“Today, I thought I would show you girls how to make cappellettis,” Grandma announces at the breakfast table where we are feasting on scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast on a rare visit to family in New England over the holidays.
My sisters and I look at each other, and we smile at the realization that we are being invited into something special. We are in our teens and have nearly always lived states away from our closest extended family, so most of our childhood Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters were spent under our own roof in the company of our close-knit web of mom, dad, and siblings, and not with the wealth of cousins, aunts, and uncles that would descend upon the home my grandparents built.
Still, whether at home or up north, most of our holiday memories revolved around food. The making of food. The tasting of food. And finally, the gathering around for the eating of food.
Meals are always a complex affair with the men and women in my family contributing equally, each with their own unique dish or skill to offer. Most of the conversation takes place in the kitchen during meal prep, with everyone not actually involved in the cooking still standing around to chat and snack and offer tidbits of advice. There is nothing like spending hours wreathed in the tantalizing scent of sautéing garlic to keep your appetite whetted, so when the symphony of growling stomachs finally grows too loud to be ignored, it is time to break out the appetizers. Everyone descends upon the platters like locusts on a crop, and by the time every last crumb has been consumed, it seems impossible that any room remains for the actual meal which will, invariably, be declared ready at that moment.
(This is, I am convinced, one of the unwritten laws of nature.)
Still, we all shuffle into the dining room and pack elbow to elbow around the table, and when the first steaming dishes are brought in from the kitchen, somehow, we are once again hungry for the feast.
But long before the family gathers, packing the kitchen with cooks and helpers and ingredients for every dish under the sun—all of which are scattered across counters, tables, stovetop and oven in various stages of unmixed, mixed, and currently baking—before then, the most intricate and special part of the holiday meal is prepared in advance.
And for the first time ever, my sisters and I will have the chance to participate.
We will learn to make cappellettis.
Ironically, I have never had cappellettis before and honestly have no idea what they are. Pasta. Pastry. Meat dish? Whatever it is, I know it isn’t the sort of thing you find on the menu at your typical Italian restaurant alongside ever-popular choices like lasagna and ravioli, but I have heard my dad speak of cappellettis in rich, mouthwatering tones, with that twinkle in his eyes that indicates fond memories, and so I am eager to find out.
“Of course, Grandma!”
So, once the food is gone—every last crumb—and the table is cleared, we begin.
Cappellettis, I soon learn, are a type of stuffed pasta. Under Grandma’s direction, we hollow out a mound of flour, crafting a crater into which we crack an egg. It reminds me of a miniature volcano with the yolk in place of lava. A sprinkle of salt, and we collapse the mountain inward, beginning the messy work of folding flour and egg together with our hands into a dough with a yellowish hue. Pasta dough.
I watch as Grandma dusts the wooden cutting board with flour and kneads the dough with practiced ease. Thump thump thump. She presses it out with the heel of her palm and pulls it back in. I try it with far less finesse, but Grandma just nods encouragement.
Once the dough feels elastic beneath our hands, we use the hand-cranked pasta machine to roll it out into thin strips. Grandma cuts out rounds and uses a half teaspoon to scoop out balls of filling: ground meats, cheeses, and a dash of secret spices. I like the idea of that: secret spices in a secret family recipe. Perhaps the spices are not so secret, and perhaps our family recipe is not ours alone, but the idea of it feels like something out of a story, and I like that too.
Grandma demonstrates how to plop the filling onto one half of a round, fold it over into a semi-circle, and then using the tip of a pinky finger to hold down the middle, bring the points of the semi-circle in and press them together, forming the distinct peaked shape that gives the pasta its name.
“See?” She holds up a finished one. “Cappellettis. Little hats.”
And I do see. With the edges rolled up just so, you could add a plume to the side and it would look like just the sort of hat a dashing cavalier would doff in a sweeping bow to a lady, or cast aside before drawing his blade for a duel. Granted, I am making quite a few assumptions about historical Italian fashions and cultural trends based on reading The Three Muskeeters which is, admittedly, set in France, so it is safe to say that the picture in my head may not be entirely accurate.
Still, it is a charming picture for a pasta.
Soon, my sisters, cousins, and I are busy stuffing and folding and pinching to create our own “little hats.” We alternately find pride and humor in our clumsy attempts and relax into the easy ebb and flow of contended conversation and comfortable silence as we work.
