“In a country called Bengodi…there was a mountain made entirely of grated Parmesan cheese, on which lived people who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli and cook them in capon broth. And then they threw them down, and the more of them you took, the more you had. And nearby ran a rivulet of white wine whose better was never drunk, and without a drop of water in it.” –Decameron, Day 8, Tale 3
If wine flows through Italians veins, then pasta lines their stomachs; Italians live, breathe, and, of course, eat pasta.
The history of pasta’s importance to the Italian culture dates back centuries. Many credit Marco Polo for discovering pasta in China and introducing it to the Italians after his travels, but evidence has revealed that this is a romantic myth. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, research indicates that Sicilians were making strings of dried dough, like vermicelli, nearly 200 years before Polo’s adventures. By the thirteenth century, the term macaroni appeared, in reference to the increasing selection of pastas in various shapes and sizes.
McGee’s book states that the “postmedieval evolution of pasta took place in Italy” as pasta makers formed guilds and experimented with different techniques to create even more diversity in the pasta world. The Italian innovation of pasta secca, dried pasta, combines durum flour and water, different from the more time-consuming recipes for pasta fresca which include eggs. Today one of the world’s most recognized dried pasta brands, Barilla, produces more than a million pounds of pasta a day.
Because of pasta, every American is familiar with some words from the Italian language. Spaghetti is derived from the word spago, meaning“twine,” and linguine means “little tongues.” Farfalle comes from the word farfalla, butterfly, and rigatoni comes from the Italian word rigati, meaning “ridged.” Differences in shape pair with certain types of sauces better than others. Click here for an excellent guide on pasta and sauce pairing.
Although some people might claim fettuccine or penne as their favorite pastas, many are also partial to stuffed pastas. Once again we can thank the Italians for inventing another way to add more calories to our plates. The origins of stuffed pasta began in Bologna, fittingly known as “il grasso,” the fat. Located in the region of Emilio Romagna (the same region that gives the world Modena balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, and parmigiano-reggiano), Bologna’s nickname is attributed to its rich cuisine, both in calories and ingredients. In Le confessioni di un italiano, Ippolito Nievo wrote, “One eats more in Bologna in a year than in Venice in two, in Rome in three, in Turin in five, and in Genoa in twenty.” Although the city is known as a student center because it is home to the world’s oldest university, Bologna is equally well-known for its food. Walking under the porticoes, one cannot help but stop and stare through the windows of the pasticerrie, pastry shops, macellerie, meat shops, and fruttivendoli, fruit and vegetable stalls. With so much food to make mouths water, one might find it difficult to leave room in one’s appetite to try everything the city has to offer. However, if one should eat anything in Bologna, then it should be its fresh-made filled pastas.
On nearly every menu in the city, restaurants tout their fatto a mano, handmade, pasta, especially tortellini, tortelloni, and ravioli. Typical fillings include cheese, like ricotta, meats,like prosciutto, and vegetables, such as spinach. Some of the more creative twists on stuffing include pumpkin and amaretti cookies, dried porcini mushrooms, and lobster.
Because we cannot all hop on a train to Bologna to indulge in its delicious homemade pasta, it is possible for adventurous home cooks to try to make pasta in their own kitchens. While it might seem intimidating and it does require special equipment, the taste of fresh pasta redeems all the efforts of the process.
Earlier in the semester, my molecular gastronomy class participated in a cooking class that allowed me to try my hand at making fresh pasta. Among an extensive menu including bruschetta, gnocchi, pork tenderloin, and tiramisù, the class included a lesson in preparing pasta dough for spinach and ricotta ravioli. Below is the recipe for the ravioli, along with many images that illustrate various steps in the process. Buon appetito!
Ravioli di spinaci al burro e salvia
Spinach and ricotta ravioli with butter and sage
Courtesy of Salati Bene
- 250 g Flour
- 250 g Hard Wheat Flour (semola)
- 5 Eggs
- 15 g Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Place flour on a wooden or marble countertop. Add salt and form a well in the center to hold the eggs.
- Break the eggs into the well. Beat eggs well using a fork, add the oil and slowly incorporate the flour from the sides of the well. Do this very smoothly to insure a smooth dough.
- When the dough begins to cling to the fork, begin using your hands and knead the dough, absorbing the extra flour on the countertop; remove any hard pieces of dough which have not been incorporated.
- Press the heel of your hand into the center of the dough and push it away from you. Fold the flap over the dough and turn it ¼,
- Continue kneading, folding and turning until the dough has lost its stickiness and has become smooth, about ten minutes.
- Let dough sit, covered by a clean dish towel for at least ½ hour.
- After letting the dough rest, continue kneading the dough using a pasta machine. Lightly flour the dough and pass it through the largest setting. Lightly flour one side of the dough and fold it in thirds so that it fits the width of the machine; continue until dough is silky smooth and not sticky.
- To thin dough, lightly flour the dough and tighten the roller one notch. Roll the pasta through each setting (beginning from the highest to the lowest) until the correct thickness. The pasta is now ready to be filled.
- 350 g Boiled and Squeezed Spinach
- 400 g Fresh Ricotta Cheese
- 30 g Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 2 egg
- A Pinch of Nutmeg
- Freshly Grated White Pepper
- Salt to Taste
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
- Sift the ricotta cheese and chop the spinach. Mix the spinach with the ricotta, nutmeg, parmesan, salt and pepper.
- Add one egg to the mixture, and beat another for wetting the border; set aside.
- Place small tablespoons of filling along one side of the rectangle of dough (Refer to image). Wet the border of the dough with the egg and fold over the other side of pasta to cover the filling. Be sure get all of the air out of the ravioli in order to ensure that they do not leak when cooked.
- Cut each raviolo and press the border with a fork.
- Cook the ravioli in boiling water for about three minutes.
- Fresh sage
- 50 g Butter
- 30 Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Melt the butter in a saucepan along with the dried sage.
- Off the heat, toss with cooked ravioli and grated parmigiano-reggiano.