Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Day 56 - Spinach Pasta Dough, Ravioli with Ricotta Filling, and Marinara Sauce

So this morning, I'm working out with my workout buddy, and I say, "Ken, I made pasta last night." Now Ken has heard all about my various cooking expeditions, and he's an experienced cook, himself, but he seems unimpressed. So I repeat, "No, I actually made pasta last night." "What???" Finally, the response I was looking for....

Making pasta is one of those things that feels like a major accomplishment. It almost doesn't compute. We're so used to opening these boxes of hard noodles, or these packages of already-made fresh noodles, or in the case of ravioli, these cans of stuffed noodles. (I used to eat a can of Buitoni Ravioli every day after school. No wonder I was fat...)

So, to create pasta really feels huge, like a chef's rite of passage.

It's so huge, in fact, that I didn't think it was wise to do it alone. I called in the big guns. Enter Paula, gourmet queen, FNBF's BFF, and owner of two ravioli molds.

Let me just say for the record that if Paula weren't there, it would have been past midnight before there was cooked ravioli. As it was, we didn't sit down to eat until 10:45! But this was an amazing adventure, and as always, totally worth it!

For the record, Paula is very much her own woman in the kitchen, i.e. if she intuitively feels that by changing something in a recipe, she's going to improve it, then she just does it. It must have been horrible for her every time I insisted on doing it Martha's way. In a couple of instances, I deferred to Paula's expertise, and she was absolutely right. (Paula, why don't YOU write a book??)

Spinach Pasta Dough (p. 368)

This dough is nothing like what you're imagining. You're picturing that dull green (khaki), heavy pasta that surrounds vegetable dumplings, right? This, instead, is a beautiful, bright green, the color of just-steamed spinach, and the dough is flecked with little bits of actual spinach leaves. (Commercial spinach pasta must be made with spinach powder, i.e. the color is so even.)

I cleaned a bunch of spinach, steamed it, and drained it (this took wringing it out and then squeezing it in paper towels about 50 times before it was dry). Then it went in the food processor with eggs and salt, and ultimately, flour. Once it came together, I kneaded it on the counter for ten minutes until it got "smooth and elastic." Then it went into the fridge for a couple of hours wrapped in plastic wrap.

Then, it was ready to be rolled. I was prepared with my handy-dandy Atlas Original Pasta Maker. It was great having Paula there to hold my hand through this stage, because rolling pasta for the first is overwhelming. Paula hadn't ever rolled pasta before, either, but just having someone there to confer with makes such a difference. It's actually quite straightforward, but when you're staring at that stainless steel contraption, it just doesn't seem possible that anything good is going to come of it.

But then you stick a blob of green dough in there, roll it through, and it comes out the bottom, flatter. And then you put it through again, and again, and again, always tightening the gap between the rollers, and before you know it, there's a ridiculously long sheet of paper-thin spinach pasta. And when I say ridiculously long, I mean almost three feet long. The roller thickness setting goes from one (the largest gap, i.e. where you start) to nine (the thinnest setting, for filled pasta, like ravioli). By the time you get to eight (which is the setting for cut pasta, like spaghetti), you can't believe how delicate the sheet of pasta is. So going to nine seems like just asking for trouble, but somehow it works. Paula begged me to stop at eight, but I pressed on. (Martha said "nine.") And even though there were holes and tears here and there, it's amazing how resilient fresh pasta is (see below).

Paula thought that my dough might have benefited from being more elastic, which would probably have meant kneading it longer in the beginning. But even with the dough as it was, it totally worked. By the third sheet, we pretty much figured out how to finesse the shaping of the sheet and manage the texture with extra flour, etc.

We ran out of filling, so I ended up with an extra sheet's worth of dough, which I rolled out to a number eight thickness, with the intention of cutting it into fettuccine. After rolling it out, you're supposed to hang it to dry until only slightly tacky. Unfortunately we got carried away eating our ravioli and by the time we went to roll it, it was basically lavash. I tried to revive it with a sprinkle of water, but it was a lost cause. Ah well. But really, who cares? We conquered pasta-making!

Jeff + Paula: A
Martha: A

Ravioli with Ricotta Filling (p. 373)

For my first pasta experience, I came up with this combination for a couple of reasons. I picked ravioli because Paula offered to bring over her cute ravioli molds which would make the pasta-shaping that much easier. And I picked the ricotta filling because, frankly, it was the least complicated one, and really, there was enough on the agenda tonight. :-)

Martha tells us how to shape the ravioli without molds, and thanks to Adinah, who gave me her pastry cutter (again my benefactress), I will attempt that the next time I make ravioli. In the meantime, Paula's old world ravioli molds were adorable, especially the one with the mini rolling pin that made teeny weeny ravioli. (Raviolini? Ravioletti? Ravioli-ettes?) Basically you lay the bottom sheet of dough on top of the mold, make pockets by slightly pressing into the holes, wet the edges of each piece with a damp pastry brush, fill the pockets, and then lay the second sheet of pasta on top. Then you roll over the whole mold with a rolling pin, which creates the serrated edges around each piece. When you turn the mold over, out pops the most ADORABLE sheet of raviolini. Beautiful!

