Wrestling with Ravioli

My first attempt at ravioli caused my parents’ jaws irreparable damage — on their anniversary, no less.

It was a time when I was going through that liberal arts phase in college when maths and measurements were consigned to the back of the pantry, next to the moldy cartons of gelatin. It was post-modern cooking; any amount of flour and semolina goes.

Which is probably why I might as well have taken an electric roast-beef carver to slice the dough.

Over the years, I’ve had hits and misses, most recently at my tiny, half-baked kitchen in Hong Kong. It always starts the same, with a volcano made of three cups of flour and filled with the lava of four medium-sized eggs at room temperature, but somehow always explodes into a variety of horrible endings.

I always feel like Dr Frankenstein, coaxing to life a flaky, lumpy monster that somehow never gets to the right frame of mind or consistency no matter how much more powder you throw at it. Sometimes it is too moist, like silly putty, and sometimes too “short”, a baking term for dryness.

At which point, I start getting creative. Maybe it needs a bath of olive oil. Perhaps some water. Maybe a butter massage. The goal is just to make it cohere enough to throw at the wall in frustration but not make much of a mess.

There were three things I learned in said Hong Kong kitchen last week as I cooked one of my all-time favorite dishes: my countertop is too low for any sustained food preparation, I am embarrassingly short on tools such as a rolling pin or pasta machine (Joe says Shanghai Street has a lot of cheap cutlery and hardware, so I should check it out sometime) and I seriously need to learn how to obey cooking laws.

I had taken as my inspiration this time Paris-based baking master David Lebovitz’s instructions on making fresh pasta, where the pale yellow sheets that he later fashioned into fettuccini and lasagna seemed as beautifully composed as his article.

I like to think of my ravioli creations as ghetto or, as my mother always told me in answer to my pre-pubescent awkwardness, “original”. As you can see in the above picture, my improvisational skills went only so far as the liquor shelf, where I called upon a Jack Daniels bottle to sub for my rolling pin.

As for my equally ghetto geometry, whatever the fuck size of pasta square can hold that filling, I just went with it. Fortunately, what my raviolis lack in suppleness and configuration, they more than make up for with inner beauty.

I am obscenely proud of my ability to make a pretty delicious mushroom, shrimp and spinach filling. To prove my disregard for culinary convention, here’s my recipe in paragraph form and with approximate measurements: 4 ounces of peeled shrimp, 6 ounces of spinach, 2 ounces of cubed Portobello mushrooms, minced garlic (3 cloves), 1 medium onion chopped finely, half a lemon, 1/4 cup cream cheese, 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, 1 ounce of pine nuts, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper.

You just need to marinate the shrimp in some lemon juice, salt and pepper. Heat oil in a pan and sautee garlic and onions, then roast pine nuts (or in another pan). Stir-fry shrimp until pink, then add the mushrooms and spinach. Melt the cream cheese in another pan and pour. Add salt, pepper and more of that lemon juice from the marinade to taste. Close to the end, add your parmesan cheese and leave in pan to melt. Then mix.

Sometimes I add ricotta as a binder, but what always comes out is pretty lip-smacking, and the best part is you can use the leftovers for further rounds of pasta. (Ask my parents to vouch for my taste, they can speak now after that great chewing fatigue of 2006.)

Ravioli has always been close to my heart ever since I first tried, on my far-too-expensive 11th birthday, Italianni’s toasted ravioli — three cheese-stuffed raviolis baked so that it has a crispy shell but a soft, mouth-watering center, the heavenly pasta pillows further drizzled in a ramekin boat with melted mozzarella and pesto-spiked marinara sauce.

I count that first bite as a strong influence to my being something of a turophile (cheese lover) in adulthood. Maybe it was the loving scowl that my father gave me when he saw the bill at the end of the night, or the romantic glow of the restaurant’s lights, but I fell hard — and would come back for more on every birthday, graduation or anniversary in the family.

Photo from in-jen-iosity.

But it is to my perpetual disappointment, 14 years on and with a more mature palate, that I cannot seem to essay that revolutionary ravioli. Here I was, carefully slipping into boiling water some misshapen mounds from a tray that resembled more of a pile of obese Australians than my delusion of a perfect meal.

The dough was, again, about a centimeter too thick, which I blame on my flour-throwing syndrome under extreme duress. (I really wanted it perfect this time, got dammit.) They were at least edible, though probably unsuitable for people with soft teeth, and could even transform into samosas in the microwave, the crust turning into white, crunchy puffs which I like to call ramosas.

They lasted me until the next work week, when I promised to bring my coworker James a piece, though I absentmindedly wolfed his share down while I was editing a soul-crushingly horrendous feature.

The finished product

I don’t know if there’s something pathological about my consistent failure, like maybe I have a latent fear that the future (that is, the perfect ravioli I intend to create) won’t be as good, comforting or satisfying as my familiar childhood addiction. Even more neurotic, am I projecting my own inadequacies onto the dough, such that it becomes that flawed, rubbery extension of me?

But if anything, my Indian-giving to poor James should be an excuse for another attempt, in which I should probably consider learning from past mishaps and — more important — try to bring a gentle, patient hand into pasta-making rather than my embittered, violent blows.

UPDATE:

There’s no better push to improve one’s cooking technique than the demands of a hungry date. So when I promised Joe I was in a “ravioli mood” that day (the cold weather deserved a hearty meal), I had to confront the obvious fact I was starting with too much flour.

I consulted Laura Vitale, a sassy internet cooking star who posts a lot of Italian cooking how-to’s on YouTube. From her I learned that the dough should start sticky, and then should get progressively smoother as you knead it slowly with sprinklings of flour.

The eggs have to be beaten when they are incorporated in the mix, and the dough must have about 3 oz of water, a few tablespoons of olive oil and salt (otherwise it will be too bland). Laura had the advantage of a food processor and a pasta machine (it was HKD750 at the IFC City’Super, the premium catwalk of all Hong Kong groceries, which was too much for me at that moment, so I settled for a rolling pin).

I saw a noticeable improvement in the color and consistency of my egg pasta dough, which should be soft and pliant, like the supple breasts of a fat Saudi Arabian man.

I also stored it in the fridge for about 30 minutes — time well spent panicking about what I should wear — on a bed of semolina (it’s like the sand of wheat), which prevents the dough from getting sticky in the pot.

As for proper proportioning, you can divide your pasta dough into eight pizza slices, with each bit supposedly bound for the slimming miracles of a pasta machine. Each slice for me made four ravioli squares.

I tried to get each knob of dough as thin as I could make it, each pocket filled with three-cheese filling (ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella) with spinach and some thin strips of prosciutto parma.

Again, my table was sprinkled with a little semolina, and the rolling pin dusted with some flour, and I basically spent an hour in backbreaking concentration, making a lot more normal-looking raviolis.

The end result was quite heartening (progress!), though the dough still tensed and puffed up in the boiling water, effectively making it, as Joe later described it, “a cross between a pasta and a pie.” I made sure to make a really good garlic, basil and tomato sauce for it, which turned out quite well.

It’s quite far from what I wanted to achieve still, but I think I’m headed in the right direction, since I microwaved some of the leftovers this morning and they didn’t blister quite as frighteningly as the last attempt. I am just thankful my friend didn’t autoerotically choke to death on the dough.

[Next time, I’m going to try Joe Pastry’s formula for making fresh pasta. With pizzaz.]

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