Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Recipe: Homemade Ravioli

One of the first challenging cooking projects I tried when I was just starting out with my own kitchen is to make my own ravioli from pasta dough also made from scratch.  I woulldn't call it a disaster, but it was definitely way more difficult than they make it seem on the TV cooking shows.  Why?  A couple of reasons...

  • Pasta dough recipes are often fuzzy about the amount of liquid you have to use, both because eggs vary in size, and because flour can absorb different amounts of liquid depending on the wheat it came from and the humidity of the kitchen.  Many recipes talk about the texture it should have but fall way short of being descriptive enough.  The result is often either too soft to work with or too dry and crumbly and tough to roll.
  • Contrary to what old-school Italian Nonnas will tell you, it takes a *lot* of talent and practice to be able to roll pasta by hand with a rolling pin.  You really need a machine.
  • Even with a hand-crank pasta machine, it's difficult to get the sheets to come out the entire width of the machine.  When making ravioli, this is more or less required in order to minimize wasted dough and to get a full two-squares wide.
  • Knowing how much filling you can put into each ravioli is an art form in and of itself.
  • Cutting the ravioli free-hand with a knife, pizza wheel, or fluted pastry cutter is also difficult.  Sure, they look rustic, but you often have lopsided dumplings that don't cook evenly or that have more pasta than filling.
In any event, I kept on practicing and I've gotten pretty good with it.  I've also tried quite a few tools for rolling and cutting over the years and I think I've finally figured out which ones work best.  I thought I'd share that with you.

The Dough
The most consistently reliable dough recipe I've found is this:
- 2 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3 large eggs, beaten (about 2/3 cup)
- pinch of salt (optional)
If you want an eggless dough, use about 2/3 cup of water instead of the eggs.

1) Using your friendly neighborhood food processor, pulse the dry ingredients to mix and aerate.
2) With the processor running, add a good half of the water.
3) Continue adding water very slowly until the dough comes together in a ball and travels around the work bowl.  You're looking for the least amount of water that will achieve this.
4) Remove the dough, knead it briefly and press it into a 1-inch flat disk.  Wrap in plastic wrap and allow to sit on the counter for at least 20 minutes so it can finish absorbing the water and relax the gluten.  Skip that last step and you'll never get it to roll out.

For rolling, there's no substitute for a standard hand-crank pasta rolling machine, available for $20-$40.  You can spend the money on motorized ones but honestly, when you're learning you'll do a better job if you can control the cranking yourself.  Tips for rolling:
  • Roll about half the dough at a time.  It may seem more intuitive to roll smaller quantities but actually, you'll have trouble getting it to fill the width.
  • Begin at the largest setting (usually #7) and roll the dough through once.  If it tears, that's okay.  Fold the result as best as you can like a business letter such that the "edge" is now as wide as the pasta machine hopper.  Roll it through on the largest setting again, this time using the edge (i.e. the opposite of last time).  Repeat this until the dough is smooth.  This process actually kneads the dough and makes it easier to work with.
  • Once the dough is smooth, begin decreasing the setting during each roll, no longer folding and feeding the dough in short end-first.  Continue until you hit the second to last setting (usually #2).
  • If the dough folds or narrows itself during rolling, fold the entire length in half and adjust the "tails" so that it's as wide as you need and back-up a 1-2 settings on the machine.
  • If the dough gets too long to work with, cut it in half.
  • Use lots of flour to keep the dough from sticking to the machine and the work surface.
  • Put the sheets aside on a heavily dusted counter and allow them to firm-up a bit but not dry so much that they crack when handled.
Filling & Cutting
I've tried just about every gadget out there for cutting.  I've tried stamp-like tools that look like a cookie cutter on a stick.  They're okay but you end-up having problems with waste.  I've tried free-form with a pizza wheel or a crimping pastry wheel and those are the worst.  The best investment yet is one of the egg-carton style ravioli molds like this.  This makes the easiest and most professional-looking ravioli out of everything I've tried and they come in two sizes.  Here's how it works:

1) Cut a piece of dough about an inch bigger than the length of the mold.
2) Place the dough onto the metal mold and use the bubble tray on top of it to form small depressions in the dough
3) Fill each depression with about 1 level teaspoon of filling.  Don't over-fill!  It's tempting to do so.

4) Using a brush or your finger, brush water around each of the holes where the seams will go.
5) Place another sheet on top, making sure the dough comes to the edges.
6) Using a rolling pin, roll heavily and evenly over the dough a few times so that the mold seals and cuts the dough.  You should see metal coming through the dough.

7) Gently tug the edge scraps off the sides.  Invert the mold and gently push the ravioli out onto a heavily floured surface (a half-sheet pan works great).  Gently separate each ravioli square, using a knife to assist if needed.

8) Repeat for the remaining dough and filling.

Ravioli freezes beautifully and can be cooked from its completely frozen state.  Simply place the ravioli on a tray without touching each other.  Pop the tray into the freezer until the ravioli has frozen solid.  Remove the tray, transfer the ravioli to a zip-top bag, remove as much air as possible, and return to freezer.

To cook, drop fresh or frozen ravioli into boiling water.  Cook until about a minute after they float to the surface.

The photo above is actually my Crispy Ravioli (aka Italian Pot Stickers).  

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