After making two trays of those, we moved on to regular-size ravioli, same idea, just bigger. I was being very conservative with the filling, seeing that we were running low. Paula was not having it and encouraged me to stuff one batch with a ton of filling. It looked like way too much to me, but I went along, begrudgingly.

Then, we cooked them. Martha says to leave them in boiling water until they float, but they started floating immediately! My instinct was to take them out after a very short time, but Paula suggested we go longer, in order to make sure that the filling gets heated through. (Smart!)

The amazing thing to me was that there was a handful of ravioli with a lack of "structural integrity," i.e. holes and tears. I was sure these would completely come apart in the pot, and that all the others would take a beating upon contact with the slotted spoon. But it was completely the opposite! This pasta is super-resilient! The ravioli stayed perfectly perfect every step of the way! Even the torn ones held their shape in the pot, the filling stayed in, they were totally serve-able. Amazing!

As for the taste? Absolutely delicious! And impossibly delicate! Truly one of the lightest things I've ever eaten, no resemblance to any ravioli I've ever had before. The pasta is so thin. I, myself, couldn't find any spinach flavor there, but Paula thought she might have caught it. The ricotta filling was simple and great, and the ones that were the most successful were the ones that Paula made me overstuff. There was a perfect balance between the creaminess and the dough. (Paula knows best.)

NB: if you're planning to make a filled pasta, make extra filling!

Jeff + Paula: A
Martha: A-
(for the misleading instruction about the floating pasta being done)

Marinara Sauce (p. 381)

Unfortunately, thia sauce was the one element of the meal that brought it down a notch.

This is my first tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes. For this recipe, I bought the best tomatoes I could find given the season, some vine-ripened tomatoes, but they weren't great. I loved revisiting that nifty, tomato-peeling trick.

The recipe is super-simple. Peel the tomatoes, give some chopped garlic a quick sauté in olive oil with a dash of crushed red pepper, then add tomatoes, salt, and pepper. (Martha doesn't tell you to chop them, but they're chopped in her picture, so I chopped.) Then bring to boil and simmer for about 15 minutes, until "tomatoes are falling apart and juices are reduced slightly." Then put through the finest blade of a food mill and serve.


My sauce was simmering for way longer than 15 minutes, and the juices were showing no signs of reducing. In fact, the sauce was downright watery! After about 40 minutes, I thought, "Enough already!" and I started putting it through the food mill. Paula said "Whoa, Nelly!" and suggested that I put through just the solids, because if I used all the liquid, it wouldn't be Marinara Sauce, it would be Tomato Water. So I put just the solids through, and still it was incredibly watery. Paula taught me to press the solids through the food mill, since the mill wasn't pressing that hard itself. We got a lot more puree that way, and still, the sauce was quite loose.

We put it back on the stove and kept cooking it, for another hour even, and eventually, it started behaving like a sauce, texture-wise. But this was clearly not a successful endeavor. If I had followed Martha's directions to a tee, the sauce would have been unusable.

Another issue: The salt level is way too high, I think. The saltiness of the sauce overwhelms the pasta, which is salty in its own right.

Clearly, the less-than-ideal tomatoes were a big factor here. Maybe they were crazily watery.

I think Paula was right when she commented that straining the juice from the chopped tomatoes before adding them to the pot would have made a big difference.

Martha, why did this come out so wrong?

Jeff: B
Paula: A
Martha: C

Until we eat again...

Paula with the first batch of ravioletti!

Close up on our little babies! Aren't they adorable? (I used Adinah's pastry cutter to help separate the pieces.)

Cheers! FYI, pasta and sauce by us, sausage by Whole Foods.


  1. I was on the edge of my seat for this post. Whew! As for the watery problem, I had emailed you about my watery Lamb Tajine. We cooked it another hour and a half for the leftovers, with additional dried apricots, and it was perfect. Is this a pattern?

  2. Hmmm, I don't know about the pattern thing. I think my recurring wateriness has to do with being temperature-shy, i.e. always scared to turn the flame up too high.

    But the Marinara Sauce consistency was so ridiculously watery that no amount of heat would have solved it.

    There must be a certain number of variables in the making of any dish, and the more we cook, the more we will be able to predict the outcome and solve any issues on the fly. In the meantime, isn't it interesting to be following Martha by the book to see what works, what doesn't, and to try to figure out why? Thanks for posting!

    (I can't wait to make the Lamb Tagine!)