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Stuffed Pastas

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Stuffed Pastas

by Moby Pomerance

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Ravioli, tortelli, pansotti, capelletti, tortellini, tortelloni, raviolo...

Introduction

Making pasta is easy. My friend supports Queens Park Rangers Football Club. That's hard. Riding a skateboard is hard. Learning the violin is hard. Riding a bike? Nearly impossible. I used to play the cello. Ah, the misery. Until I took up the electric guitar. Misery at a 100 db. But pasta? In six months, you'll have bruises up and down your legs from kicking yourself so much. All that time you spent watching Sex in the City you could've been making pasta. In 40 years, you'll look back on your life, and kick yourself again, just in case you didn't do it right the first time.

The purpose of this course is to help people realise how simple it is to make your own stuffed pastas. Ravioli, tortelli, tortellini, cappelletti - there is nothing difficult about any of the basic forms – it only takes a little practice. Not even a lot of practice.

I'm not just going to stick to Northern Italian. I might head a little west. Then north. Then a little east again. The point is as much to go into the principles behind these particular forms of pasta, as it is to go into individual recipes. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll be left with enough confidence to invent fillings of your own, and incorporate these techniques into your repertoire.

Did I say repetoire? I meant dinner.

Which are the simplest? If you've never made stuffed pastas before, start with the tortelli. You roll the pasta out, fold it over something tasty, and cut it up.

Really. This is simple.

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Special Equipment (see above pic)

A Pasta Rolling Machine- Unless you have the rolling pin skills of an Olympic Level Italian Grandmother, a pasta machine is absolutely vital. There are two brands which dominate the domestic market – the Imperia, and the Atlas Marcato. They’re both suitable. They are calibrated on a slightly different scale, however, so I’ll give the settings for both. I’ve noticed people talking about the Kitchen Aid attachment. I haven’t used one, but I would presume the thinnest setting would be suitable for our purposes.

A large stock pot - This is crucial. Unlike dried pasta, most ravioli are quite fragile, so you want to give them as much space to poach as possible without crashing into each other. Tortellini and similar pastas tend to be much sturdier. A wide and deep sauté pan (min. 11 inches/28cm) is an acceptable alternative.

A large slotted spoon – For removing the pastas once they are done.

I use a Chinese-style ‘spider’.

Ravioli cutters - These are by no means necessary, but they do save time.

Food Processor - If you didn't mind getting messy, I'm sure you could make do without one of these - using either a pestle and mortar (al'Italiano) or smashing everything to a pulp using a club - just don't send me your laundry bill.

Special Ingredients

Type ‘00’ Flour (or Tipo ‘00’ if it’s imported). I have yet to be in a major town or city in Western Europe or America where I couldn’t track down this flour. Almost as a matter of pride, any half decent Italian food store will have it – even if sometimes you have to ask, or they have to pull it down off a shelf. In America, Batali and Co. will tell you to substitute Unbleached all purpose if you can’t find the real thing. I have never done this, but only because I’ve always been able to find it.

Semolina – or durum wheat flour (Semolato di grano duro). Although I don’t use this flour in the pasta itself (you tend to find it more in Southern Italian recipes), it is invaluable for flouring the work surface and the finished pastas, in order to prevent them from sticking to each other. In the US I have seen this sold as ‘Pasta Flour’ – though you shouldn’t confuse this for type ‘00’.

Large Eggs – Always buy the absolute best eggs, preferably organic, that are available in your area. In Parma, the egg yolks are an incredible orange, which stain the pasta a wonderful gold. In the UK and America, the end product tends to be paler.

Basic Pasta Recipe (For use in all subsequent recipes)

400g/14oz ‘00’ flour

4 size ‘large’ eggs

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

pinch of salt

semolina flour for dusting

(Occasionally I might suggest a half-recipe; in which case use 250g flour, 3 eggs, and just a splash of oil.)

By Hand: In a large bowl or on a clean large surface, make a mound of the flour. With your fingers, stir a ‘crater’ into the top, so you have a circle of flour surrounding a well (see image). Break the eggs into the well, and add the oil and pinch of salt.

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Using a fork or your fingers, stir the eggs, incorporating flour slowly from the edges. Use your left hand to maintain the flour, and stop the egg from breaking through and spilling over.

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Eventually, when you’ve incorporated about half the flour, creating a paste, start folding it all together.

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At first it might feel like a sticky mess, then as if it’s too dry to come together – but keep kneading – pushing the dough away from you, then folding it back over itself, and giving it a quarter turn, and repeating. When it coheres, scrape down the rough bits off your work surface and discard.

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Give yourself a fresh sprinkle of flour, and continue. (I find with experience the less I have to scrape down, and the more I can work into the dough).

By Machine: In a food processor, combine all of the ingredients, and whiz until it resembles coarse bread crumbs, or comes together in a ball. Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface.

