Unravelling ravioli

or special occasions, few dishes are as festive as a plate of home-made ravioli.

There's something irresistible about stuffed pockets of pasta. On restaurant menus, whenever see ravioli or any of its relatives Ashkenazi meat - or potato - filled kreplach, Turkish lamb-stuffed manti, Russian meat Pelmeni, Afghan leek-filled ashak or Chinese seafood or meat wontons, to name a few, I have to order some. During my travels in Europe, I found the best examples of these filled pastas at fine restaurants in both Italy and France. Top chefs competed in coming up with the most lavish fillings and the most sumptuous sauces, like Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi's ravioli stuffed with spinach, livers and truffles and served in a rich mushroom sauce, or Swiss chef Fredy Girardet's extravagant truffle-stuffed raviolis in a sauce of truffle juice and butter. Alain Ducasse, author of les Recettes de la Riviera, makes a rich ravioli filling of mascarpone and fresh pecorino cheeses and serves the pasta in a sauce made of fresh white beans, butter and cream. Yet these elegant creations grew out of simple home recipes that originally were intended to stretch small amounts of meat or fish by wrapping them in pasta dough. If you're making the dough, you can use a food processor to quickly blend the ingredients. You do need a pasta machine to roll it in thin sheets. Well, you don't HAVE to have one but it's much easier to get a thin uniform layer than with a rolling pin. Still, rolling pins are the most traditional. When I was in Bologna, Italy, the woman who made all the pastas for her ristorante, Diana, demonstrated to me how she used a very large rolling pin, as long as the width of the table, to roll the dough. And at the Wei Chuan cooking school in Taiwan, Chinese chefs taught me how to roll dumpling wrappers with a tiny rolling pin. Granted, these delectable morsels are not for everyday, quick-and-easy meals. But for special occasions, few dishes are as festive as a plate of home-made ravioli. Make them to pamper yourself and the people you love. EGG PASTA DOUGH Makes about 250-280 grams (9 or 10 ounces) fresh pasta This dough is used for making noodles of all sizes and for stuffed pastas. You can substitute fine semolina flour for half the flour, for a different texture. The dough is easiest to make in the food processor but you can also knead the ingredients together by hand. 4 11⁄2 cups all purpose flour 4 2 large eggs 4 1⁄4 teaspoon salt 4 2 teaspoons vegetable oil or olive oil Combine flour, eggs, salt and oil in food processor. Process until ingredients are well blended and dough just holds together in sticky crumbs that can be easily pressed together, about 10 seconds. If crumbs are dry, sprinkle enough water, about 1 teaspoon at a time, processing about 5 seconds after each addition, until they are moist. Press dough together to a ball. Transfer to a work surface and knead a few seconds, flouring lightly if dough sticks to surface, until it is a fairly smooth ball. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; or set it on a plate and cover with an inverted bowl. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 4 hours in refrigerator; if refrigerating it, let stand 30 minutes to return to room temperature before using. BASIC RAVIOLI Serve ravioli in homemade clear soup, with tomato sauce or simply with melted butter and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Makes 4 or 5 first-course or 3 main-course servings Fillings - see next recipes Egg Pasta Dough - see above Sauce, soup or seasoned melted butter (for serving) Prepare ravioli filling and dough. Generously flour 2 or 3 trays or baking sheets and a large surface on which you can cut dough. Turn smooth rollers of pasta machine to widest setting. Cut pasta dough in 4 pieces; leave 3 pieces wrapped. Flatten 1 piece of dough into approximately a 10-cm (4-inch) square and lightly flour it. Run through rollers of machine. Fold in thirds so ends just meet in center, press seams together and flatten again slightly. Run dough through rollers again. Repeat folding and rolling, lightly flouring only when necessary to prevent it from sticking, until smooth and velvety, about 7 more times. Turn dial of pasta machine 1 notch to adjust to next narrower setting. Without folding piece of dough, run it through machine. Repeat on each narrower setting, dusting with flour as necessary, until dough is less than 2 mm (1⁄16 inch) thick (generally this is on next to narrowest setting). Lay dough sheet on floured surface. Cut dough in half. Spoon filling onto 1 sheet of dough by teaspoonfuls about 2.5 cm (1 inch) in from edges and spacing centers of mounds about 5 cm (2 inches) apart. Cover loosely with second dough sheet. Seal between lengthwise rows of ravioli by pressing on dough. Press down around filling to seal dough on 3 sides and to force out air through open end of dough; last press to seal fourth side. With a sharp heavy knife, cut dough in 5-cm (2-inch) squares, between and around mounds of filling. Set on floured tray in 1 layer. Check each ravioli to be sure edges are well sealed. Flour work surface again. Repeat with remaining dough and filling, working with 1 piece of dough at a time. (Ravioli can be kept, covered with floured kitchen towel, up to 4 hours in refrigerator; after 1 hour, turn ravioli over carefully so they do not stick. Or freeze them on a floured baking sheet, wrap in plastic bag when solid and keep them up to 2 weeks; do not thaw before cooking.) To serve, prepare sauce, soup or seasoned melted butter. Keep warm. Butter a large baking sheet. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Add half the ravioli and stir gently to prevent sticking. Return to boil. Simmer uncovered over medium-high heat until pasta is just tender but firm to the bite, about 4 minutes (frozen ravioli usually require about 2 more minutes). Remove with a large slotted spoon and drain very well. Transfer to buttered baking sheet. Cover and keep warm in a 95ºC (200ºF) oven while cooking remaining ravioli. Drain again if necessary and transfer to heated plates or bowls. Serve with sauce, in soup or with seasoned butter. MUSHROOM FILLING FOR RAVIOLI Makes scant 1 cup 4 225 grams (8 ounces) mushrooms 4 2 tablespoons butter 4 2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions 4 2 teaspoons minced garlic 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 4 1⁄4 cup whipping cream 4 11⁄2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme or 1⁄2 teaspoon dried 4 1 large egg yolk Clean mushrooms, pat dry and quarter them. Chop them very finely with on/off motion of food processor. Melt butter in a large skillet over low heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add garlic and stir; add mushrooms, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, over medium-high heat, until most of liquid that escapes from mushrooms has evaporated and mixture is very dry, about 4 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, stir in cream and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Stir in thyme. Transfer to a medium bowl and cool to room temperature. Taste and adjust seasoning. Beat in egg yolk. ROQUEFORT, RICOTTA AND ONION FILLING FOR RAVIOLI Serve ravioli with this filling with a simple accompaniment, such as a light tomato sauce or melted butter mixed with chopped parsley. Makes scant 1 cup 4 2 tablespoons butter 4 1 medium onion (about 140 grams or 5 ounces), minced 4 1⁄2 cup Roquefort cheese, room temperature, finely mashed 4 6 tablespoons ricotta cheese 4 1 large egg yolk 4 1 tablespoon unseasoned dry breadcrumbs 4 Freshly ground pepper to taste Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes or until soft and dry but not brown. Transfer to a medium bowl. Cool about 5 minutes. Thoroughly mix in Roquefort. Add ricotta and egg yolk and beat well. Stir in breadcrumbs. Season with pepper. Cover and refrigerate 30 minutes.n Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta