Pasta: Cappellacci dei Briganti
By Tom // Posted 23 January, 2010 in: Food + Drink, Technique
In mid-nineteenth century Italy, as power passed from one faction to another fighting to control the unification of the country, many lower-class people — ever ignored by political elites — resorted to brigantaggio, or brigandage, both as a means of securing a living and a form of resistance against occupiers foreign and domestic. In the United States today, the brevity of the Wikipedia article alone suggests the extent to which this movement has been forgotten. But where memory fades, food can preserve, and as we are talking about Italy it is only appropriate that the memory of the brigantaggio be preserved in its very own pasta shape: cappellacci dei briganti (brigands’ hats).
I discovered this shape while browsing through Oretta Zanini de Vita’s excellent Encyclopedia of Pasta, published last year in English by the University of California Press, which I received from Martha for Christmas. After introductory essays covering the significance of pasta in Italy and the methodology of her research, Zanini jumps into a comprehensive, alphabetically organized listing of pasta shapes, both home and factory-made. Many of the descriptions are accompanied by sketches, although as this is not a cookbook — something the author and translator both insist upon — the level of detail provided is generally insufficient to reproduce the pasta at home. Cappellacci dei briganti did feature a sketch, however, as well as the following description of how to make them:
The flour is sifted onto a wooden board and kneaded long and vigorously with a few eggs, water, and salt. The dough, which should be firm and smooth, is left to rest, then rolled out with a rolling pin into a very thin sheet. An inverted liqueur glass is used to cut small disks from the sheet. Each disk is wrapped into a cone around the tip of an index finger and the edge sealed, then one side is folded back like the brim of a hat. They are air dried and then boiled in plenty of salted water. (64)
Between the distinctive sketch and the intriguing history, I couldn’t help but try to make some brigands’ hats at home.
I started by making my all-purpose pasta dough, using a technique from Cook’s Illustrated. First, I put two cups of flour in the food processor and pulsed it a few times to distribute the flour evenly. I then added three eggs and allowed the machine to run until the mixture was granulated. To finish the dough I add water teaspoon by teaspoon with the processor on until it comes together in a single mass. Then I kneaded the dough a few times, shaped it into a ball, and let it rest in the refrigerator for a half hour. I suspect this method, utilizing a food processor instead of a hundred-year-old flour-soaked board, would be upsetting to Zanini and her sources, but it’s a clean and fast way to produce reliable pasta dough.
When the dough had rested long enough to be workable, it was ready to be divided in quarters and passed through the pasta machine (another gift from Martha, from a few years ago). Using a small wine glass, I cut circles out of the thin sheets of pasta.
The next step, which sounded so easy in the description from the Encylcopedia, required quite a bit of trial and error. Eventually I figured out exactly where to put my index finger — slightly off from the center to get a slanted cone — and how much of the dough needed to be folded over itself in a triangle to form the cone. This is definitely a place where fifty years of pasta-making experience — as opposed to 5 minutes of reading a book — would have paid off.
With a slightly off-center cone to work with, folding the brim of the hat was more straight-forward. The long part of the cone is simply folded up. The only trick to this was initiating the folds with the piece of pasta upside-down; trying to do it from the side resulted in a slightly crushed hat. Although I suppose in the line of duty, a brigand’s hat might get a little out of sorts.
After using all my dough to fill two sheet pans with hats, I boiled them for just under five minutes.
Anybody a little familiar with the Italian ways of pasta knows that at least as important as its shape is the sauce it’s served with. For cappellacci, nothing but a lamb ragú will do. Luckily, Clancey’s was able to provide a beautiful piece of lamb for a slow braise in a sauce consisting mainly of tomatoes canned during the height of the season last August — which tasted mercifully of summer and not botulism.
Though the brigands of Italy are long defeated and perhaps even forgotten, their hats — transformed into pasta and covered in a delicious ragú — deserve to live on.