Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ravioli pa' Natale

According to Mom, her nonna—my great-grandmother—spent hours and hours making ravioli for Christmas each year. They truly are a labor of love: between preparing the filling, making the pasta, rolling and assembling the ravioli, and making their sauce, it's like you've made the meal four or five times. When the food passes so many times through the hands of the cook, it cannot help but absorb what's in the heart of the cook.

And in my heart, there's joy to see the ravioli spring into the world out of nothing but flour, egg, pumpkin, and cheese. There's the warm companionship of cooking with my partner, Beth. There's a sense of connection with the women in my family, whose hands have also kneaded dough, rolled it thin, doled out filling, and set trim little pasta shapes on a floured towel to dry. And there's the anticipation of delight when, on Christmas Day, people we love will take pleasure and nourishment from the food we're making.

Ravioli di Zucca pa' Natale
That is to say, pumpkin ravioli for Christmas. This is my recipe, not Nonna's, but I hope she'd be proud. You can make the filling ahead of time and freeze it. You can also freeze the ravioli.

This recipe will make perhaps 80 or so ravioli. For a side dish, plan on 6 per person. For a main dish, plan on 9 to 12 per person.

The filling:
A pumpkin, 3-4 lb.
½ lb. grated Parmesan
Salt and black pepper to taste

The pasta:
5 c semolina flour (any other kind will work)
5 eggs
A tablespoon or two of olive oil

The sauce:
For every 6 ravioli you plan to serve,

1 T butter
2-3 sage leaves, fresh or dried
1-2 baby spinach leaves
1 T shaved Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper

Cut the top off the pumpkin. Hollow it out, then replace its lid. Place in a pan and bake at 375° for one to one and a half hours or until tender. Let cool.

Peel the pumpkin, cut the flesh into small pieces, and mash it. Mix it with the Parmesan and seasonings to taste.

On a wooden cutting board or directly on your work surface, make a mountain of the flour. Make a volcano crater in it with your fist. Crack the eggs into the crater and add a splash of olive oil.

Use a fork to whisk the eggs in the volcano crater. Whisk all around the edges of the crater. Flour from the volcano mountain is incorporated into the eggs as you go, and soon you are whisking a pale yellow batter. Go slowly so that the eggs whisk evenly and you avoid lumps.
Soon, the batter has become a soft dough. It will grab your fork and you won't be able to whisk anymore.

Abandon the fork, toss a handful of flour on top of your dough, and start kneading in more flour. Gather, squeeze, and turn until the dough is like Play-Doh and does not feel tacky any more. There will still be flour left on your work surface; don't worry about that.
You must be tired by now. Your dough sure is, so wrap it up in foil, plastic wrap, or a barely damp cloth and let it rest 20 minutes. This will allow it to become stretchy.

Now it's time to roll. Get ready a barely damp cloth. Roll your dough out paper thin. You can do this by hand if you are very stubborn. I have an Atlas pasta machine, which is much easier.
Rolled-out pasta is susceptible to drying, so keep it fresh by covering it with the barely-damp cloth while you roll more sheets.

We rolled out to setting 6. We made rectangular sheets by cutting lengths, brushing the edges with water, and rolling the pieces together with the pin.
Work quickly to avoid drying but carefully to avoid tearing.

While I was fussing with the pasta sheets, Beth made tidy little balls of filling. We placed them on a sheet several inches apart, keeping in mind that we would need a seam allowance between each dumpling.
Use a damp pastry brush to moisten (barely!) the space in between each filling ball.

Cover with the other pasta sheet. Allow the pasta to drape over the filling. Seal the fillings in between the pasta sheets by pressing with your fingers. Avoid air pockets; you can get rid of trapped air by making a tiny slit with a paring knife, pressing out the air, then pressing the slit closed.
If you tear the pasta sheet, you can patch it with a dampened scrap of pasta. It doesn't look like America's Top Chef made it, but it tastes the same. And none of those people are invited over, anyway.

Dust a dish towel with flour. Cut between the ravioli with a knife or pizza cutter. Use a bench knife or spatula to pick them up and transfer them to the towel. Let them rest until they are dry enough to handle.
You can pack them up in the freezer at this point. But before you do, make sure to boil some water and test them out. You know, to make sure they're delicious enough to serve.

Set a pot of salted water on the stove to boil. Heat the butter in a skillet or saucepan. Gently sauté the sage leaves until they are crispy; break them up in the butter a little. Sliver the spinach leaves.

Cook the ravioli. If they are fresh, this will take less than five minutes. If they are frozen, just drop them right in the boiling water without thawing.

Drain them well and arrange them on a plate. Drizzle them with the sage butter, sprinkle with shaved parmesan, and toss on a smattering of the spinach slivers. Finish with a grind or three of fresh black pepper.

Buon Natale, mios amicos.