The region of Emilia-Romagna in north-central Italy is home to some of the most exquisite fresh egg pastas in the country: tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne, cappelletti, gramigna, garganelli… as well also many more you probably haven’t heard of. The region boasts 23 different shapes of pasta in all! No wonder that, for many Italians, the region is practically synonymous with fresh egg pasta.
Today’s featured recipe from Emilia-Romagna is kind of a cross between a fresh pasta and a dumpling in a similar vein to Spätzle. Called passatelli, these little morsels are made with equal parts breadcrumbs and grated parmigiano-reggiano seasoned with nutmeg and lemon zest, then mixed with egg to form a dough which you press into delicate strands. Traditionally this was done with a special purpose ferro, a slotted flat disk with two handles which you’d press down into your dough. These days a potato ricer with large holes is the usual instrument of choice.
Passatelli in brodo are delicious any time of year, but in their home region of Emilia-Romagna they have a particular connection to Christmas, when they served classically in homemade capon broth as a primo, or first course—a lighter (and easier!) alternative to the iconic tortellini in brodo, while the boiled bird, often stuffed, is served as a secondo or second course.
But even if you’re not following a traditional Italian menu, passatelli are an excellent option as a starter for your Christmas dinner. They could be served in any homemade broth you prefer, and they’ll go with just about any second course you can imagine. And they’re light enough so there’ll be plenty room for your main course.
- 1 egg
- 50g (2 oz) fine plain breadcrumbs
- 50g (2 oz) freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
- a scrape of nutmeg
- grated lemon zest (just a smidgen)
- homemade broth, q.b.
Beat the egg(s) in a mixing bowl, then add the remaining ingredients (except for the broth). Mix with a spoon until the egg is incorporated, then work the mixture with your hands into a homogenous ball of dough:
Wrap the dough in film wrap and let rest for at least an hour at room temperature.
When you’re ready to cook, bring broth to a gentle simmer while you make your passatelli.
Take one portion of the passatelli dough and put it in a potato ricer with large holes, then squeeze it through the holes onto a cutting board, cutting them into short lengths like so:
(NB: Alternatively, you can squeeze the passatelli directly into the simmering broth, cutting them as needed as you go.)
Transfer the passatelli gingerly into the broth and simmer for about 1-2 minutes. The passatelli will be done when they have expanded slightly and turned a lighter shade of yellow. Do not stir.
Serve immediately, with additional grated cheese on the side for those who want it
The recipe for passatelli is simplicity itself, as we’ve seen. The main pitfall us their tendency to fall apart in the cooking, as they are quite delicate. But you can avoid this if you bear in mind a few tips from Uncle Frank:
First off, use fine breadcrumbs—if in doubt, you can whiz them in a food processor. Then make sure you respect the ratio of egg to breadcrumb/cheese indicated. Many Italian recipes are forgiving when it comes to measurements, but this is not one of them! You can vary the 1:1 ratio of breadcrumb to cheese, if you like. A “poor man’s” version of passatelli would feature more breadcrumb and less cheese. Personally, though, I’d recommend not messing with the recipe, especially on your first try. Along with the egg, the cheese also acts as a binder.
Resting the dough is the key step for successful passatelli. A proper rest allows the egg to fully impregnate and in so doing bind the bread and cheese together. Oddly enough, recipes are all over the map on the time required. Some say as little as 15 or 30 minutes, but most call for a rest of an hour or even two. If you’re using fresh breadcrumbs you probably need less time than if you’re using commercial breadcrumbs, which are very dry. To me, one hour seems like a good rule of thumb.
And when it comes time to cook your passatelli, make sure the broth simmers very gently. A rolling boil is a sure way to break them up. And whatever you do, don’t stir the pot.
That said, you shouldn’t fret too much. If you respect these few precautions, all should be well. And even if your passatelli do fall apart, it won’t be the end of the world. It happened to me the first few times I tried making passatelli. It’s not ideal in terms of visual appeal or mouth feel, but the taste will still be fine.
Choosing Your Ingredients
Of course, with a dish this simple, the quality of the ingredients is paramount. You want good quality plain breadcrumbs. And you also want true parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated. Organic eggs will provide better flavor, too. And you definitely want to use homemade broth. It can be the traditional capon broth, of course, but also chicken or beef or, best of all in my view, a mix of the two. And you could go for vegetable broth if you like.
While in brodo is by far the most common way to enjoy passatelli, there do exist recipes for passatelli asciutti (or ‘dry’ passatelli) you dress with a sauce. Of course, you still simmer them briefly, usually in broth, but then you strain them and toss them (gingerly!) with a light, usually butter-based condimento. Some of these I’ve seen include sautéed mushrooms, clam, sausage and radicchio, and fish. But I’ll leave the details for future posts…
Making passatelli ahead
Passatelli are best made the same day. And anyway once you prepare the dough they take next to no time to prepare. Still, if you want to make them ahead, you can store them in the fridge up to overnight. I also understand you can freeze them, but disclaimer: I haven’t tried this myself. Whether refrigerated or frozen, you should toss your passatelli directly into your broth without defrosting.
Passatelli in brodo
- 1 egg
- 50g 2 oz fine plain breadcrumbs
- 50g 2 oz parmigiano-reggiano freshly grated
- a scrape of nutmeg
- lemon zest (just a smidgen) grated
- homemade broth q.b.
- Beat the egg(s) in a mixing bowl, then add the remaining ingredients (except for the broth). Mix with a spoon until the egg is incorporated, then work the mixture with your hands into a homogenous ball of dough.
- Wrap the dough in film wrap and let rest for at least an hour at room temperature.
- When you're ready to cook, bring broth to a gentle simmer while you make your passatelli.
- Take one portion of the passatelli dough and put it in a potato ricer with large holes, then squeeze it through the holes onto a cutting board, cutting them into short lengths. (NB: Alternatively, you can squeeze the passatelli directly into the simmering broth, cutting them as needed as you go.)
- Transfer the passatelli gingerly into the broth and simmer for about 1-2 minutes. The passatelli will be done when they have expanded slightly and turned a lighter shade of yellow. Do not stir.
- Serve immediately, with additional grated cheese on the side for those who want it.