Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Embracing Fall: Pumpkin Ravioli


Well, haven't I just been the worst blogger ever for the last few weeks?! I've been a bit overworked and haven't made time for this, but that changes now. I think I'll just dive in and share what I've been cooking lately: pumpkin ravioli!

In Italy I had so many wonderful pasta dishes (especially in the town of Sorrento) and was inspired to  make fresh pasta myself. I've made fresh pasta in the past, but I haven't taken a lot of time and care with it so it's never been spectacular. I decided to try a little harder this time and set my sights on ravioli. This was a first for me, and it initially tried my patience. The problem began when I drafted a fairly long list of cooking projects to accomplish on Labor Day. I have few days off work (excepting weekends) and even less time entirely to myself (Charlie had to work on Labor Day) so I decided that I must maximize my alone time and fill it with projects. That's all well and good except that I wasn't really in a cooking mood on Labor Day. When I realized that I should have hung up my hat, settled in for some reading, and saved the projects for another day. Instead, I decided to push myself, and my fun projects turned into a list of chores. This rarely happens to me because I really do love to cook, but this time it did and that's unfortunate.

I started the day's (newly-turned) chores by heading to the farmers market. There I found these beauties. The one on the left is called a sweet dumpling squash and the one on the right is a calabaza. Aren't they gorgeous?!

I took them home, split them, and removed the seeds. They smelled so sweet and good.


I then rubbed them with a little olive oil, placed them face-down on a baking sheet, and roasted them at 400 degrees F for about 45 minutes. Once they cooled I scooped out the flesh, mixed it together, and smushed it with the back of a wooden spoon.


That didn't give me quite the consistency I wanted (too chunky) so I popped it into my food processor and pulsed a few times. I ended up with a beautiful, orange, pumpkiny puree. A sprinkling of salt, pepper, and a splash of olive oil gave it a little more oomph.

I took my lovely pumpkin puree and added about a cup of whole milk ricotta and 8 ounces of crumbly goat cheese then stirred it all up. It was chunky, packed with the fall flavor I was looking for, and super tasty! I couldn't stop eating it by itself! (The photo below isn't beautiful, but the filling was actually sort of pretty in a rustic way.)


At this point I was pleased with what I'd created but was still dragging my feet a bit. The task of making fresh pasta felt overwhelming, but I pulled out my ingredients, cleared a spot on my kitchen table, and got started anyway.

Almost every recipe I've read for fresh pasta (in small batches) calls for 3 1/2 cups of flour and 5 large eggs. This never seems to work for me. For some reason whenever I use 3 1/2 cups of flour I end up with a pasta that's too dry so I tend to use only 3 cups up flour (and 5 large eggs). If making pasta at home you might try it with 3 1/2 cups of flour, as that seems to work for everyone except me. If yours is also too dry then toss it out (there's no saving a bad batch as far as I'm concerned) and try my way.

A word on ingredients: I like to use oo flour for making pasta. It's almost always imported from Italy and is ground so finely that it feels like baby powder. This makes for a really silky pasta that's super light. I buy my oo flour at the Dekalb Farmer's Market (just outside Atlanta), but it can also be found in gourmet food shops, Whole Foods, and Fresh Market. If you're unable to find oo flour (or want to go a less expensive route) all-purpose will also do the trick.

Okay, so the first step to making fresh pasta is dumping the flour on a large work space in a mound. Then, use your (freshly washed) hands to create a well in the middle of the flour. It should look like a volcano with an extra wide mouth. Like this:


Crack the eggs into the well, taking care not to let them escape!


Slowly and carefully pinch the yolks apart with your thumb and forefinger. You want to break the membrane that surrounds the yolks so they will flow into the whites of the eggs. As soon as you've accomplished that (it's kind of fun), start pulling little bits of flour into the eggs. Do so carefully so the eggs don't leave the well. Slowly incorporate more and more flour into the eggs until you have a dough that is able to hold itself together. Form it into a ball and begin kneading, pulling any remaining flour into the ball of dough.


Okay, here's the trick to getting really great pasta: don't be lazy when it comes to the kneading. It's hard work, and you will get tired, but it really should be kneaded for at least 15 minutes. Set a timer and get to work! I've always heard that when you think you're finished you probably should knead for about 3 more minutes. I find this to be true for me. When properly kneaded the dough will be smooth, elastic, and will spring back when pressed with your fingertips.

Once the dough has been kneaded, wrap it in plastic wrap and allow it to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.  After the pasta rests, take out your pasta machine and get ready to crank out some pasta!

