Would you like to talk about pesto tortellini today? Good. Because while I tried, really I did, to cultivate an interest in chili dogs and men in tights and oddly orange jalapeño cheese dip, last night I failed only one beer in. I actually went to a separate room to sit sober and write wedding thank-you notes. It was a sorry, sorry state of affairs.
These pesto tortellini, on the other hand, went much better. In fact, I think I'd even go so far as to say they were a tremendous, out-and-out, smash hit. They might have been slightly time-consuming, and a little bit finicky, but they made the best work lunch I have had in months. I don't say this about many things, but they tasted, in a good way, like they came from a box. So I think that instead of the Super Bowl, we should focus on them.
I've been wanting these pesto tortellini for months, ever since we bought some in Charles de Gaulle on the way home from our honeymoon. They were outrageously expensive, and packaged in plastic, and drenched in cold, congealed, alfredo sauce, and somehow, they were superb. We had left our hotel in Rome without breakfast on what seemed, after the driving and the flight, like maybe another day, or even another trip, so that could have been it, and we were also headed onto an eight-and-a-half-hour flight. We had no food, and no idea that Air France is secretly a five-star restaurant that serves wine with your meal and cognac as an after dinner drink, and so we decided to stock up. We then astonished ourselves by eating the whole Air France plate and all of the tortellini, and declaring it far and away the most enjoyable in-transmit meal of our lives.
When we got home, I did not forget the experience. I craved pesto tortellini the way I wished we were still in Paris, and they both seemed equally out of reach. And then on Christmas day, my parents gave Alex and me a beautiful, hardcover, full-color Italian cookbook. It took me precisely one month to reach the page that showed a man folding squares of pasta into tiny, handmade tortellini, and exactly two hours longer to get to work.
Once I finished, I had a hard time remembering what had seemed so daunting in the first place. It couldn't have been the pasta dough, because I've rolled out fettuccine and spaghetti and even angel hair plenty of times before. It most definitely couldn't have been the pesto, seeing as our (new! accurate!) freezer inventory sheet clearly states that we have a whole seven cups of basil and Parmesan and pine nuts and garlic already whipped up. It must have been the cutting, and the folding, and the squeezing, which as you can see was a terribly silly mistake.
Tortellini, as it turns out, are very much within reach. My reach, and your reach, and your grandmother's reach, and even your ten-year-old son's. They are a project, yes, but a fun one, and especially delightful because you get to eat your results. That is always an excellent criteria, I think. So if you don't mind, I'm going to show you some pictures and give you some instructions and turn you loose.
Ok. In order for maximum success, it might be a good idea to look at some pictures before you get started. If I were you, I would download this guide from Cook's Illustrated, which has a lot of very helpful step-by-step pictures, in particular the ones on the right side of the third page with numbers in the 3s entitled "Making Tortellini." Have you looked at that? Good. We can get started with the pasta dough now. Here are the ingredients:
1 pound all-purpose flour
5 eggs at room temperature
water as needed
8 ounces pesto
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
grated Parmesan cheese (0ptional)
Measure the flour into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center, and crack the eggs into the hole. Mix the eggs with a fork, whisking carefully, and slowly begin to bring in some flour. Continue whisking flour into the eggs until the mixture gets too thick to whisk; then work the eggs and remaining flour together into a dough using your hands. If the dough is too dry, add water, but take care not to go overboard. A good dough is moist but it should never stick to your fingers. (If it does, it will also stick to the pasta crank, and you will have quite a mess on your hands.) Knead the dough on a lightly floured counter-top until it is completely smooth. Break off a small, fist-sized piece; cover the rest with plastic wrap and set it aside.
Use a pasta crank to roll out the dough into a long, thin sheet. (We have this machine, and I usually pass it through settings one through seven before I decide it's thin enough.) Lay the sheet of pasta out flat on the (still lightly floured) counter-top and cut it into one-and-a-half-inch squares using either a knife or, if you have one, a pasta bike. Use a 1/4-teaspoon measuring spoon to scoop a tiny dollop of pesto into the center of each square. Working quickly so that the pasta does not dry out (if it does it will no longer stick to itself easily), gently fold the squares into triangles. Press the two open edges of the triangles together to seal the pesto in, taking care not to push the filling out.
Now comes the fun part: fold the bottom two corners of the triangle together and squeeze so that they stick, and congratulate yourself on making your first batch of tortellini.
(If you like, you can also fold the top corner of the triangle down backward. It makes the tortellini look more traditional, but it isn't entirely necessary. I kind of liked the way my tortellini looked with their top corners up—like the three cornered hats my sister and I got in Williamsburg when we were kids. Also, I had a hard time keeping the pasta wet enough to fold when I took the time to turn down the tops.)
Continue repeating this process—rolling out a thin sheet of dough, cutting it into squares, and filling and folding them, until you have either exhausted yourself or used up all of the dough and pesto. If you have extra dough, you can wrap it in plastic wrap and it will be fine in the fridge for a day or so. If you aren't ready to cook them yet, the tortellini will also be okay in a Tupperware for a few days, although they might stick together a bit if they're still moist when you throw them in.
If you are ready to cook the tortellini, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and drop them in. They will cook very, very quickly—in a matter of one or two minutes, three tops. Watch them carefully, tasting every thirty seconds or so for consistency, and when you have the pasta where you like it turn off the heat and strain them through a colander. Serve hot, tossed with just a smidgen of olive oil or butter so they don't stick and, if you like, a dusting of Parmesan cheese.