Why you should make fresh pasta from scratch — plus a recipe for potato ravioli with cheese, mint, and onion
I recently pulled something in my back. I think it happened while getting into a particularly quarrelsome sports bra. All I know is that one morning I woke up fine, took a shower, got dressed, and then could suddenly no longer sit up without a struggle.
The pain and stiffness responded well to heat and stretching. I spent a lot of time on the couch with a hot water bottle and also with eagle arms, as in this yoga pose where you crisscross your arms in front of you and lift your elbows up. Eagle arms helped stretch and loosen the troublesome spot between my shoulders but the real pain relief and magic came from kneading fresh pasta dough for 30 minutes.
Making pasta from scratch is time-intensive work but it's not without its benefits too. Here are some reasons beyond deliciousness that might inspire you to break some eggs and knead some dough.
Kneading pasta might be good for your back
I’m not a doctor and I am not about to make any bold claims about curing back pain. I only know that my back felt boatloads better after 30 minutes of quality pasta kneading. The gentle repetitive motion loosened my shoulders. Do with that information what you will.
Although other people do share my opinion. In one of my favorite cookbooks, “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant, the authors claim that women in a central Italian town recommend making fettuccine as a remedy for back pain. Pain relief and a delicious dinner? I’m in.
The cookbook can be a bit schoolmarmy at times with the authors laying out a lot of arbitrary rules that must not be broken. As one example, they remind the reader that tortellini can only be served in broth and that, “this is not a suggestion; it’s an order.” However, as the Italian cuisine tends to do this too, it may also be spot on.
Nor does every recipe seem to have been tested. My brother and I both found this out the hard way with the recipe for cacio e pepe, the classic pasta dish made with Roman pecorino cheese and black pepper. Four heaping tablespoons of black pepper as written is inedible. We both tried it. We both threw it away.
However, with those caveats aside the book is a wonderful and comprehensive resource for Italian pasta recipes and techniques. I own it both in hard copy and as an e-book for travel and I have gifted it repeatedly. Whenever I have a pasta question, I refer to this cookbook first.
Making pasta is meditative
Cooking is my evening meditation. I find the easy rhythm and gentle focus calming. It keeps my mind in the present, whether it’s chopping vegetables, or sauteing an onion.
Making fresh pasta is no exception. The repetitive movements of kneading, rolling the dough, and forming the pasta take just enough thought to engage my mind without overwhelming it. Such activities can ground us in the present and reduce stress and anxiety.
According to the mindfulness app Headspace, mindfulness meditation, including mindful cooking “is proven to increase happiness and improve focus and satisfaction with life while reducing stress and irritability.”
A half-hour of kneading dough is a significant commitment that requires patience but it can also impart awareness and clarity, not to mention an impressive dinner.
Making pasta can bring people together
There is a group of famous pasta-making ladies in the city of Bari in Puglia, Italy that has been making pasta for generations. They make orecchiette which means little ears in Italian and which are a small ear-shaped pasta.
The women gather on the street each morning to make the pasta and chat away with each other and passersby. You can see a video of them here.
Repetitive, slightly mindless, and done in large quantities, making pasta is a great activity for conversation and for bringing people together. Thirty minutes of kneading is also easier when divided across a team.
In the cookbook Sauces & Shapes, the authors point out that back in the day, an extended Italian family could join forces to lessen the work of this time-sensitive job. With ravioli, for example, you can divide the tasks of rolling the dough and filling the ravioli to ensure the pasta is packed and folded before the dough dries out.
Since moving to Italy, I rarely make fresh pasta as I can buy it conveniently for cheap in numerous locations. There are even shops dedicated solely to fresh pasta. I made it far more frequently when I lived in New York City and fresh pasta was harder to come by. But I think I’m going to switch that up and aim to make it a couple of times a month. I also want to organize a pasta party or two and while away some afternoons with friends over a pile of dough.