Unwrap the dough and pull off a golf ball-sized chunk.  Immediately re-wrap the remaining pasta dough.  (It will dry out if not immediately re-wrapped and will have to be thrown away.)  Flatten the piece of dough with your hand, and set the pasta machine to its thickest setting.  On my pasta machine this is #1, but it varies depending on the maker.  Roll the pasta through the machine so that you have a nice, smooth piece of flattened dough.  Move the setting up a notch so it will make the pasta slightly thinner on the next roll.  Roll the pasta through again.  Continue changing the settings and rolling the pasta until you have passed the pasta through the thinnest setting  and have a paper-thin sheet of pasta.
My pasta maker has a broken clamp so I have to hold it down while running the pasta through.  This isn't that big of a deal, but it quickly became a major stresser when I already felt a bit impatient.  By this point I was no longer enjoying the process of making ravioli.  Once again, I should have put it away and saved the ravioli for another date, but I didn't. 

At this point it's important to work quickly.  If you move too slowly the pasta will dry out and you will be unable to form the ravioli.  Place the sheet of pasta on the work surface and use a spoon to drop teaspoon-sized dollops of pumpkin filling on the pasta.  Allow 1/2 - 1 inch of space all the way around each dollop of filling.  Continue placing filling on the pasta sheet until you get about halfway up the sheet of pasta.  Fold the pasta in half so that each dollop of filling is covered with pasta.  Use your fingertips to press the pasta together, trapping the filling and sealing the pasta around it.


Charlie came home around the time I reached this point.  By then I'd had enough.  It took a few tries to figure out how best to form the ravioli (and I let several sheets of pasta dry out in the process), and I was ticked off about it.   I decided to use a pairing knife to carefully cut out the ravioli.  I cut it into squares, taking care to leave enough pasta around the filling to ensure that it wouldn't escape when boiled.  This method proved to very effective but not very pretty.  When I made it again a few nights later I used a zig-zag pastry cutter to make the edges a little more interesting.  That really gave the ravioli a polished look (without spending a ton of money on a mold or specialty press).  Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures of that batch. 
After cutting out the ravioli I had a pile scraps left over.  I certainly didn't want those to go to waste -- this is homemade pasta we're talking about after all!  I took my scraps, laid them out, and used the pairing knife to cut them into mismatched strips.  I didn't care about keeping everything perfectly uniform, but I did want to make them all about the same size so they would require the same amount of time to cook.  Here's what I ended up with.




I allowed the scraps the dry for about 15 minutes then popped them in a ziplock bag for later use.  I tossed the ziplock bag in the freezer, and now I can have homemade pasta any time by boiling the frozen pasta for 2 - 3 minutes.  (Do not thaw or it will become gummy.)

I finished rolling out the remaining pasta, and made more ravioli (and scraps).  The fully formed ravioli was placed on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet for about 10 minutes before cooking.  This allowed the pasta to dry out just a bit and secured the seal around the filling before boiling.  While the pasta dries, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Drop a handful of ravioli into the water, and allow it to cook for 4 - 5 minutes or until the pasta is soft but not falling apart.  Remove the cooked ravioli from the water, drain, and drizzle with olive oil.  Continue cooking the ravioli in batches until the desired amount has been prepared.

Now it  was time to dress the ravioli.  I browned a little butter, sauteed a minced shallot with some garlic, and tossed in some red pepper flakes and fresh sage leaves for a little extra kick.  I then poured the browned butter over the hot ravioli and finished it off with another drizzle of olive oil, sea salt, freshly cracked blacked pepper, a sprinkling of shredded parmesan, and a generous handful of crumbled goat cheese.  


Though I'd certainly had a bad attitude about the project, I have to admit that it turned out pretty well.  The soft, pillowy ravioli (in combination with plenty of love and affection from my wonderful husband) put me in a very sunny mood.  In fact, I felt so good about the result that I tried it again two days later, adding the zig-zag edges, sliced baby bella mushrooms (cooked in the brown butter), and little squeeze of lemon.  

One final note before I end my re-entry blog post.  There is absolutely no reason in the world why the seeds from any pumpkin or large squash should be thrown out.  Instead, toss them with a little olive oil, kosher salt, and any other seasonings you like, and roast at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes.  They'll crisp up a little, take on the seasonings, and provide a yummy, salty snack.  I usually toss mine with curry powder and a pinch of cayenne pepper.  Bon appetit!


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