By Mixer: Make a mound of flour in the mixer bowl, add the mixed eggs, oil and salt, and using the paddle attachment, mix until it comes together in a ball. Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface.

Knead the ball of dough for 8-10 minutes, until it feels smooth and elastic (if it feels a bit lumpy, keep kneading). If it feels sticky or damp, sprinkle some flour over it and work it in. [see: ‘Tips and Tricks.’]

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Wrap in cling film, and place in the fridge for 30mins, and preferably 1-2 hours.

To Roll Out the Pasta

Set the pasta machine up on a long clean surface, giving yourself room to work. Sprinkle semolina in front of it, so that the sheet doesn’t stick to itself or the surface.

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Cut off a quarter of the dough (wrapping the remainder), and flatten it slightly in your hands. Give it a light sprinkle of semolina, and run it through the widest setting of your pasta machine.

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Fold the resulting piece in 2 or 3, and do again. Repeat this action approx. 10 times, until you have a smooth and elastic piece of dough.

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If it feels too damp or sticky, sprinkle it with semolina, fold it, and run it once again through the widest setting.

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Then decrease the machine setting incrementally each time until you reach the desired thickness (for this course, it will be the last setting on the Imperia and the Kitchen Aid, and No. 8 on the Atlas).

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Once the pasta is rolled out, you need to work with it relatively quickly before it dries.

All recipes should feed 3-4 as a main course, or 6 as a starter.

Tips and Tricks

Making Pasta Is All In The Hands. That’s not to say there’s anything difficult, or magical in the process - it’s just that as you become more experienced, it will be your hands that tell you when you have kneaded the dough enough, or if you should incorporate more flour, or if you’ve incorporated too much. When the dough is perfectly elastic and malleable, you’ll feel it before you see it. When making taglietelle, or papardelle, you’ll want a ‘stiffer’ dough. You might cut down to the traditional 1 egg for every 100g of flour. With ravioli, you’ll want something a little more flexible.

- The Filling has to taste great before it goes in if you want it to taste great once you've made the ravioli! What does this mean? Taste! Keep tasting! Adjust the seasoning. It's only going to be one component out of 3 (filling, pasta, butter/sauce), so it has to be able to stand up for itself.

- Always make sure the pastas are sealed completely. Otherwise water will seep in and ruin the filling, or trapped pockets of air may cause the pastas to burst.

- If you want you can substitute 3 egg yolks for every whole egg omitted (i.e. 2 whole eggs + 9 yolks = @ 5 eggs). Some people do this for a ‘richer’ taste, or for the colouring – but I can’t say the difference is substantial.

- When making any kind of stuffed pasta, work with one sheet of pasta at a time. If you roll out all the dough, most of it will have dried out before you have time to include the stuffing (the dry dough will cause it to crack, and break in the water).

- You will find you have a lot of scraps of pasta left over after you’ve cut your ravioli or tortelli – provided these aren’t too dry, you can collect them and run them through the machine once more to make additional pastas.

- You can freeze most stuffed pastas - but you must do it on a tray, or large flat plate. Sprinkle evenly with semolina, and then place the pastas in rows. They must not touch! When they do, the fillings melt through the pasta, and the pastas will dissolve in the hot water.

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Once frozen, you can place single or double portion amounts in sandwich bags, as crowded as you like, and defrost them by throwing straight into boiling water.

- Experiment! Take notes (even mental ones) about pasta thickness, cooking times, textures, tastes. Once you get the basics down, you can soon leave the recipes behind. Find out what's in season at your market. Can you turn it into a ravioli filling?

Tortelli

Tortelli are pastas with vegetable fillings, resembling elongated ravioli, traditionally found in and around the Parma region of Northern Italy. As with many pastas, the specifics of shape and size vary depending on which valley you’re in, and whose cow you’re leaning against when you ask. Traditional fillings include pumpkin, spinach, chard, potato, stinging nettles, beetroot. Usually they’re served with butter and a little sage. For me, they characterize the perfection and simplicity of Northern Italian cuisine. When they’re done well, they’re unbelievably good.

A Note: These types of tortelli have a softer, more liquid filling, and so don't freeze as well as the tortellini. They are best cooked soon after being made, but can be placed on a well floured (semolina) tray for a few hours in a cool dry place, so long as you flip them over every 45 mins or so, and add additional flour. Otherwise you'll find the filling tends to 'melt' the pasta on the under-side.

Tortelli di Zucca (Pumpkin Tortelli)

In this recipe I haven't used amaretti – though for some it’s vital. I find the balsamic vinegar adds sweetness, but also more depth of flavour to the pumpkin or squash. In some traditional recipes you’ll find ‘Motarda di Cremona,’ a sort of pickled, fruit mustard/preserve – so experiment. Always taste as you go – and find what works for you. Also, the bread crumbs are there to add substance, but also to control the 'dryness' of the filling. I've made them optional, only because I prefer to use cheese instead (which does the same thing, and adds more flavour).

