Of all the things to be excited about when our kitchen remodel is finished, I’m especially looking forward to having my pasta rolling machine closer at hand. We have what we call the “prime real estate” rule in our existing kitchen, which means that we must use a gadget or appliance more than a couple times each week to justify giving it counter space or base cabinet storage. Everything else is relegated to the baker’s rack in the attached garage, or atop the wall cabinets in our laundry room.
My pasta machine, which I only use once every few months, lives way up there, mere inches from the ceiling. I can only reach it if I stand on tippy toes on the top step of our stepladder—it is inconvenient, to say the least. And I have not pressed very hard on the argument that if I could actually reach the thing, I might use it more often, thereby earning its spot in the better real estate. It’s a catch-22 kind of thing, and a real shame because I love to make handmade pasta.
But my deepest pasta prayers will be answered with the installation of a brand-new section of cabinetry in this unused corner of our kitchen, right next to the huge sunny window. It will be my own special space—a baking station—and the cabinets and drawers will give me all the space I need for my favorite gadgets, including the pasta machine, plus a lovely butcher block countertop where I will make pasta (and sourdough bread) to my heart’s content. I cannot wait!
And in preparation for that time, I have been getting in some practice rounds with handmade pasta, due in part to my purchase of this amazing how-to book. The author of Pasta, Pretty Please, Linda Miller Nicholson, describes her recipes for brilliantly hued handmade pasta dough, flavored and colored with pure, natural ingredients, and then shaped with the most clever and creative techniques. Linda is all over Facebook, YouTube and Instragram with her craft, and you can count me among those who are utterly enthralled by her incredible, edible art. Feast your eyes!
The impatient side of me wants to dive head first into the most complex shapes, designs and colors, but I am restraining and pacing myself—partly so that I don’t get frustrated with techniques that I don’t yet understand, and partly because there is only so much pasta that my husband, Les, and I can consume in a week. If I made as much pasta as my heart desired, we’d be in major carb overload!
But I am practicing, both with the natural color ingredients and some of the special shaping. I’m happy to share a sneak peek of my progress, and then I’ll dive into the recipe that I promised at the beginning.
Stay tuned for more progress as I go. Until then, let’s talk about this handmade spinach pasta, lovingly wrapped around an easy ricotta and parm-romano filling. I will not be so smug as to imply that handmade pasta is a cinch (because it does take practice), but I will absolutely say that it is worth the effort, and if you have made pasta before, you can make a couple of simple changes to twist up the flavor and color, and you will impress even yourself with the outcome. I’ve made colored and flavored pasta many times before—with spinach, butternut squash, sun-dried tomato, lemon and dried mushrooms as ingredients—but I have already learned some new tricks from Linda Miller Nicholson, and I am excited to share them with you.
For starters, her instruction shifted me away from extensive kneading of the dough to a simpler means of laminating the dough to build gluten strength. Laminating means “layers.” After a brief kneading and a half-hour rest, you repeatedly fold the sheets of dough onto itself, layer upon layer, as you run it through the pasta machine. As you go, the dough becomes more and more supple and strong enough to withstand pressing into thin sheets for ravioli. This is good news for anyone who finds kneading tedious or painful.
Next, the color of the pasta can be intensified with a simple addition of baking soda in the blanching water for any vegetables you use to color up your dough; then, a quick straining through a mesh sieve weeds out the solids for a cleaner-looking dough. In the past, I have simply wilted spinach in a pan and pureed it into my dough. My previous results were good, but not this good.
And my filling is improved also, simply because I took a few extra minutes to drain excess moisture from the ricotta before mixing the filling. More advice from Linda, and it worked like a charm. Oh, it pays to stay curious!
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour* (see notes)
2 large eggs, room temperature (plus water, as noted in the instructions)
A fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed
1 tsp. baking soda (in the blanching water, not the dough)
1 Tbsp. kosher salt (also for the blanching water)
15 oz. container of whole fat ricotta
1/3 cup parm-romano blend (or grated parmesan)
1 egg yolk
Zest of 1/2 lemon
A few grates of fresh nutmeg
As always, be sure you measure the flour properly so that your dough is not dense. Use the fluff, sprinkle, level method if measuring by volume. For less fuss and greater precision, measure it by weight—270 grams.
