When my grandmother passed away, we spent time as a family reminiscing – going through her home, her things, and sharing our favorite memories. As we discussed who would get certain items, I had two things that I desperately wanted in my home to remember her by and continue her legacy. Both items had lived in her kitchen, and both reminded me (and still do) wholly of her. One was her pasta maker. My grandmother always hosted Easter dinner; full-blooded Italian, she and my grandfather made homemade ravioli and homemade Italian sausage every year. It was our family’s tradition, and we looked forward to that meal for 364.5 days – from the last bite of ravioli one year, we were already already thinking about the next year. It was the one thing I could’t resist eating the spring I had my wisdom teeth out and was sidelined for two weeks with pain and black and blue chipmunk cheeks. They were delicious and such a special reminder of our family heritage and the importance of tradition.
So when Grandma Olga died, I made a promise that I would continue the ravioli making tradition, and so far, even if I have made them just for two people, started the process at 2:00pm Easter Sunday, or made and frozen them until we had time to sit down and enjoy as a family, we have kept our word, and our Italian tradition continues. My ravioli are slightly different than Grandma’s – maybe less traditional Italian, but they are homemade with love and nothing feels more like Easter than pulling out the pasta maker and filling sheets of fresh dough with ricotta cheese and herbs.
I start with a fresh, egg-based pasta dough. I don’t have Grandma’s original recipe, but it was simple, and generally pasta dough is extremely simple – eggs and flour. For a special, richer dough, you can use additional egg yolks or semolina flour or special Italian 00 Flour. (Here’s a simple pasta recipe from Mario Batali). You can add fresh herbs or ground pepper to the dough for a twist, and typically our Easter ravioli include herbs from recently rejuvenated perennial plants, like thyme, sage, and rosemary.
I roll out the dough until it is fairly thin – usually the second to thinnest section on the pasta maker. I keep the dough moist and workable by placing each sheet between layers of thin, slightly damp dish towels (the lightweight flour sack kind).
While the noodles are resting, or preferably before, I mix up the filling. (If you make the filling in advance, cover and keep in the refrigerator.) While you can add whatever you like to the inside of the dough, I like to keep it simple and somewhat traditional, so my filling includes ricotta cheese, egg, grated Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and fresh herbs. (Sometimes I’ll add chopped Prosciutto.) When I have time, I will make the ricotta cheese fresh the day before.
To fill the ravioli, I lay out one noodle sheet either on a slightly floured counter, cutting board or a piece of parchment paper, and drop 1-2 tbsp size mounds in a line along one side, leaving enough room between each mound and the edge of the sheet for sealing. To seal, you can either fold the top edge over to meet the bottom edge of the pasta sheet OR you can spread out another line of the filling across the top and cover with a second sheet of dough.
To seal, run a wet finger along each edge of the pasta sheet before matching up the second layer of pasta. The water will act like glue with the dough and keep the filling inside. Then take a sharp knife and cut around the filling, leaving enough of an edge to prevent breakage and leaking.
I place the completed stuffed and cut ravioli onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. If you plan to cook immediately (same day), they can be added directly to a pot of boiling water from the cookie sheet. If you would like to save, place the cookie sheets in the freezer. Once the ravioli are individually frozen, place them in plastic Ziploc bags to store in the freezer for later use. When you are ready to cook, they can be added directly to boiling water from the freezer.
Grandma served her ravioli with a homemade red sauce and sausage. While we haven’t traditionally made the sausage, (my sister carries on that tradition), we will buy local Italian sausage and whip up a red sauce, or we will opt for no sausage and toss the ravioli in a bit of olive oil and shave some Parmesan over the top for a lighter, fresh, spring meal.
Making ravioli can be a bit time consuming, but it’s a simple, fun process that is absolutely worth the wait. (Kiddos like to help!)
The other item of Grandma’s that is now in my kitchen is an ornamental Tyrolean sheep bell with a recipe printed on it. Also a remembrance of our Italian heritage, it hung in Grandma Olga’s kitchen and now hangs in mine. I love it, and someday, I will make the recipe that is painted on the front of the bell.
But for now, a very Happy Easter!