Through years of reading Italian novels, cookbooks, and travel guides; attending Italian cooking classes; traveling through Italy; and watching cooking shows featuring Italian chefs, I’ve come to believe that making fresh pasta is a remedy for a boring and depressing life in the kitchen. Pasta-making aficionados consider it therapeutic, relaxing, calming, meditative, deeply satisfying, sensual even. Of course, I have often enjoyed the goodness of fresh pasta—made by others, thank you—but until this year, I had yet to understand what it is to knead your own. Something always seemed to prevent me from trying my hand at it. I don’t have a pasta-rolling machine, I thought. That’s why I can’t do it.
This past January, a pasta-rolling machine appeared in my kitchen. My parents probably grew tired of hearing me say I wanted to make my own pasta if only I had a pasta-rolling machine. So they gave me one for my birthday. This great gift left me promising everybody I would soon churn up a tasty homemade pasta meal.
As soon as I got the machine, I secured it to a corner of my kitchen counter… where it remained, admired but untouched, for many weeks. What in the world had happened to my pasta-making desires? I felt intimidated. I thought I didn’t have time. I didn’t have the right flour on hand. I didn’t make the right sauce to go with delicate fresh pasta.
To be fair, I’ll say that I did use my machine a couple of weeks after getting it, but it was a really bad experience. A work-for-three-hours-then-dump-everything-in-the-trash kind of experience. Italians didn’t have anything to do with it; I tried to make Japanese buckwheat soba noodles. Turns out buckwheat is a difficult flour to work with, and Japanese pasta makers learn for years from their masters before they’re successful at making soba noodles. How in the world did I think I could make them? My first time making fresh pasta and first time using my pasta-rolling machine? Of course it was a disaster. And so my machine got stored in a drawer for several more weeks.
Then, one day, I wanted to make my own tagliatelle to go with my homemade Bolognese sauce. I took out the old unbleached all-purpose flour and made very good pasta. Al dente, soft with a bite, perfect pasta. So, from then on, I took out my machine a lot more often, trying out different flours, learning to “feel” the dough, learning to know when it’s been kneaded enough, when it’s ready to rest.
What do I think about making my own pasta? I find it a time-consuming process. Mixing the dough is quick, and kneading it takes a bit of time, but rolling it (and cutting it) takes the longest. And if you crave filled pasta, well, that takes even longer to make. The good news is that fresh pasta freezes well, so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor for some meals to come.
Also, it’s true that making pasta is relaxing. When you make pasta, you only think about making pasta. Gone are tasks and deadlines and other stresses. Is the dough soft and supple? All’s well.
Oh, and did I mention that the taste of fresh pasta is simply enchanting? Try it. It’s easier than it looks. I promise.
Spicy Spinach-Ricotta Ravioli with Light Tomato Sauce
Makes about 32 ravioli, enough for 4 to 6 servings.
Fine sea salt
6 oz [170 g] baby spinach
1¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)
1 large egg
10.5 oz [300 g] fresh ricotta cheese
1.75 oz [50 g] prosciutto, finely diced
¼ cup [20 g] grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 tbsp [30 ml] finely chopped fresh basil
1 small hot red chilli, very finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
10 large ripe vine tomatoes (about 4.5 lb [2 kg])
6 garlic cloves, finely minced
¾ cup [180 ml] best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 tsp [5 ml] crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp [10 ml] fine sea salt
3 tbsp [45 ml] finely chopped fresh basil
Freshly ground black pepper
Shaved parmigiano-reggiano cheese, to serve
To make the pasta
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add baby spinach and cook until wilted and tender, about 3 minutes. Drain in a sieve and run under cold water to cool. Squeeze water from spinach just until damp, then finely chop.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour and pinch salt. Mound flour mixture and form a well in the center. Add spinach and egg to the well. Using a fork, gently break up yolk and slowly incorporate flour from inside rim of well. Continue until liquid is absorbed, then knead in bowl until dough forms a complete mass. It will still look floury and the vibrant green color of spinach will not come through yet. Transfer to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes more, sprinkling more flour as the dough becomes sticky again.
Mixing the dry ingredients together; making a well and adding spinach and egg in the middle of it.
Kneading in bowl until dough forms a complete mass; kneading on a lightly floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic.
How do you know when the pasta has been kneaded enough? The dough feels homogenous, it doesn’t stick to your hands anymore, it springs back a bit after you press it with the palm of your hand. After just a bit of practice (2 or 3 recipes of pasta dough), you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for.
