The history of ravioli is yet another example of the many stories and myths surrounding pasta creations. The word, ravioli, may derive from the Latin rabiola (a little turnip) whose shape resembles ravioli, or from ravolgere (to wrap) directly suggesting the way ravioli are made or in Italian, the term “ravioli” is derived from a word meaning “to stuff” .

Enjoyed worldwide, but where do ravioli actually come from?

The city of Cremona claims to be the birthplace, competing for this title with Genoa that traces the etymology of the word back to their dialect word for the pasta, rabiole, which signifies “something of little value” and, as the legend has it, originates from the practice of local sailors who would wrap the leftovers from one meal in  thin sheets of dough to use for another meal and to break the monotony of a sailor’s diet.

Although no-one can be sure when ravioli were first made, the earliest written mentions appear in 14th century manuscripts including pieces by  Francesco di Marco Datini, a merchant of Prato, Tuscany  and in a Venetian manuscript which had a ravioli recipe consisting of chopped blanched green herbs mixed with beaten egg and fresh cheese which was simmered in broth – a very traditional way of eating ravioli (al brodo) which is still observed today. References have also been found dating back to mid 16th century Rome when  Bartolomeo Scappi served them to the papal conclave of 1549.

Ravioli is a traditional Italian pasta dish made by filling rounds or squares of pasta dough with a filling, creating a sort of pasta “pillow.” The dish is wildly popular outside of Italy, and can be readily found in fresh and frozen form in most Western supermarkets. The fillings for ravioli are limited only by the imagination, as are the sauces which can complement it, and making ravioli at home is fun and relatively easy, if cooks want to experiment with new flavors.

Within Italy, depending on where you travel, you can have meat ravioli, cheese ravioli, seafood ravioli, and versions stuffed with a variety of vegetables including squash, spinach and seasonal mushrooms. Regional Italian cuisine highlights unique flavors and specialties of the area. Typically, the ravioli are boiled and served with a rich sauce, although some parts of Italy bake their ravioli in cream sauces after boiling them.

Although many consumers associate meat with ravioli, there is actually a long tradition of vegetarian ravioli in Italy. On Fridays and during Lent, vegetarian ravioli is a popular option, because for Catholics, red meat is forbidden during fast periods. Less wealthy Italian families ate vegetarian ravioli more often, and there is a long culinary history of cheese and vegetable filled ravioli with interesting spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Seafood ravioli is also common in port towns of Italy, and is often served with delicate lemon sauces that highlight the flavor of the fish.

All ravioli starts with a pasta dough, typically made by mixing egg, flour, salt, olive oil, and water. The dough is kneaded and worked to a smooth, moist consistency, and then allowed to rest while the filling is made. The vegetable or meat filling is usually cooked and cooled, then mixed with egg and/or cheese. The dough is rolled out into a flat sheet and small spoonfuls of filling are placed approximately one inch apart before another sheet of rolled out dough is carefully placed on top. The ravioli are then cut into “little pillows” with a cutter.

Making Homemade Ravioli

You don’t have to make pasta by hand to make it from scratch. Follow these  tips on using a pasta machine.

Combine 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 3 eggs beaten, 1 tablespoon water, 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt in food processor. Process until dough forms; shape into a ball.

Place dough on lightly floured surface; flatten slightly. Cut dough into 4 pieces. Wrap 3 dough pieces in plastic wrap; set aside.

Knead dough with pasta machine. Set rollers of pasta machine at widest setting (position 1). Feed unwrapped dough piece through flat rollers by turning handle. (Dough may crumble slightly at first but will hold together after two to three rollings.)

Lightly flour dough strip; fold strip into thirds. Feed through rollers again. Continue process 5-6 times more, until dough is smooth and elastic.

Roll out dough with machine keeping the sheets as wide as the pasta maker roller. Reduce setting to position 3. Feed dough strip through rollers. Without folding strip into thirds, repeat on positions 5 and 6.

Let dough stand 5 to 10 minutes until slightly dry on floured kitchen towels.

Repeat kneading and rolling with reserved dough pieces.

To Shape Ravioli:

In a small bowl, combine 1 egg and 1 tablespoon water; set aside.

Place the rolled dough on a cutting board and brush strips lightly with egg mixture.

Leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edges, place about 1 teaspoon of filling at 1-inch intervals on one strip of dough.

Lay a second strip of dough, brushed side down, over the first. Using your fingers, press the dough around each mound of filling so that the two moistened strips stick together.

Cut dough between filling to make individual ravioli. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

Fillings to use for stuffing the ravioli.

Butternut Squash Ravioli Filling

Ingredients:

  • 1 -1 pound butternut squash
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese (1 ounce)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut squash in half lengthwise. Seed and peel squash; cut into 1-inch pieces (you should have about 2 2/3 cups).
Place squash in an 8x8x2-inch or 9x9x2-inch baking pan. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss gently to coat. Roast, uncovered, about 30 minutes or until tender, stirring once.
Transfer squash to a medium bowl. Mash with a fork or potato masher. Stir in cheese and nutmeg.

Crab Ravioli Filling

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 6 ounces crab meat, drained, flaked, and cartilage removed
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons drained capers
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
  • 1/8 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Directions
In a medium skillet, cook pepper, onion, and garlic in hot butter over medium heat about 4 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in crabmeat, lemon peel, lemon juice, capers, fennel seeds, and black pepper.

Spinach Cheese Filling

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups  ricotta
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1 1/2 cups packed spinach (1/2 pound of frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry or a pound of cooked drained fresh spinach)
  • A pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Directions:
Drain the ricotta well, if need be by squeezing it in cheesecloth, and crumble it. Mince the spinach. Mix the spinach, ricotta, eggs, and spices together.

To Cook Ravioli:

Bring a large amount of salted water to boiling in a large pot. Gently drop about one-fourth of the ravioli, one at a time, into the boiling water and stir to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Simmer gently for 3 to 4 minutes or until tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer ravioli to a serving dish.  Serve with your favorite sauce.

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