On my first trip to Italy as a young cook, I had dinner in the small town of Savigno in the hills southwest of Bologna. White truffles, which the town is famous for, were the featured ingredient on that cold November night, but it was the pasta, a single raviolo floating in a bowl of brodo that left a lasting impression. Filled with spinach, ricotta, and a whole egg yolk, it revealed a gorgeous molten yellow when I cut into it. At that moment, I decided to learn as much as I possibly could about pasta. Over the years, I did just that, returning to Italy often during my tenures at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Oliveto in Oakland. By the time I opened Quince, my San Francisco restaurant, in 2003, I knew that handmade pasta, including ravioli inspired by that early bite in Savigno, would be an important part of the menu.
Though there is a mystique surrounding the making of fresh ravioli, it’s not difficult to do, and the payoff—your own customized filling, the tender pasta, and even the slight irregularity of the shapes that broadcast that it’s handmade—is well worth the effort.
Slideshow: Stuffed Pasta Recipes
Making the dough
Fresh pasta dough requires minimal ingredients, but seek the best. My
fresh pasta is made primarily of two ingredients: flour and eggs. I use
mostly double-zero (00) flour, a finely milled Italian flour that makes a
light, tender pasta. But I also add a little semola rimacinata, a
fine grind of semolina flour. Made from a harder wheat, it gives the
dough more structure and keeps it from absorbing too much water when
cooked, which can make it flabby. If you can’t find semola rimacinata, you can substitute the same amount of all-purpose flour. (Do not substitute regular semolina, which is too coarse.)
yolks plus a little egg white make a tender dough that’s easy to
handle. Though I love the richness of egg-yolk-only pasta, for ravioli, I
also include a whole egg in the dough. The egg white makes the dough a
bit more elastic, which is especially important when I’m stretching the
dough over a filling. Deeply colored egg yolks will give the pasta a
Mixing by hand gives you a feel for the dough. One of
the most important lessons I’ve learned about making pasta is that it’s
an inexact art. Because of variations in egg size or humidity, you may
use more or less flour. Mixing by hand allows you to easily gauge when
you have added enough flour to make a supple dough. After you have mixed
the eggs and flour together, it’s important to knead the dough to
develop the gluten that makes it strong and smooth. It’s almost
impossible to overknead, so err on the side of more and not less. A rest
after kneading helps hydrate the flour, which will also help it to
stand up to rolling and shaping without cracking.
filling while the dough rests. You’ll need your filling on hand when you
roll out the pasta, so have it made ahead. I kept the fillings simple
(though flavorful) in order to keep the focus here more on the making of
the ravioli itself.
Dump the flours on a work surface and mix to combine them. Make a deep, wide well in the center, making sure there is some flour on the bottom so the eggs are not directly on the surface. Add the egg yolks, whole egg, oil, and salt.
Using a fork, beat the wet ingredients until combined, staying in the center and being careful that the eggs don’t breach the wall.
Begin mixing in the flour from the inside of the wall, a little at a time, until the dough is too stiff to mix with the fork. Scrape the dough off the fork and continue mixing by hand, folding it and forming it into a single mass.
Lightly flour the work surface and knead the dough for at least 5 minutes, adding more flour as needed.
Continue kneading until the dough is a smooth ball that feels soft like your earlobe.
Rolling the dough
A pasta machine makes rolling easy. I recently catered a friend’s wedding reception. When I arrived at the site, I realized that I’d neglected to bring the proper pasta roller for the tortelloni I had planned to make. With little time to spare, I drove furiously up and down Highway 1 near Big Sur looking for a restaurant that had a pasta roller, but no luck. I ended up rolling out all the dough by hand with a rolling pin. The moral of this story: A pasta machine is not a necessity, but it makes the job go a lot faster.
When filling ravioli, eliminate air and seal well. While you can vary the shape and size of ravioli (and I encourage you to explore doing so), you always want to eliminate any excess air by gently pressing on the dough around the filling before sealing; otherwise the ravioli may balloon when cooked. A good seal, made by lightly moistening the dough and pressing it firmly closed, is also important for keeping the filling inside, which is where you want it to stay until that first delicious bite.
Flatten the dough with your hand or a rolling pin and divide it into pieces.
If you’re comfortable rolling dough, in half is fine; otherwise divide it into 3 or 4 pieces to get shorter sheets.
Working with one piece at a time and keeping the other pieces wrapped in plastic or a cloth, run the dough through the widest setting on the machine a couple of times, flouring as needed, to work the dough.
Move the rollers to the next setting and pass the dough through. Continue notching down by one setting and passing the dough through each time. Stop rolling when you can see the outline of your hand thorough the dough; this may not be the thinnest setting on some machines.
Cut the sheet crosswise into 2-foot lengths to make them easier to work with and trim the long sides to make neat rectangles. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining pieces of pasta.