Tortelloni di zucca

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The main area of Italian settlement in London was not Soho, as popularly believed, but further north in Clerkenwell, where shops, churches, import businesses and community centres still exist. Most of the Italian presence in Soho post-dates the second war and unlike the originally much larger French community, still survives by and large intact. Indeed with the arrival of an excellent pizza place called Spiga, and the energetic Aldo Zilli with his two restaurants and bar, it can truly be said to be flourishing. One place that has thankfully survived is the food shop on Brewer Street called Lina Stores. This is the place to go for the largest collection of dried pasta in the capital. They also do their own fresh pasta as well, and it was here that I first met this ancient north Italian speciality. An autumn dish with a quite unique flavour, it still features on my menus in the pumpkin season. The use of a little crumbled amaretti biscuit in the stuffing gives it a distinctive edge: only a very old dish could possibly use sweet ingredients in this way to produce a savoury result.

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Ingredients

Pasta Dough

  • 250 g 00 flour (extra finely milled Italian flour, widely available in supermarkets now)
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 2 medium egg yolks

Stuffing

  • 500 g pumpkin, cut into wedges, seeds removed
  • 100 g ricotta cheese
  • 100 g Parmesan, grated
  • 1 amaretti biscuit
  • salt and pepper

To Assemble and Cook

  • 100 g Parmesan, grated
  • a little semolina flour and some more 00 flour, both for dusting
  • salt and pepper
  • 100 g butter
  • 12 sage leaves

Note on Equipment

There is little point in attempting this recipe unless you have a pasta-rolling machine, nothing elaborate, just one of the little hand-cranked ones. A ravioli cutter is also essential: this looks like a small pizza cutter with a crinkled cutting edge. The best ones have a black wooden handle and cost very little, in contrast to some of the much more expensive ‘designer’ ones in stainless steel which are worse than useless; the worst of all, though, are the folksy all-wooden ones. You will also need a wooden ruler, preferably one with a blunt edge.

Before you rush out and buy a pasta machine, check that your work surface has a protruding edge on which the ‘G’ clamp fastening attachment will fit. Many modern kitchen units are unsuitable. While on the subject of work surfaces, making ravioli requires a fair amount of space, so if your kitchen is rather cramped, you would be better buying them from Lina Stores.

Method

Making the Pasta Dough

Tip the flour into the bowl of a mixer and attach the dough hook. Lightly mix the eggs and egg yolks with a fork and then pour on to the flour. Run the mixer at medium speed until a loosely cohesive dough is formed. Remove from the mixer and knead on a lightly floured surface until smooth, glossy and elastic, about 5 minutes’ fairly hard work. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least an hour, but no more than 12 hours.

Making the Stuffing

Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. Place the pumpkin wedges on a lightly oiled baking sheet and roast until browned and fully cooked. The time the squash takes to cook will vary according to type, but expect between half and an hour. When the pumpkin is done, allow to cool a little and then scrape off the skin. Transfer the flesh to a frying pan and continue cooking over a low heat until no liquid renders out of it and caramelisation is starting. This drying-out process is vital: if the by now pulpy pumpkin has not lost most of its water, the stuffing will be too wet to make the ravioli. Allow the pulp to cool completely in a sieve.

Crumble the ricotta into a bowl, add the Parmesan and then the pumpkin. Crumble half the amaretti biscuit in and season generously. Mix with a wooden spoon: do not overwork the stuffing, simply fold everything together, stopping as soon as it is vaguely homogeneous. (Do not do this mixing process in a food processor or blender.) Taste to check the seasoning and adjust; add more amaretti if you think it needs it. Refrigerate until needed.

Assembling the Ravioli

Place 50 g of the Parmesan on a plate. Form the pumpkin stuffing into little balls; do this without pressing them too firmly. Each ball should contain about a teaspoon of stuffing. As you form the balls drop them into the Parmesan and roll them about by shaking the plate. Form 40 balls, laying them neatly on a tray as the plate gets full.

Separate the pasta dough into two equal-sized pieces. Roll out to the thinnest setting on your pasta machine, place on a lightly floured surface and trim into an even rectangle. Cut this rectangle in half and place one piece under a damp cloth at the back of the floured work surface.

Place two rows of stuffing along the other piece: each ball of stuffing must be 2 cm apart from its neighbours and at least 2 cm in from the edge of the dough sheet. Dust any stray bits of Parmesan from between the balls. Take the other sheet of pasta from under the damp cloth, turn it over and place it carefully over the half-formed ravioli. Take the ruler and press with the blunt edge between the two rows of stuffing to form a straight seal. Now repeat this process between the pairs of balls to form a lattice with the original seal. All this pressing with the ruler should be done quite firmly, taking care that you seal close to but not touching or crushing any of the stuffing. Still wielding your ruler, make straight seals around the outside of the dough rectangle.

Dust a large tray generously with semolina. Using the ravioli cutter, separate by cutting along the lines imprinted by the ruler. Carefully lift the individual ravioli off the work surface and check the seals by pressing around the edges with your fingers. Arrange them on the prepared tray neatly in rows, taking care that they do not overlap.

Allow the ravioli to dry for 1 hour then carefully turn them over and dry the other side for a further hour. The drying process is best done in a cool room, but use the fridge in hot weather.

Cooking and Serving

The best pan in which to cook ravioli is a very wide one: I often use a deep roasting tray covering two burners on my cooker hob. The reason for this is that the ravioli have trapped air inside them and float as soon as you start to cook them; with a wide pan they can all bob about engagingly on the surface, allowing you to immediately detect any that burst. Fill the pan of your choice with water and season moderately, then bring to a boil. While this is happening, put the butter and sage leaves in another pan, season generously and place over a very low heat to melt the butter and infuse the butter with the sage.

Carefully shake any excess semolina off the ravioli and, equally carefully, place them in the boiling water. As soon as the water returns to the boil, turn it down so the water is at a fast simmer. If you cook home-made ravioli at a rolling boil an unacceptable number will burst. The ravioli will take about 3 minutes to cook. With a spider or slotted spoon drain them and transfer to the pan with the butter. Place this pan on a medium heat and gently swirl it to coat the ravioli with the butter. Residual water clinging to the ravioli will emulsify with the butter to lighten it and prevent greasiness. It is possible that a tbsp of ravioli cooking water may need to be added to achieve this effect. Still over a medium heat add the Parmesan and swirl to incorporate it. Serve immediately.

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