Ravioli: Get stuffed

Cheese-filled ravioli is an Italian staple that we’ve seen on menus for decades. Over the last several years we’ve seen these delightful stuffed pasta pillows get a delectable makeover. As we culinary folks have come to look at stretched pizza dough as an empty canvas where almost anything goes, we have realized the same is true when it comes to stuffing our ravioli. Meats, vegetables, a wide variety of cheeses or any combination of them all is what is thrusting ravioli into the culinary spotlight. Besides amazing fillings, chefs around the globe are creating wonderfully flavored dough as well to use as the outer pasta layer.

A traditional pasta dough is made with 100-percent durum semolina, which is the hardest part of the wheat. When I make ravioli, I usually use the semolina, but on occasion I have simply used flour and eggs, making my dough soft enough to go through the roller but stiff enough that it isn’t too sticky. I love using a food processor to blend my dough quickly. I also have moved from my counter top hand crank unit with the attachable motor to my pasta attachment that provides an awesome strong motor that allows me to zip through rolling out my dough so much faster.

Now, once you’ve decided what kind of dough you’ll make and you’ve chosen your filling, you’ve got so many different ways to assemble the ravioli. If you’re using a dough roller of some sort, you’ll have a nice even sheet of pasta, which of course is a plus. There are ravioli trays you can use by placing the bottom sheet of dough on them and then spooning your filling over the spots with indentations on them (which are for the filling). You can make the ravioli in the exact same way without using the tray by simply laying the sheet out on your workbench. Now remember some important tips: you must brush some egg wash on the inside of one of the layers of pasta (top or bottom), but not both. The egg wash will act as the glue. Once you placed your filling on the dough and one of the sheets of pasta is egg washed, place the top layer over the bottom layer with the filling. The other important tip is to ensure that there are no air bubbles trapped inside the ravioli. This will almost guarantee the ravioli ripping and letting the filling seep out during the cooking process.

If you’re using a ravioli tray, you’ll roll over the tray with a rolling pin, which will cut and separate the ravioli. If you are not using a tray, simply use a knife or a pizza cutter to cut and separate the ravioli.

I went to a nice restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, several years ago and ordered the Raviolo, which is a huge jumbo-stuffed ravioli. There were four to my dinner portion, but there was plenty to eat because they were so huge. The chef simply took some four-inch by four-inch pasta squares, egg washed two of the edges, filled the center with a chicken and spinach mixture and folded them into a triangle. This seemed to be an easier process and less time consuming, but I can assure you they did not fall short in the satisfactory department!

Another secret to successful ravioli cooking is to really chill your ravioli well. If the filling is still warm or too soft, the ravioli will tear during cooking and you will lose some of your hard work.

Now that we’ve got some techniques down in regards to the dough and assembly process, let’s talk fillings. You can keep ravioli simple with a ricotta filling, or you can blend many different cheeses together. I have used a six-cheese blend of ricotta, Romano, Parmesan, Asiago, mozzarella and provolone. I love using spinach in ravioli. A smooth Gorgonzola or goat cheese gives a nice touch to ravioli — but you must be aware of how you are blending your fillings. If you use something with strong flavors, like a Gorgonzola or bleu cheese, you really shouldn’t use them straight. Cut them with something smoother and milder like a ricotta, farmer’s cheese or even a mascarpone.

Also, if you’re using proteins or large vegetables in your filling, make sure they are chopped well without any sharp edges that could potentially rip the ravioli. Here’s a list of ingredients that will make awesome ravioli filling:

crab meat
lobster
shrimp
chicken
sausage
sun-dried tomatoes
spinach
portabella mushrooms
ground veal
braised beef
pumpkin
butternut squash

Once you figure out what kind of ravioli filling you want to make, you have the next culinary task of deciding what sauce will best accompany your pasta. Keep in mind there may be many different sauces that could be a great fit. For example, I love to make a nutmeg and cinnamon cream sauce to accompany my butternut squash ravioli. But an awesome brown sage butter is also amazing with it. Marinara would be a great sauce with a chicken, spinach and cheese ravioli, but so would a creamy pesto sauce or a roasted red pepper and garlic Gorgonzola butter.

As you can see, the possibilities are really endless.

Jeff Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at International Pizza Expo.