Author Laura Schenone went to Italy in search of her ancestral ravioli recipe. Hold that thought while I digress a bit.
Ravioli is my favorite food in the world. Not the fancy kind, stuffed with lobster or “kiwi infused pork” (no kidding!). Plain old cheese ravioli. Peasant food—la cucina povera— at its finest. It was my family’s signature dish for Christmas and Easter. Other special occasions might feature gnocchi or lasagna or “homemades,” but ravioli was always my mother’s pièce de résistance.
Mom didn’t use a recipe, of course—she did it all by feel. She rolled the dough and cut and filled the ravioli by hand, while the sauce was on the stove, in the last few hours before dinner. The ravioli were so tender they truly did almost melt in your mouth.
My mother eschewed shortcuts, possibly because the act of making the ravioli was so important to her. Daddy bought her one of those special rolling pins with the die-cut squares—a ravioli cutter—but she never used it. The ravioli it produced were too small, she said. When he brought home an Italian macaroni machine (that’s what we called it), she used it once, to make spaghetti as a first course for Thanksgiving, then retired it to the basement, saying it required too much flour, which made the dough tough. She never made the ravioli in advance and froze them, as many people do. Mom learned most of what she knew about cooking from her two older sisters—my grandmother had died in the flu epidemic when my mother was only eight. My guess is that Mom’s attachment to “hand made” ravioli was a way of staying connected to her earliest, and probably fondest, childhood memories.
When I was about nine, she patiently trained me to help her. I marveled at the way she whipped that dough around the long, smooth macaroni stick Daddy had made her. She didn’t fold the pasta dough in half, drop the filling at intervals, and then fold it over and cut around it—she cut out every single top and bottom and filled them one-at-a-time. I learned to make the filling—ricotta mixed with egg, fresh parsley, a bit of pecorino, and black pepper—drop a dollop onto the cut-out square of dough, top it with another, and crimp the edges together with a wet fork. And then race to get those delicate little packets into the pot of boiling water, with her chiding me to handle them with care.
I should add that Mom was a working mother. That she didn’t start cooking till after 8:15 Mass. And that she accomplished all of this in a tiny rectangle of a 1958 kitchen, on a tiny rectangle of turquoise enamel kitchen table partly covered with a well floured, old cotton tablecloth I still have. It’s there, in the photo.
When my kids were old enough, Mom enlisted their help. My son, Chris, could whip that macaroni stick around like a pro when he was only eight. My daughter, Emily, picked up hand rolling as well and, inspired to a large extent by my mother, subsequently received her professional chef’s certification from the Culinary Institute of America.
These are glorious memories. One of my great regrets is that we have no photos of Mom in the kitchen, doing these ordinary-but-extraordinary things that made our lives so rich.
But back to Laura Schenone. Given my love of ravioli, how could I have passed up, on a Saturday stroll through Barnes and Noble, a book with the irresistible title, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken? Her family’s Genoese ravioli are different than our Southern Italian version—she uses a meat and cheese filling you’ll hear about in the video. Her quest to duplicate the taste and texture of her childhood, told within the context of a soul-searching memoir, is a satisfying detective story on multiple levels, beautifully told. And it’s an eye-opener for all of you who’ve said a thousand times, “It’s good, but it doesn’t taste like my mother’s.”
I’ve bought the book as a gift for friends and family maybe half a dozen times. You should read it, too. With Laura’s permission, I’m including her engaging and wonderfully instructive video; you’ll hear a short version of her story as she demonstrates how to hand roll pasta dough.
Laura Schenone’s first book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, is a James Beard Award winner and a fascinating history of women “in the kitchen.” I highly recommend it, as well. Her newest book is due out later this year.
.Video used with permission.