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Monday, December 20, 2010

Ravioli Story: From scratch to sniff, almost

Visions of ravioli had been haunting my sleep of late. I don't know why, but with each passing night, I seemed to remember, and play back in my mind again and again, the first time I had ravioli and how awesome it was. Alright, so it wasn't in Italy, at a beautiful restaurant that overlooked a small bay, from the cliffs. It was more like a fast food Italian place in a mall in Dubai that I remember from over 10 years ago, and they used to have a counter where they made your pasta to order. They used to have the best beef ravioli there, and I know all you “true fans” of “real Italian cuisine” are booing me for not going anywhere near an authentic product, if not to admonish me for my tall claims to have tasted the world's “best beef ravioli” from a mall in a country that was once a desert kingdom with a creek running through it. However, I still maintain that that was the best ravioli ever. It was certainly the best ravioli in the nearby area, because it always sold out first. It's just like what happens with all the fancy breads at Subway; they disappear first, and you're left holding a six-inch something or the other “on white bread”. So, these dreams of this delectable ravioli had been haunting me for a while, and I finally decided to throw caution to the wind and attempt to make some. I know I passed that off as some sort of “slight” task, but trust me, I was perfectly aware of the work I was going to have to put into it to make it even barely passable as “edible”. But for whatever reason, I felt up to the task.

I found this recipe online, for Ravioli dough, and I didn't realize that I had it until I was browsing through my collection of recipes, trying to hyperlink the document so that I didn't have to hunting for the recipes each and every time. Here it is, but it isn't mine.
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Ravioli Dough Recipe

Ingredients:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs, whole
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons water
Steps:
  1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process for 30 seconds. Check consistency and add a small amount of flour is pasta is too wet, or a small amount of water if pasta is too dry. Process another 30 seconds to incorporate any additions.
  2. Turn dough out onto a silicone mat or work surface sprinkled lightly with flour and knead by hand for a minute or two, until smooth.
  3. Place the dough under a bowl to rest for 20 minutes before rolling, or refrigerate, tightly wrapped in plastic and stored in a plastic bag if not using right away.
  4. Use within a few hours for best results.
  5. Roll pasta out using a roller machine, beginning with the widest setting. Fold dough over and roll through again, gradually decreasing the roller setting as the pasta becomes smoother; dust lightly with flour as needed, but not too much. It helps to brush off excess flour with a pastry brush.
  6. When pasta is thin enough (about a 3 setting on most machines) it is ready for use in making ravioli.
  • Use the pasta sheets as soon as they are rolled; dry pasta sheets don't seal as well at the edges as fresh sheets, causing the ravioli to separate when cooking. If your pasta sheets have dried out, brush the edges with an egg wash or water (where the pasta is crimped together).
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Fighting, no, Rolling the Ravioli Dough
So that was what I had to work with. No wait. I had to knead the dough by hand, after which I had to roll it an cut it out sans a pasta machine thingy. I had to come up with a filling for the ravioli, using a combination of either potatoes, tomatoes, green chillies, cabbage, and cubes of cheese, the processed-beyond-belief kind. Did I say this was one of the easiest things I did? Oh, and how can I possibly forget the sauce that needed to be around for the ravioli to be tossed in? A not-entirely-tried-and-tested combination of ketchup and barbeque sauce popped into my head, to present itself as a strong contender for “sauce du jour”. But, as much as I kept thinking about the work I had ahead of me and how much picking up two bottles of hey-I'm-already-a-sauce to mix together would save me the trouble, I wanted to make this as close to authentic as I possibly could. It would be a feat of super-Rohin proportions for sure, but at the end of it all, I just hoped to be able to make something that I could put in my mouth. I got down to rolling out the dough, folding it, rolling it out again, and folding it, so that as the recipe said, I appeared to be “gradually decreasing the roller setting as the pasta becomes smoother”. Halfway through this process, I realized that the I was working with too much dough, so I had to halve it and leave one half to rest. On the surface of things, I welcomed the opportunity to have some “standby” dough, just in case I did a horrendous job with the first batch, so that I could still recover and feed myself. However, I also remembered that I have a terrible track record of “fluking out” with things the first time because in my “trial-and-error” world of cuisine, if it succeeds the first time, you're in for an “error” the second time. So, did I want it to work or not?

There's another way to tell if you have a nice soft dough, and that is usually when you realize that it's doing as you asked; staying down on the board if you roll it, and keeping shape however you mold it. This new technique is really all about awareness, and in particular, paying attention to the fact that you are working with the dough, and not against it, wrestling the dough down flat on your board. This was the last thing I needed because when I first mixed the dough and kneaded it, I thought it felt about right. I even did the little finger-poke-dough-test thing, where if you prod the dough with your finger it should bounce right back and show a little elasticity. It played along and did the whole Pillsbury Doughboy thing, so I was satisfied. Now that I was trying to roll out the dough, with almost the weight of my whole body resting down on the rolling pin, the dough decided to show me who was really the boss. With a Herculean effort, I managed to halve the already-halved bit of dough to adopt a divide-and-conquer strategy, and lo and behold, it worked.

Three Tanned Ravioli
I managed to roll out some kind of shape that stayed rolled out, and wasn't trying to bring itself back together in a little ball, and once I'd placed the little fillings far enough apart, I folded the rolled out dough on itself, the side without the fillings over the side with. I got to cutting and crimping, and didn't think much of the size of these “little pieces” of ravioli. Sure it was my first time making it, but I had eaten it before. And the ravioli that I had eaten, was all nice and bite-sized, forming a perfect little mouthful of pasta, filling and sauce every single time. Here I had three pieces of ravioli that were doing the whole two-is-company-three-is-a-crowd thing on a plate, and refusing to sit altogether. And to make matters worse, with the next bit of dough, although it was the same size and I had only a minute ago made such gargantuan ravioli, I found myself staring at not more, but fewer pieces of ravioli. There were two, saucer-sized, bits of ravioli staring back at me. It stands to reason, therefore, that I didn't want to photograph these works in progress, banking on the second half of the dough to right this wrong. Here's a shot from the second, more “normal looking” batch of ravioli.

