While cooking something from scratch is always satisfying, I think there is no food group that is as satisfying to produce yourself as the humble carbohydrate. It is perhaps because carbohydrates are so cheap and abundant in the shops that no one really bothers with the effort of making them anymore; you can buy pretty decent artisan loaves, fresh pasta, biscuits and muffins almost anywhere these days. However, it is amazing how something so simple and easy to make can be elevated to something so sublime when made yourself. Take stuffed pasta, for instance. This is one thing that is never as good in the shops. Supermarket ravioli, to me, tastes the same no matter what flavour it purports to conceal within its envelope of dough. Cut a supermarket raviolo open, and you are faced with an unidentifiable, greyish mush that appears the same whether the pasta supposedly contained four cheeses, meat filling, or spinach and ricotta. Which brings me on to another point: the fillings of supermarket ravioli bore me to tears. The advantages of making your own pasta are many, but the chief benefit is freedom for the imagination to roam wild. So wild, in fact, that mine stumbled across some wild mushrooms.
After a pretty meat-heavy week, I fancied a dinner containing a fair amount of starch, and a lot of flavour, but without resorting to meat. I did, however, conjure up in my head an amazing recipe for venison ravioli with redcurrant jus, which I intend to test on a few willing victims as soon as any volunteer (or are coerced). Watch this space.
It's easy to resort to cheese for flavour in vegetarian cooking, but I didn't fancy much of that either. So I turned to that umami-rich favourite, the mushroom. Not just any mushrooms, however, but a mixture of fresh oyster, shiitake, chestnut and closed cup mushrooms, with a few dried porcini thrown in as well. Sauteéd with lots of garlic and thyme until the water had evaporated and they were dark, sticky and deeply flavoured, they went in the blender to make a coarse puree that resembled the mushroom duxelles I imagine one would use in a beef wellington. I added some lemon zest too; it might sound odd to marry something so sunny and zesty with something so dark and earthy, but lemon and mushrooms partner each other extremely well; the lemon cuts through the richness of the mushrooms while somehow enhancing their flavour. I also threw in lots of chopped parsley and some walnuts for a bit of crunch.
I mixed in some rye breadcrumbs, lots of grated parmesan (I say I didn't fancy cheese, but parmesan and mushrooms is a winning combination) and a tiny amount of stilton, just enough to add a sharpness to the mushrooms. The result was a deeply flavoursome, perfectly balanced pasta stuffing. The walnuts are a really good addition; they prevent everything from being too mushy (no pun intended).
Then, onto the laborious task of rolling out and filling the tortellini. Except I secretly rather enjoy this, and have got it down to a bit of a fine art now - I can get the pasta to a thickness (though that should be thinness, really) of seven on the machine (it goes from one to nine, nine being the thinnest). I finally achieved the consistency I have been coveting ever since I read Marcella Hazan's advice on pasta-making (for those of you who don't know, she is basically the Nigella of Italian cookery): I could see through my pasta sheets. You can even see the process in action right here. Note the large glass of rosé next to the pasta machine: this is essential when embarking on the task of making stuffed pasta at home.
I decided to try something different; normally I make ravioli (simple squares made by sandwiching two squares of pasta around the filling) or crescent-shaped ravioli (there must be a correct Italian term for this shape, but I'm not sure what it is), but this time I thought I'd try tortellini. Basically you put the filling in the middle of a square of pasta, fold it over to make a triangle, and then pull the ends of the triangle around the middle to make a sort of hat shape. They're rather sweet-looking, and less likely to stick to the baking sheet they're kept on than ravioli.
The easiest way to hang on to them while you're using up all the dough is to make sure you shape the pasta on a chopping board that is well-floured. Then transfer the shapes to a sheet of non-stick baking parchment. The pasta shapes will dry out slightly in the air, and hopefully not stick to the baking sheet. If they do, they will split and the filling will seep out in the cooking water. Another tip is to make the tortellini as small as possible; they hold their shape better and have less chance of splitting.
I finished off the cooked pasta with a white wine cream sauce, some sauteéd wild mushrooms, and prosciutto crisps. The former was made by frying some finely-chopped shallots and garlic, adding a few glugs of white wine, letting it reduce a bit then adding some of the reserved water from soaking the dried porcini; this is one of the most flavoursome stocks you can find. Then I thickened the sauce with créme fraiche, and added lots of parsley and black pepper.
The prosciutto crisps are just slices of parma ham, dry-fried in a non-stick pan until crispy and solid. They provide an essential saltiness that cuts through the richness of the mushrooms and the cream sauce.
All you really need to complete the dish is a drizzle of truffle oil (elevates the whole thing to a level of deliciousness that is rather astounding), a scattering of crumbled walnuts, and a grating of parmesan. The combination of crunchy, crispy, doughy, earthy, salty and citrus results in a really wonderful dish.