Once you’re done kneading, wrap the dough tightly in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes, or for a couple of hours in the refrigerator. This resting period is mandatory; this is when the gluten relaxes and the dough becomes easy to roll. Before resting: the dough is elastic and springs back when you press on it. After resting: the dough feels more supple, less “tight” and when you press on it, the indentation remains.
To roll the pasta: Divide pasta dough into 4 pieces. Cover 3 pieces with plastic wrap (as it dries out very quickly). Flatten dough so that it will fit through the rollers of a hand-cranked pasta machine set at the widest setting. Feed the pasta into the machine at this setting for 3 to 4 times, folding, flouring the exterior and turning pasta until it’s smooth. Keep on rolling pasta through machine, decreasing the setting one notch at a time (do not fold or turn pasta) until pasta sheet is about 1/16-inch (15-mm) thick (on my machine, this is setting #2 – see below for more details about the machine I use).
Dividing pasta dough into 4 pieces.
Rolling pasta through machine, decreasing the setting one notch at a time.
Flour both sides of rolled pasta sheet and cut out 2¾-inch [7-cm] pasta rounds. Make sure each round is well floured and keep flat on a plate covered with plastic wrap while you roll out the next 3 pasta sheets.
Note: After cutting out rounds in a pasta sheet, you’ll be left with quite a lot of trimming. Brush off excess flour, knead it back together in your hands (like a ball of play-dough), then flatten it and put it back in the pasta-rolling machine, rolling it just once per notch, until you’ve reached the desired thickness again. You’ll be able to cut out at least 4-5 more rounds from this smaller sheet and I swear you won’t be able to tell the difference taste-wise.
Tip: I use a pastry brush with soft, supple bristles (not silicon) to brush flour on or off the pasta sheets.
Keep your pasta rounds well floured, tightly covered in plastic wrap while you quickly mix the filling together.
To make the filling
Mix everything together. It’s that easy!
To make the ravioli
Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place 1 level tablespoon [15 ml] filling in center of a pasta round. Pick up the pasta round in one hand, and wet its edges with cold water using one finger or a pastry brush (careful not to wet with too much water). Cover with a second round, pressing edges to seal, making sure no air bubble remains inside. Repeat for all ravioli. Keep ravioli flat on a baking sheet, making sure they don’t overlap. Cover with plastic wrap. At this point, you can either keep the sheets in the fridge until ready to serve, or freeze them right away. On the baking sheets, they’ll freeze individually without sticking together, so you’ll then be able to transfer them into plastic freezer bags for long-term storage (1-2 months).
To make the sauce
Cut out the whole tomatoes into chunks, then puree in a blender or food processor (seeds and skin and all). In a large pan over medium heat, fry the garlic in ½ cup of the olive oil for a minute or two until cooked, but not yet colored. Add the red pepper flakes followed by the pureed tomato and salt. Bring to a fairly brisk boil and cook until the sauce has a little body, but is by no measure thick (you’ll see the bubbles get a bit bigger). The tomatoes should taste fresh, but no longer raw. Add the chopped basil, several cranks of black pepper and the remaining olive oil to finish. Heat back up, then take it off the heat and reserve until ready to serve.
Note: ¾ cup [180 ml] olive oil may sound like a lot, but it co-stars amazingly with the tomatoes in this quick, fresh sauce. Choose best quality olive oil, one with a bright, sharp taste, for the best result.
Putting it all together
Bring a large pot of salted water to a low boil; avoid a rolling boil, which may cause the pasta to open up. Gently reheat the sauce over low heat, stirring occasionally. Warm up serving bowls in the oven.
In batches of 12 to 14, cook ravioli in the boiling water until tender, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer ravioli to serving bowls. Spoon sauce over ravioli, garnish with shaved parmigiano-reggiano and serve immediately.
About my pasta-rolling machine: I have an Imperia pasta machine. This brand has been around for almost 80 years! What I love about it is that it comes with a double-sided pasta cutter to make spaghetti (perfect for asian noodles) or linguine, but you can also separately buy pasta cutters according to your preferences (angel hair, pappardelle, even gnocchi or ravioli). I’ve had no problem with it and I love its retro look.
Spinach pasta dough: La Cucina Italiana Magazine, Jan/Feb 2011
Spicy ricotta, prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano and basil filling: Marie Asselin
Light tomato sauce: The Geometry of Pasta, Caz Hildebrand & Jacob Kenedy