The Filling

1 roughly 1 Kg/ 2-1/2lb/medium-sized pumpkin or butternut squash.

2-3 tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar

salt and pepper

olive oil

1- 1 1/2 cups / 1-2 handfuls freshly grated parmagiano (to taste)

1/4 cup bread-crumbs (optional)

a few gratings of nutmeg

1 egg yolk (optional)

The Tortelli

90g/6 tablespoons good unsalted butter

1 recipe pasta dough

extra parmagiano for grating

small bunch fresh sage

semolina for sprinkling

Pre-heat the oven to 375F/180C. Cut the pumpkin or squash into slices, about 1”/ 2 1/2cm thick. Place the pieces on a roasting tray, and give a light coating of olive oil, salt and pepper.

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Roast for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until very soft. Remove from oven and let cool.

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When cool, remove the meat from the skin (I use my fingers), discarding the seeds and fibers, and mash with the back of a fork, a masher, or a potato ricer. The flesh can be quite fibrous, so you need to be thorough. (Alternatively, force the pulp through a sieve or tamis for a smooth purée.) Mix in the balsamic vinegar, 1 cup of the grated cheese (you can add more if it needs it), the bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and grate a little nutmeg.

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Taste for seasoning. There's a lot of liquid in pumpkins, so you have to moderate it: if it seems a little wet, you can add more cheese or bread crumbs. (Note: if the filling is too wet, it can make the tortelli difficult to deal with later on). If too dry (like stiff mashed potato), add the egg yolk, and stir well to combine.

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Cover, and place in the fridge for 20 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, roll out the pasta to the thinnest setting (Imperia, Kitchen Aid – or No. 8 on the Atlas). Try to aim for a narrower strip, rather than one the full width of the machine (you’ll waste less pasta that way).

On a large cutting board, lay the sheet out lengthwise in front of you. At 3” intervals, place a spoonful of the pumpkin filling in the middle of the sheet.

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Next, with your finger, or a pastry brush, dampen around the filling; then fold the top half of the sheet over the filling, and lay it against the bottom half. The trick here is to seal the tortelli with as little air as possible inside (the air can expand in the hot water, and cause them to burst). Using a cupped hand, press around the mounds of filling, making sure they’re sealed well.

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Then, using a knife or scalloped roller, cut out the tortelli on three sides (the fold will act as the fourth).

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Sprinkle a tray generously with semolina, and place the tortelli at regular intervals, making sure they don’t touch. Continue until the filling, or pasta is used up.

Place a big pot of salted-water onto boil. Carefully drop the tortelli in, and reduce to a high simmer – if it boils too violently, it can break the pasta. Poach for about 3-5 minutes, depending on the dryness of the pasta. Meanwhile, in another pan, sauté a handful of sage leaves in the butter until they start to crisp.

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Using a slotted spoon, or a spider, transfer the cooked tortelli to a heated platter, pour over the melted butter and sage leaves. Serve sprinkled with the remaining parmagiano, and some black pepper.

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Tortelli: 2 ways. Butternut Squash and Asparagus.

Variations

I wanted to pair the pumpkin with fava/broad beans, but fat chance finding favas in London in blinkin' March! But this is the point I wanted to get across – what looks good? How can we take it and turn it into a ravioli filling? In this case, I found some asparagus. I always thought there was a quality and intensity of flavour that favas and asparagus share. So – I thought I’d adapt the fava recipe into this.

Tortelli d’Asparagi (Tortelli of Asparagus, pecorino)

The Filling

1 large bunch asparagus

juice from 1 lemon

3/4 cup/1 handful grated pecorino romano

1 egg yolk

salt and pepper

mounded tablespoon of ricotta (optional)

The Tortelli (as above)

90g/6 tablspoons good unsalted butter

1 recipe pasta dough

extra parmagiano or pecorino for grating

small bunch fresh sage

semolina for sprinkling

Prepare the asparagus: if you don’t have much experience with this vegetable, one simple way to prepare it is to take a spear by each end, and bend it gently. It should snap a little past half-way towards the root end. Discard the tough stem, and keep the top part, cutting that in two.

In a pot of salted boiling water, blanch the asparagus for 3-5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears, until you can pierce them without much resistance.

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Drain, and place in a food processor with the pecorino, lemon juice, ricotta (if using). Pulse a few times, scraping down the walls in between. Taste for seasoning. If it needs more salt, add a little more pecorino (but be careful, as pecorino is very salty). Add the egg yolk.

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And keep pulsing, and scraping down the sides, until you have a mixture resembling guacamole.

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Cover, and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up. Then proceed as with the other tortelli recipes.

Ask your question about this course here.

Click here for Part 2 of this course, which covers Tortelli, Ravioli & Cappelletti.

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