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.)
Egg 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 golden hue.
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.
Make your 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.
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.
Rolling tips from a pasta pro
The best way to get good at making fresh pasta is to make it again and again. In the meantime, here are some tips to guarantee success:
- Clear off your work surface so it’s just you, the pasta machine, and the dough. You want plenty of room to roll out the dough without feeling cramped.
- Sprinkle the work surface with flour so that the dough doesn’t stick, and have all the tools and ingredients you need nearby.
- Don’t tug or pull on the pasta as it goes through the machine. Let the rollers do the work.
- If the sheet becomes unwieldy, cut it and continue running each piece through the machine.
- Don’t worry about rolling the dough to a specific dimension. Ravioli is an improvisational art, so work with what you have.
- When it’s time to fill, lightly mist the sheet with a spray bottle, if you have one. If not, brush it lightly with a damp pastry brush, being careful not to get it too wet.
Filling the pasta
You can cook the ravioli right away or cover and refrigerate for up to a day. You can also freeze them until rock hard on the tray, then transfer to zip-top bags, and freeze for up to a month.
When ready to serve, bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. Gently slide the ravioli (fresh or frozen) into the water and cook until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Use a skimmer to remove the ravioli from the water as draining them in a colander can damage them. Serve with a simple butter sauce to let the flavor of the filling come though. Garnish with parsley, cheese, or chopped nuts, if you like.