed Alzheimer’s when Kaitlin was an infant. Brianna was the last of my children that she met before the disease took over her life. And Brianna was so young she does not remember her. We buried her when Aedan was a baby.

So, I talk about my Gram and this is how they know her. I try not to think about it too much because it breaks my heart that they will never have the joy of knowing her for themselves. But I talk her about her to them so much, that they talk about her like they have spent their childhoods at her side making cavatille, too.

Here is my dear grandmother’s recipe. It sounds intimidating but I am here to tell you it
is so super simple to make. Even my youngest kids can do it. It will be your favorite, too. And you can wow dinner guests with a little known treat from Italian history. And who does not love Italian food?

1 pound of Ricotta cheese
3 cups unbleached flour
1 egg
Pinch of salt

Mix all ingredients in kitchen aid fitted with dough hook until it forms a smooth ball.
You can work with it right away but I find it easier to work with if I put it in the fridge
for a while.

Dip your hands in flour and rub them together. Cut off a piece of dough about the size of
a lime. Roll between your hands to form a snake, like kids do with play dough. (Actually, when we play play dough my kids practice making cavatille. This is how they get so good at it so young.) You will want to roll between you hands or on a wooden board until the snake is a thickness slightly more than your pinkie finger. If the snake gets too long to handle just cut it in half and keep on working. If it starts to stick just pat your hands with flour again. Don’t
over handle or your pasta will end up being heavy and tough to the bite.

When your snake or rope or whatever you want to call it is about the right diameter, cut it into to smaller pieces using the width of your finger. Now this is the fun part. Dust your finger with flour again. The little pieces should look a bit like a little pillow, if you know what I mean. Using your pointer and middle finger, lay them on one corner. Push down gently while pulling your fingers up and across to the opposite corner. This will form a little roll with an indent in the middle. Spread them on a cookie sheet that has been covered with wax paper, parchment paper or dusted with flour. Place the trays in the freezer as they fill and continue working in batches.

If you are not going to use them right away. Allow them to freeze solid and then transfer to zip lock bags and store in freezer.

They may be cooked directly from the frozen state, but you do not have to wait for them to freeze before cooking.

When ready to cook, bring a pot of water to rolling boil. Add a little salt. Work in batches, about a cup or so at a time. Gently drop into the pot. Have a serving dish with a little warm red sauce in the bottom ready for the finished Cavatelli. If you do not want red sauce you can use a little olive oil. As the cavatelli floats to the top of the water, use a slotted spoon to remove and place in your prepared bowl. Be sure to toss them with some sauce or oil right away or they will stick.

I like to serve these with my fresh garden sauce but if you don’t care to make your own, any good quality sauce will work. I like Barilla or Classico. Be sure to have some nice grated Parmesan and fresh ground pepper to sprinkle over the top. My family likes to have these with chicken parmesean, meatballs or a good quality Italian sausage.

I warn you, they don't look like you have much but they are very filling. I make 3 pounds of ricotta at a time and that is enough for two meals for my family with leftovers for one or two servings the day after. Leftovers are always a treat in our house. If the kids remember they were left over there is always a mad rush to claim them for lunch. They warm up nicely in the microwave.


  1. VERY intriguing post! A lot of this is a learned art. I am a HUGE fan of Italian food. I wish I could pop over to your home sweet home and sample some authentic goodness.

  2. I would love to taste this. I would never make them. I can not stand to touch flour. It is like the finger nail scratch on a chalkboard to other people. I love cooking with my Grandmother. She is a Kentucky raised comfort food cook. (think Paula Deen)

  3. I am so not a cooking Mama, but am jealous of all of you that are. Sounds yummy. My oldest would love these.

  4. ooh I love this!
    My grandma's dementia has advanced a lot over the past few months. It's been harder because she is so different from day to day. We still enjoy them the same.

  5. Hello Kat!!! I LOVE CAVATILLE!!!!! When I was a child, my grandmother and I always spent all the sunday morning together to make cavatille!
    I love the homemade pasta!!!

    Happy saturday!

  6. Ooohhh these look delicious! I have decided I HAVE to try them! I know my husband would LOVE them and my mouth is watering thinking about them. That is so wonderful how you have introduced your little ones to their great Gram by telling them about her! My littles are 1 and 3 and my dear sweet 83 year old Nana is in the hospital right now thinking about giving up. I think that I will be telling my babies stories of her so they can "know" her somehow too.
    While I didn't cook anything uncommon with my Nana, I did with my DAD, strangely enough. He grew up in ND in an area that was heavily saturated with Norwegian tradition. Even though we all live in Idaho now, it has become a family tradition to make Lefse and Krumkake's at Christmastime. :) A tradition I hope to keep alive with my own little ones! We might be among the very few Idahoans turning our potatoes into Lefse this Christmas. ;)