Approaching Normalcy, size-wise
I wasn't worried about the size of the ravioli because I was filling it with a partially cooked filling of some kind that I was hoping would cook with the ravioli, which meant that if I had a piece of ravioli the size of my head, I could kiss it goodbye if I stuck it a pot of boiling water, and serve soup instead. I was worried about the size of these ravioli pieces because I was going to have to cook them in a little rice cooker and I didn't want to be serving them one at a time. As you can see from the picture, its a bit crowded in the rice cooker, but it had to be this way if I wanted to finish this meal this day, and not be eating ravioli one piece at a time for the rest of the week.

Ravioli with Growth Hormones?
Speaking of the filling, I decided to go with a mashed potato and cheese filling that I spiced up with some oregano and thyme. After boiling and peeling the potatoes, I cut up the cheese cubes into even smaller cubes, sprinkled the oregano and thyme over it, and mixed it till I had a really cheesy, mashed potato. I didn't add any salt to this mixture because the cheese cubes are well salted already. I didn't realize it at the time, but the melted cheese and potato filling ended up being the icing on the cake of this ravioli cooking experience.

The sauce I finally settled on was a simple, fresh tomato and garlic sauce, with an extra hit of chili powder. I figured that because the ravioli filling was cheese and potato, it would be nice to have a sauce that added a little edge to the dish, instead of turning it into a bland food experience from kitchen hell. I chopped up my onions and tomatoes, and the garlic that I'd set aside, threw my pan on the stove to heat it, and drizzled in a bit of oil. Then, I ran to the refrigerator to get what I remembered seeing as a small carton of tomato puree. However, when I got there to find it missing, I remained rooted to the spot, crushed, summoned back to the kitchen only by the crackle of hot oil on a pan I had left to heat. The little tetrapak that I had seen only the top of, turned out to be a mango drink. There was no way conceivable that substituting tomato puree with mango drink was going to fly. What was I going to do now? Sure it was a “fresh tomato and garlic sauce”, but a little tomato puree, even if it's only a drop, would give the sauce that much more of a nice, tomato-ey flavor. Well, I ended up doing what I guess anyone in my position would have done after photographing his meal stage by stage, from raw material to dumpster. No, I'm kidding. I didn't throw it out, I just went ahead and made a simple, fresh tomato and garlic “dip” with which to toss the ravioli in. Ok, when I say “dip”, I don't really mean dip. What I do mean, is that I like a bit of structure to remain in the fresh tomatoes that I use in a pasta sauce, which is where the tomato puree comes in to give the sauce its “saucy” quality, to use that word out of context. So, while I did let it cook a little bit more because I didn't have the puree, and although it may appear to be more dip than sauce, the combination of chili and tomato as it met the cheesy potato filling of the ravioli was divine! You had to have been here. :)

Franken-ravioli
Now, I'm not going to sit here and be all praises for myself. There are several things wrong with the exhibit in the picture. Apart from the “bits of tomato”, which I covered at the end of the last paragraph, there are a few edges that seem off-color and almost biscuit dry. Well, if you'll pay closer attention, these happen to be the edges of the two humongous pieces of pasta I ended up creating with the remainder of the dough from the first attempt. The one on the left of the picture can been seen occupying that entire half of the plate. And if you're worried about the color of the ravioli, they were a little tanned to begin with because I used one cup of all-purpose flour, and one cup of whole wheat flour, just because I have a thing for more coarsely ground flour. I guess I support the theory that we could all use a little more roughage in our diets. I didn't want to try two cups of whole wheat flour because I imagined that would result in, if I had screwed up a little more, bits of potato-and-cheese stuffed bread floating in spicy tomato dip. The worst part? There happened to be a little left over for dinner as well, but when I threw it in the microwave, what had been a nice, mostly moist ravioli at lunch, had turned into a soggy bread-like dish even the cats were glancing at it cautiously.

On the whole, from start to finish, raw material to finished product, 11 am to 2 pm, I have to say that I was pleased with the whole effort. In a way, I guess I had to be, otherwise one of my roommates would be posting this, my last blog post, because I finally took my own life after a fiasco of plate-sized ravioli proportions. Sure there were rough edges, and imaginary ingredients to cook with when I first started out. Sure I can complain about having to boil my ravioli in a rice cooker. But after three hours in the kitchen, putting together several little experiments to come up with one overall, “big” experiment, if you take the dough, the filling and the sauce, to be individual experiments, I was more than happy with what I had on the plate in front of me. I suppose it did look like a Franken-ravioli dish, an appearance made worse by the salsa-like tomato all over. But if this is the case, then I'm Dr. Franken-ravioli, and obviously only I can love my own, hideous creation. Melodrama aside, my roommate Venky thought it turned out rather well for a first attempt, telling me in quiet that he hoped I'd make it, although not exactly like this, again.

Now, I'm thinking I can make all sorts of doughs for things like noodles, pasta, even puff pastry based on sticking to simple ingredients, and oodles of innovator spirit. Luckily, I seem to have truckloads of patience and I-wouldn't-do-that-if-I-were-you that keep from stepping off the edge, so I'll have to plan my next move well, and very much in advance. Here's hoping for a better sequel, which though seemingly impossible in the world of movies, happens to be the status quo for the kitchen. Wish me luck. :)
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