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Rich Fillings and Simple Sauces Make The Best Ravioli

Start with a tender homemade dough and add assertive fillings for stuffed pasta that’s packed with flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 45
Photos: Scott Phillips
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To many people, ravioli conjures up a specific image: square mounds of thick, doughy pasta filled with meat or cheese (it’s often hard to know which) and smothered with a heavy-duty tomato sauce. A green cylinder of “Parmesan style” grated cheese completes the picture.

That isn’t the style of pasta I’ll show you how to make here. Homemade ravioli can actually be delicate and delicious. In fact, the ravioli dishes at my restaurant can be the most subtle and refined of all my pastas, and their sauces tend to be simple. While unstuffed pastas are often paired with a complex sauce (spaghetti alla puttanesca or fettuccine Bolognese, for example), ravioli are best served in a light cream sauce or in a broth or, as in the recipes here, with a simple roasted tomato sauce or brown butter with Parmesan. These are quick to make, and they complement the ravioli without overwhelming it.

Making ravioli from scratch doesn’t require special equipment. A pasta rolling machine makes fast work of rolling out the dough, but it’s not essential; a regular rolling pin will suffice. For shaping and cutting the filled pasta, a ravioli mold and a scalloped pastry wheel are nice tools, but you’ll also do fine with a biscuit cutter.

Making your own egg pasta dough takes practice, but it’s worth it

Successful ravioli starts with a moist, supple egg pasta dough, which must be rolled into thin sheets, filled, and then cut into shapes before the dough starts to dry out. If that sounds like it takes some skill, it does, but it’s a skill worth having. Once you’re comfortable with the technique for making the dough, you can make any homemade pasta you like, such as fettuccine, lasagna, or orecchiette.

Fresh pasta is made with flour, eggs, olive oil, and salt. Italians often use a soft flour called “00,” and some recipes call for pastry flour. These are both low in gluten and produce very delicate pasta. At my restaurant, I use a combination of “00” and all-purpose flour, but you’ll get excellent results using only all-purpose flour.

Making fresh pasta is more about mastering a process than a specific recipe. Because of variations in different types of flour, sizes of eggs, and even weather conditions, following any one recipe to the letter would probably give you less than optimal results. To tell the truth, I don’t even bother measuring my ingredients anymore. I just use the following rule of thumb: one egg per person and between 1/2 and 3/4 cup flour per egg.

The key is to know when to stop mixing in flour. If you don’t add enough, the dough will be too wet and will stick during kneading and rolling, which just means you add more flour at that time. But if you go too far, the dough will be hard and dry and will crumble during rolling, and there’s no remedy for this except starting again. How can you tell when the dough has enough flour? By sight, to some extent, but even more by the way it feels. It won’t easily absorb more flour, and you’ll notice that dried bits of floury dough are flaking off the mass.

Before starting to knead, scrape up all the leftover flour on the work surface. Pass the flour through a sieve; you’ll see lots of hardened dough bits left behind. Throw them out. While some frugal Tuscan cooks save these (boiled in a broth, they turn into tiny pasta dumplings), you don’t want them floating around in your dough. They wouldn’t integrate and would create holes when the dough is rolled out. Keep the sifted flour handy because you’ll need a bit more for the next step, which is kneading.

You’ll knead the dough until it becomes smooth and resilient. If it needs more flour to keep it from sticking to the work surface, that’s fine, but again, don’t add too much. 

By the way, you can mix the dough in an electric mixer using a dough hook attachment if you want, but unless you’re making a lot of pasta dough, you’ll probably lose more time cleaning the machine than you saved in the mixing.

Three tips for making tender, moist pasta dough

A deep, wide well of flour makes a tidy mixing bowl. Start beating the eggs with a fork, being sure to stay in the center as you bring in flour from the sides.
The dough will tell you when it has enough flour. The dough will become smooth and homogeneous and won’t easily absorb more flour.
An “innie” becomes an “outie. ” When the dough is sufficiently kneaded, a finger dent will bounce back. Stick your finger into the center; it should feel a bit tacky.

Roll the dough so your hand shows through

The next steps are the most critical parts of Operation Ravioli: rolling out the dough, spooning on small mounds of filling, and then cutting the pasta into shapes.

Whether you use a rolling pin or a pasta machine, the goal is to get a long, thin sheet that’s as evenly rectangular as possible. Ideally, it should be about 1/32 inch thick. If it’s thicker, the ravioli will be doughy and the filling lost amidst all the pasta. If the dough is too thin, however, the stuffing will break through. The dough is thin enough when you can just about see the outline of your hand through the sheet of pasta.

Work quickly so the dough sheets don’t dry out. Thin sheets of pasta dough lose moisture quickly, so be prepared to move ahead without stopping for other tasks (meaning make your filling ahead). If you notice the edges of the sheets cracking, cover the dough with a damp paper towel to help rehydrate it. Dry dough won’t seal well, and the pasta may break when you try to stuff or shape it.

Handle the pasta sheets with your wrists, not your fingers. The rolled-out dough sheets aren’t fragile, but to avoid puncturing or tearing them, it’s best to move one around by letting it drape over your wrist and the back of your hand.

You’ll have the filling already made before rolling out the dough, but before you spoon it on, taste it for proper seasoning. (You can’t correct a bland filling once it’s sealed inside the pasta.)

How big the mounds are and how closely you space them determines the size of the ravioli and the width of their borders. For example, if you space the mounds about 1/2 inch apart, each ravioli will have a 1/4-inch border, which is about right for my taste. For that size, you’ll need about 2 teaspoons filling in each mound. Resist the urge to make huge mounds, or you’ll have to stretch the top sheet of dough to cover them, which could cause the filling to break through.

One more tip: Brush any excess flour from the top of each sheet before filling, but be sure the surface underneath is liberally floured to prevent sticking.

When it’s time to cut the ravioli into shapes, you can use a scalloped or straight pastry wheel, a ravioli stamp, or even a biscuit cutter. A sharp knife will work, too, but be careful that it doesn’t tear the dough, and use the flat side of fork tines or your fingers to confirm the seal.

The ravioli must be cooked within a day or else frozen. If you’re not cooking the ravioli immediately, line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper and sprinkle with semolina or cornmeal, which will absorb moisture and prevent the dough from getting soggy. Arrange the ravioli so they don’t touch or they’ll stick together. Refrigerate them uncovered for up to a day or else put the baking sheet in the freezer. When the ravioli are frozen solid, transfer them to an airtight container. Cook frozen ravioli directly in a pot of rapidly boiling salted water (no need to defrost them first), adding a few at a time and stirring occasionally to keep them separate.

A pasta machine eases the way to a thin sheet

If using a pasta machine, divide the dough into four equal pieces. Work with one piece at a time, keeping the others refrigerated, wrapped in plastic.
• Flatten the piece of dough with your hand (flour it lightly if necessary) and run it through the widest setting on the machine twice. The first pass roughs up the dough; the second pass smoothes it out.
• Set the rollers to the next narrower setting. Pass the dough through twice. Continue notching down by one setting and passing the dough through two times. As the dough lengthens and thins, it will bunch up under the machine. Rectify this by gently lifting it out and folding it neatly behind the machine.
• When you can just see the shape and shadow of your hand through the dough sheet (it should be about 1/32 inch thick), stop rolling. You may not need to go to the narrowest setting. Fill and cut it as instructed in the following photos.


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