The very best flour to use for pasta is Italian 00 milled flour or finely milled durum (semolina), which is my favorite. But both can be tricky to find. For the sake of practice, I have been using King Arthur all-purpose flour, and I have had excellent results so far. If you sub in any amount of whole wheat flour, increase the water a bit as well.
Here, I will run through the instructions in pictures, as usual. At the end of the post, you’ll find a PDF available for download, so you can print it for your recipe files. 🙂
- Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the salt and baking soda and stir briefly to dissolve. Toss in the baby spinach and stir it around for 15 seconds. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to remove the spinach and place it in a mesh strainer to drain excess water.
- Transfer the spinach to a regular or bullet blender, together with the eggs. Pulse blend a few times, and then run the blender continuously until the mixture is evenly mixed.
- Pour the pureed mixture through a mesh strainer over a glass measuring cup. Press the puree through to strain out the solids, and then add enough water to the mixture in the glass to measure exactly 3/4 cup.
- In a large bowl, stir a generous pinch of salt into the flour and create a well in the center of the flour. Pour in the pureed spinach mixture and mix with a spoon until a clumpy mixture comes together. Knead with your hands in the bowl or turn the dough out onto a countertop and knead several times until all flour is incorporated and no dry spots remain.
- Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 30 minutes before rolling. You may also refrigerate the dough for several hours or even a day. I’ve found this formula for pasta dough to be very forgiving.
Make the ricotta filling while you rest the pasta dough
Strain the ricotta in a mesh strainer (lined with cheesecloth if you have it) over a medium bowl. Let the ricotta drain for at least 30 minutes. Stir in parm-romano, egg yolk, lemon zest and nutmeg. Salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the mixture into a plastic bread bag for easy piping. Refrigerate mixture while you roll out the pasta dough.
Sheet the pasta and fill the ravioli
- Divide the dough into sections, keeping most of them wrapped as you work on one. Use a rolling pin or the heel of your hand to press the first section into a flat oval. Run it through the pasta machine on the thickest setting, folding it into thirds like an envelope and then run it through again. If it sticks, dust both sides with flour. When the dough reaches a very supple stage, adjust the setting knob one notch per run, until the dough reaches the desired thinness. For ravioli, I recommend using the thinnest or second-thinnest setting.
- Let the pasta sheet rest, uncovered, on the floured counter for about 10 minutes before filling with ricotta filling. This gives the pasta time to tighten up a bit for easier shaping.
- If you are making ravioli without a mold, squeeze 1 1/2 teaspoon-sized dollops of ricotta filling onto one long side of the pasta sheet. Space the dollops about 2 inches apart, allowing room to seal up the pillows on all sides. Dip a finger into a small bowl of water and slightly moisten the dough in between ricotta dollops and along the long edge.
- Fold the dough over the ricotta dollops, taking care to keep the edges aligned. Carefully press out any air pockets, starting from the folded edge, then in between dollops. Seal the open edge last to ensure no air bubbles are trapped.
- Use a pizza wheel or sharp knife to trim any ragged edges. Cut between the raviolis and transfer them to a semolina- or flour-dusted parchment paper. Allow the ravioli to dry for at least an hour before cooking.
To cook handmade ravioli, bring salted water to a gentle boil. Carefully transfer ravioli, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Fresh pasta cooks much more quickly than dried or frozen, so keep an eye on it and prepare to rescue it from the pot after about four minutes.
Serve with any favorite sauce. I made the simplest marinara with sauteed onions and garlic, my own Italian spice blend and canned San Marzano tomatoes, plus a splash of cream.
Want to make it even easier?
For the record, I bought Linda Miller Nicholson’s book with my own hard-earned money. This is not a paid advertisement for Linda, but I cannot help sharing my discovery of her work because she is just awesome. You can pick up a copy of Pasta, Pretty Please at the bookstore or on Amazon, but I bought it directly from Linda’s website, called Salty Seattle. If you buy the book directly from Linda, she will even sign it for you. 🙂