Several theories abound about the origins of pasta with many historians placing its discovery with Marco Polo’s return from China in the 13th century. Others date it much further back to the ancient Etruscan civilizations who made a similar dish to pasta by grinding cereals and grains and mixing them with water. There are even references to strips of long wheat-flour pasta dating as far back as the 3rd century B.C.!
In traditional Italian cooking, the difference between fresh and dry pasta is relatively straightforward. Dry pasta is made from flour, water, and salt. After the dough is made, the pasta is hung on drying racks until all the moisture has evaporated. This style of pasta was originally more popular in the warmer climates of southern Italy to prevent spoilage and extend shelf life. Fresh pasta, on the other hand, uses eggs to moisten the flour and make the dough and is typically more popular in northern Italy. After the dough is rolled, the pasta must be consumed immediately or refrigerated since the raw egg can spoil.
A few weeks ago my girlfriends and I decided to make homemade ravioli for a weekend cottage retreat. All of us had, to some extent or another, prior experience making fresh pasta and figured “how hard could it be?”. Well, it was hard. And time consuming. And much more labour intensive than we had ever imagined, especially given the number of people we were cooking for (16 in total!!). Throughout the process we learned that making homemade ravioli requires significant time, dedicated space and multiple ingredients – and is best done in smaller quantities. Here are some other tips and tricks we learned along the way:
The perfect dough: Take your time to prepare the dough, making sure to use room temperature ingredients. There are many types of flour out there, but to achieve that thin, translucent pasta shell, use Italian double zero (00) flour made from soft wheat. You’ll want to use a recipe that has a higher egg content than you would use for other homemade pastas as the additional eggs will give the pasta a softer and more delicate texture. After all that work you definitely don’t want to be left with a thick, gummy skin resembling store-bought ravioli! Once you’ve achieved a soft and smooth dough, wrap it in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for at least half an hour. This will make it easier to roll out the pasta – and gives you time to focus on your filling.
Preparing the filling: The best part of making homemade ravioli is that you get to choose what to put in your stuffing. Whether you go with a classic butternut squash filling or decide to experiment with a new recipe, the possibilities are endless. A lesson learned from our experience is that creamy fillings are easier to handle than more crumbly or watery fillings. If you find the texture of your filling too “runny”, stick it in the fridge covered in plastic wrap for a couple of hours to harden or add a pinch or two of breadcrumbs to the mixture. Once the ravioli are cooked, the filling will become creamy again. If you’re making a meat-based ravioli, make sure to thoroughly cook the meat before using it to prepare your filling. Fresh pasta cooks super fast (2-3 minutes maximum), so any uncooked or undercooked meat wouldn’t finish cooking during the boiling process. We ended up making two types of ravioli, spinach and ricotta cheese and veal with sautéed vegetables, both of which were huge hits at the cottage. However, in hindsight, we probably should have just stuck with one as that would have saved us a lot of time and energy!!
Rolling out and sealing the ravioli: To roll out your dough into thin sheets, you can either use a pasta rolling pin or a pasta machine. We used my friend’s stand mixer which comes with a pasta making attachment. Once you have your dough rolled out and your filling has cooled, it’s time to put it all together. There are two main ways to seal stuffing inside fresh pasta: using a ravioli plate or working by hand. In our case, we made our ravioli by hand, but I think next time I’d want to use the plate as the finished ravioli are easier to remove and all come out the same size and shape. Regardless of which method you use, it’s important that the ravioli are completely sealed without any air trapped inside otherwise the filling can leak out when they are cooked. We learned that the hard way and unfortunately lost several ravioli during the cooking process.
Let it dry on both sides before cooking: As you’re making the ravioli, arrange them on a floured tray and dust lightly with flour to keep the pasta from sticking together. After about 10-15 minutes, turn them over to prevent the bottom from getting soggy. We forgot to do this with one batch of ravioli and ended up with a monstrous ball of pasta which had stuck together. Ravioli should be cooked in boiling water until it is al dente, basically firm to the teeth yet tender. Don’t forget to add plenty of salt to the cooking water before tossing in the ravioli. When draining your pasta, save about a cup of the starchy water in the pot as it’ll add a little body to your sauce. Whatever you do, don’t rinse off the pasta after cooking otherwise you’ll wash off all the starch, salt and any flavour your pasta once had.
Serve in the sauce of your choice: Ravioli is all about the filling, so dress your pasta in a light sauce that doesn’t detract from the stuffing. Some classic examples are butter and sage, olive oil and grated parmesan, or creamy white wine with chopped herbs. We made a traditional roasted tomato sauce that matched the two fillings perfectly.
And most importantly, help pass the time by drinking lots of delicious wine – just make sure it’s Italian!
Written by Danuta Whetton – pasta lover and wine enthusiast!