I fixed my back by making the following recipe from the Sauces & Shapes cookbook. The authors claim it is a recipe for the Sardinian stuffed pasta known as or culingionis or culurgiones which is a traditional potato and cheese stuffed pasta but I’m not convinced by the folded triangular shape they propose. Culurgiones are one of my favorite pastas and I’ve always had them folded in the cool shape seen in this Pasta Grannies video. Yet in Sauces & Shapes, they don’t even reference the folding technique. Of course, the triangular shape they propose takes less practice and is perfectly tasty so I went with it and had no regrets. I’m just calling them ravioli going forward and not culingionis — which is good as I can’t pronounce the latter anyway.
Ravioli with potatoes, pecorino Sardo, onions, and mint
Adapted from the recipe culingionis in the cookbook “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant.
- 1 lb (453 grams) of flour
- 5 large eggs
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 1/2 pounds (600 grams) of potatoes, peeled
- 5 tablespoons (50 grams) grated pecorino Sardo — you can replace the pecorino with parmesan but the taste will be totally different. Pecorino Sardo has a strong bite.
- 3 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 white onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2–3 oil-cured anchovy fillets
- 1 large can of whole tomatoes
- Around 20 mint leaves — the cookbook proposes spearmint which seemed exciting but I couldn’t find any. I used the mint in my garden instead.
- Olive oil
Make the filling
- Place the whole potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with the milk and about 1 quart (1 liter) of water. Make sure the potatoes are covered with liquid. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender.
- Drain the potatoes and mash with a fork or potato ricer.
- Add the cheese and then the butter and mix until the butter has melted.
- Mince 1 clove of garlic with the onion and mint and cook in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes.
- Add the garlic mixture to the potatoes and mix well. Set aside while you make the pasta.
Make the egg pasta
- Sift the flour onto a large wooden cutting board or countertop and shape it into a mound with a round hole in the center, something like a low, wide volcano.
- Carefully break the eggs into the hole one by one — you may need to gently make the hole deeper to keep the eggs from overflowing. Pierce the yolks with a fork and use the fork to carefully incorporate them into the flour. If you are nervous about making a puddle of yolk on your counter, you can also do this in a bowl.
- When you have a messy dough, push the sides in and start to knead.
- Knead for 30 minutes. To knead, firmly push the dough forward with the heel of one hand and then the other, then turn the dough slightly and repeat. Keep at it for 30 minutes. You can use an electric mixer, most Italian restaurants do but for back pain and therapy, I recommend rolling up your sleeves and going old school.
- Cover the dough with a dishtowel and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
- Roll approximately 1/6th of the dough at a time in a pasta machine while keeping the rest of the dough covered with a dishtowel. I tend to roll 1/6th of the dough at a time, cut it and stuff it and shape the ravioli and then return to roll the next 1/6th. If you have a team, you can divide the work up. Start on the widest setting with very lightly floured dough and send it through the pasta machine and then fold and send again. Do this 5 or 6 times before moving on to the next setting. Run the pasta through the next setting twice before moving on to the next setting and continue in the same way until you reach the next to last setting.
Prepare the dish
- On a lightly floured wooden cutting board or counter, cut the pasta into squares 2 1/2" on each side with a toothed wheeled cutter, or a knife if you don’t have one, and place a small spoonful of the potato mixture in the middle. Gently dampen two sides of the ravioli with a tiny bit of water with your finger and fold the square in half diagonally and press to seal. Once you’ve made one or two, you’ll get a sense as to how much of the potato mixture you should put in each. You want to get as much filling in as possible while still sealing it tight. Make sure to squeeze any air out.
- In a large heavy bottom pot or frying pan big enough to hold the cooked pasta, cook 1 crushed clove of garlic, a pinch of red pepper chili flakes, and the anchovies over medium heat until the garlic is golden and the anchovies dissolve. You can discard the garlic if you like but I keep mine in.
- Add the canned tomatoes and break them up with a spoon and simmer until the tomatoes are thick and shiny. Lightly season with salt if needed but it is likely salty enough already with the anchovies.
- Meanwhile, cook the ravioli in a large pot of salted water. The ravioli is ready when it floats to the top.
- Carefully add the ravioli to the pan with the tomatoes and combine. Cook briefly and then plate and serve.
***We had leftover pasta that we didn’t add to the tomatoes and fried them in refined oil the next day and then salted for a top-notch pre-dinner snack.