My dad stops by and surprises us by immediately selecting the makings of a cappelletti and folding one with an expert ease that highlights our amateur status. He grins, and I realize that this is a tradition he remembers from his childhood. Other family members pause in passing and join in, adding their contribution to our pile before moving on.
Only then do I realize just how special it is to have the chance to enter into this holiday custom. To stand beside my Grandma watching as her hands, beautiful and worn and deft, complete the same motions of stuffing, folding, and pinching that have created cappellettis over and over again for her family throughout the years. It makes me feel grounded in a time and a place and a heritage that is larger than just now and just here and just my immediate family. It reminds me of the long line of cappelletti makers who have come before and of all of those who will follow. It is a piece of something bigger that I can hold onto. It is a part of our story.
Making cappellettis is not a quick or easy task, which no doubt explains why it is a special holiday tradition instead of an everyday meal. So time drips past, and still we stuff, fold, and pinch, filling up tray after tray, until at last, every scrap of dough has been used, every speck of filling is gone, and there is only the flour-strewn table (and floor), the mountain of dirty bowls and spoons, and the even rows of hundreds of beautiful “little hats” to prove our accomplishment.
Still, no meal is complete until it has been eaten and enjoyed, so several days after the “Great Cappelletti Making,” we gather again around the table to taste the fruits of our labors. In my family, cappellettis are usually eaten swimming in a soup of seasoned chicken stock. Even after being immersed in the ritual of this special family tradition, it isn’t until my grandma stands over the tureen as we ladle out servings, and I look up to see her lips moving and her fingers pointing as she counts the cappellettis in each bowl to ensure complete fairness, that I realize just how special this meal is.
Suddenly, amidst joking stories about the chaos caused by unfair servings in the past, the picture in my head of a “little hat” doffed as blades are drawn for a duel doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
At last, cappellettis made, served, and counted, we sit down to eat, and I will withhold a description of just how mouthwateringly delicious the meal is for fear of stirring up jealousy. But if ever a meal could taste of hearth and home and heart and heritage, this one did.
It has been years now since I have had the chance to make cappellettis. Pasta making is slow, unhurried work, not the sort you can jump into on a day with a million other things in it. Lately, my life has been a frenzied hurry with to-do lists a mile long and tasks stacked haphazardly in every corner, waiting to be completed. But Christmas is a time that invites us to slow down, to savor, to contemplate, to embrace each and every moment, and to take stock of the many gifts we have been given.
So, this year, my sisters and I will carry on the tradition. We will grind meat and knead dough. We will don aprons and dust the table (and no doubt the floor, walls, ceiling, and one another) with flour. We will stuff and pinch and fold. We will make cappellettis, and we will count them and our blessings too.
And we will remember our story.
Sitting here reflecting on that delightful day in the kitchen where a holiday tradition drew together three generations in flour-dusted aprons and dough-sticky hands, I cannot help but think of how the unique customs of Advent draw together the many generations of the family of God. We come in clothing dusted with the suffering and confusion of this world, our hands are often grimed and sticky with sin, and yet together, we are invited into traditions of candles lit and songs sung and Scripture proclaimed that grounds us in a time, place, and heritage that is more than now, more than here, more than us.
We are invited to remember that we are part of something bigger, truer, and more beautiful than that: the Great Story that spans all of time and reaches into eternity. We are rooted in our heritage as the once-lost, now-rescued children, brought from darkness into light. And together, we practice the traditions of waiting, of longing, of casting our eyes forward and upward, of hoping, and finally, oh glorious joy, of rejoicing at the coming of the Savior into the world. Even as we continue waiting, longing, and hoping for His return.
And in the meantime, I will celebrate by making cappellettis.
Gillian Bronte Adams is a writer, wanderer, and wordsmith who is rarely found without a coffee in hand and rumored to pack books before clothes when she hits the road. Working in full-time youth ministry left her with a passion for journeying alongside teens as they follow after Christ. Combined with her lifelong love of story, that passion drew her to pursue the art of writing young adult fantasy novels, like The Songkeeper Chronicles, that ring with the echoes of eternity. Her favorite stories feature outcast characters traveling down broken roads, through epic battles, and onward toward adventure. At the end of a long day of typing, she can be found saddling her wild thing and riding off into the sunset, provided she has not already settled down a mug of coffee and a very long book.