I recently finished reading the book Heat, by Bill Buford. The sub-head
could be a good Twitter-style synopsis of what the book is about: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
Buford, an editor at The New Yorker, is an enthusiastic home cook who winds up hosting a dinner party where celebrity chef Mario Batali – a friend of a friend – has accepted an invitation to be a guest. After much food consumption and many libations, by the end of the night Buford has managed to talk his way into apprenticing in the kitchen of Babbo, the Manhattan
flagship of Batali’s restaurant empire. The book follows the author during his time at Babbo, working his way from prep cook to working the line, then across the Atlantic to Italy where he learns pasta making, and finally to Tuscany to be trained in the art of butchering under the tutelage of Dario Cecchini, billed as Italy’s most famous butcher.
Although the entire book is entertaining, what enraptured me most was reading about Buford’s first meal in Italy with Miriam Leonardi, a fifth-generation owner of Trattoria La Buca. She serves him two kinds of homemade pasta. One is a dish of tortellini with the traditional filling of veal, pork, and chicken. The other – the inspiration for this entry – is a pumpkin-filled ravioli called tortelli di zucca, which i
s drizzled with honey and melted butter (in the book, we learn that in Italy ravioli and tortelli are interchangeable). Buford goes on to write how both of the dishes presented by Leonardi are nearly identical to recipes found in one of the earliest Italian food books, written by an author from Lombardy known as Platina, who spent the summer of 1463 by the side of a groundbreaking chef named Maestro Martino and learning all about the Maestro’s approach to cooking. Platina’s book is known as De honesta volupate et valetudine: “On honest pleasures and good health”. This passage by Buford drew me in:
For Platina, there was already a traditional way of doing things. Your torta and tortelli were filled with vegetables. That’s how things were done. To be fair to the Maestro, most of his recipes are the established ones – established, that is, in 1465. The Maestro’s torta di zucca, for instance, calls for grated pumpkin, boiled in milk and mixed with parmigiano, plus a little ginger, cinnamon, and saffron – the familiar spices of the Renaissance. Traditional then and traditional still: this (minus the Renaissance flavorings) was what Miriam served to me in her tortelli di zucca. In fact, the impression I drew from the Maestro’s recipes – and the eerie delight I got from reading them – was not only of difference (the exotic spices, the fascination with sugar, the pot suspended over a fire because there was no oven) but of overwhelming continuity. Now, when I look back at my time at La Buca, I am astonished by what I understand: versions of every dish I ate there can be found in Platina’s book.
Pumpkin? Yum! Fresh pasta? Yum! Parmigiano? Yum! Ginger, cinnamon, and saffron? Yum, yum, and yum! How amazing that even today we can eat something that’s been the same for over 500 years! For many people, I think it’s difficult to imagine what food was like even a century ago, much less five centuries ago.
Unsurprisingly, I set about re-creating tortelli di Zucca as it was described in Heat. In fact, I became mildly obsessed and found myself re-reading this part of chapter each night before bed, to the point where I began dreaming about it.
Enough with the dreaming. On to the making!
To start off this culinary travel through time, Leslie and I went to Busa Farms, in Arlington, Mass., and got an heirloom cheese pumpkin, so named because of its flat, disc-like shape that resembles a wheel of cheese. Add to that a wedge of fresh-cut Parmigiano-Reggiano, a jar of honey made by our friend Mary Beth , who keeps her own hive of honeybees, and some fresh cut thyme from my vegetable garden and we had the makings for 500-
This is a labor-intensive recipe and it took most of an afternoon to make. I’d never made fresh pasta or assembled ravioli from scratch, and both tasks took longer than expected. You should plan on setting aside a whole morning or afternoon/evening if you’ve never made fresh ravioli before. Having a hand-cranked or electric pasta rolling machine would make the whole process go a lot quicker, but I didn’t feel like spending the money and instead rolled out the dough by hand. (I’ve seen some recipes that call for using store-bought wonton wrappers to make the ravioli as a shortcut to homemade dough. It seems like a brilliant time-saver and I’ll try that next time
Here’s a picture of the dough before assembling the ravioli:
The formed ravioli:
The finished product!
- 1 lb. fresh pasta dough, or ~50 wonton wrappers (I used the recipe for pasta dough from the Gourmet cookbook)
- 1 sugar pumpkin or small cheese pumpkin
- ½ C. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- salt & pepper to taste
- ½ stick butter
- 2 Tbsp. honey
- Fresh thyme
- Preheat the oven to 400°.
- Cut the pumpkin in half, remove seeds, and scrape away the stringy interior. If desired, save the seeds and roast them.
- Rub the interior of the pumpkin with a thin layer of oil and roast the halves in the oven until the flesh is loose and pulpy, about 30-45 minutes. Reserve any pan juices and let the pumpkin halves cool for at least 30 minutes before handling.
- Scrape the flesh from the skin and add to a pot, along with the reserved pan juices. Cook over low heat for 45-60 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture is thick. Transfer half to a large bowl and the other half into Tupperware and save for another use. To the pumpkin mixture in the bowl, add the cheese and season with salt & pepper. Mix thoroughly and let cool for at least 30 minutes. I speed up the process by putting the whole bowl in the fridge.
- While the pumpkin filling cools, roll out the pasta dough (skip if using store-bought wonton wrappers)
- Lay out one sheet of pasta and place 1 tbsp. mounds of the pumpkin filling in rows spaced 1 ½ inches apart. Once done, use your finger to moisten the space between each mound.
- Gently lay a second sheet over the pumpkin mounds and carefully press around the mounds to seal the two sheets of pasta together.
- Use a pizza wheel, pastry wheel, ravioli cutter, or large knife to cut the ravioli into squares. Use the tines of a fork to pinch the edges closed.
- When ready, cook the ravioli in batches in a pot of salted boiling water. The ravioli drop to the bottom and eventually rise back to the top (anywhere from 1-3 minutes). When the ravioli has risen and floats for about 20 seconds, remove with a slotted spoon to a colander and continue cooking in batches until you’ve cooked the amount you need to.
- For the sauce, melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat until the butter solids begin to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the honey, and season with salt & pepper.
- To serve, drizzle the sauce over each serving of ravioli and sprinkle with a little bit of fresh thyme.