One of the nicest parts of this, my favorite season, is the arrival of wonderful produce: mushrooms, endive, chestnuts, cabbage, radicchio… but for me no other vegetable is as typical of the season as hard squashes. They are sometimes called ‘winter squashes’ but they start appearing in the early autumn and are a fixture of our October table.
Italy does not have the variety of winter squashes that we have here in North America—squashes are a New World plant, after all—but Italy may have the most delicious of them all, the wonderful zucca barucca. As I’ve mentioned before, the zucca looks for all the world like your average pumpkin, but its flesh is much less stringy and has a much more intense, sweet flavor than any pumpkin I’ve had on this side of the pond. Most stateside recipes call for butternut squash as a substitute, but that, too, lacks the intensity of zucca. For risotto, I usually find that baby sweet potatoes have a remarkably similar taste to zucca, even if their texture is a bit grainier.
Today I tried another gambit—those smaller ‘pie’ pumpkins—for making one of the most popular stuffed pastas, tortelli di zucca, or homemade pumpkin ravioli. You make tortelli di zucca just like ravioli (although they can vary in shape—see below) but the stuffing changes the whole character of the dish.
For 4-6 servings
- One batch of fresh egg pasta, made with 4 eggs
For the filling:
- One ‘pie’ pumpkin or butternut squash, about 500g (or 1 lb.)
- 50-100g (2-4 oz.) amaretti cookies, finely crumbled
- 50-100g (2-4 oz.) grated parmesan cheese
- 50-100g (2-4 oz.) mostarda (pears and apples only)(optional)
- Nutmeg, salt and pepper, q.b.
- Breadcrumbs (if needed)
Preparing the filling
Cut open your pie pumpkin, cut it into large wedges and clean out the seeds and fibers with a spoon. Roast your pumpkin wedges in a moderate oven (180C, 350F) for about 45 minutes, or until the flesh is quite tender when pricked with a fork. (It’s fine if the pumpkin browns a bit around the edges but you do not want a lot of caramelization.) Let the pumpkin cool, turning it over to allow any excess liquid to drain out. (If the pumpkin pieces seem watery still, you can wrap them in cheesecloth and squeeze them dry.)
Scrape out the cooked flesh from the pumpkin, leaving the skin behind, into a food processor. Add the amaretti, parmesan and mostarda, and process them until you have a perfectly smooth, stiff paste.
[NB: You will note that the measurements are left pretty loose, and you will find that kind of variety among the many recipes for this dish. If you don’t have real Italian zucca on hand, I would tend to go for more rather than less to make up for the blander taste of the vegetable. Do make sure each of these three main flavoring ingredients are added in balanced amounts. The thing that makes this filling unique is its harmonious combination of contrasting flavors: the sweet-bitterness of the amaretti, the savoriness of the cheese and spiciness of the mostarda, which marry so well with the natural sweetness of the squash.]
Season the mixture generously with freshly grated nutmeg, fresh ground pepper and salt. If the stuffing mixture is a bit soft or wet, mix in some breadcrumbs, a bit at a time, until the stuffing is stiff and rather dry.
Making and stuffing the pasta
Now it’s time to make your egg pasta, in the usual manner. (See this post on making fresh pasta.) Roll the pasta out rather thinly (setting 6—or even thinner if you want—on a pasta roller) since you will be folding the pasta into a double thickness, into long, rather slender sheets.
Place heaping teaspoonfuls of the stuffing about 5 cm (2 in.) apart along the length of your pasta sheet, just off center down the middle of the sheet:
Fold the longer half of the sheet over the stuffing, pressing down with your fingers all around the stuffing to seal the top and bottom layers of pasta together. With a serrated pasta cutter (if you have one, otherwise it’s fine to simply use a knife) cut out your tortelli along the three unfolded sides:
For the final touch, you can ensure a tight seal while making your tortelli ever so pretty by pressing down the edges with the prongs of a fork.
You should cook your tortelli for a good 5-7 minutes, depending on the thickeness of the dough. They take a bit longer than fresh pasta usually does, because of the double thickness of the pasta and the filling. While the tortelli are cooking, gently melt lots of butter in a small saucepan, adding a sprig of fresh sage if you like to steep along with the butter. (I have read that the sage is not original to the dish, but I like it.) Serve immediately, topped with the melted butter and—if you like—more grated parmesan on top.
Notes on making Homemade Pumpkin Ravioli
This dish comes from the city of Mantova, often called Mantua in English, in the region of Lombardy. For this reason, they are also sometimes called tortelli mantovani. But similar versions are made in the near-by towns of Cremona, also in Lombardy, and in Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Piacenza and Cremona in Emilia-Romagna. In Ferrara they also make this stuffing but without the amaretti cookies. Speaking of which, it can be hard to find amaretti, which are a kind of almond macaroon—not the ubiquitous almond biscotti. If you can’t find amaretti, then substitute an equal amount by weight of unflavored breadcrumbs, with a few drops of almond extract if you like.
The secret ingredient
And then there is the mostarda. Don’t let the name fool you: it is not mustard, but a chutney-like relish. It is perhaps best known as an accompaniment to bollito misto, but it makes its appearance here as a flavoring. Mostarda has a unique flavor, both sweet and spicy. It is basically fruits that are candied in sugar syrup spiced with (hence the name, I suppose) mustard seeds. There are various types of mostarda made in the region, but the most famous, by far, is mostarda di Cremona. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can actually make it at home. (Here’s the recipe.) You can also buy it in many of the finer Italian specialty shops—if they don’t have it, give them a proper scolding for having neglected one of the most typical products in Italian cookery. Or you can buy it online.
Mostarda di Cremona contains a variety of fruits—pears, quinces, cherries, apricots, peaches, figs—but for this dish you really want another mostarda, —the one from Mantova, which is made with pears or apples only. So if not making your own mostarda, just pick out the pears from the jar and use them. Now if you can’t find mostarda and don’t feel up to making it yourself, you can just omit it, as you will find in most recipes for ‘pumpkin ravioli’. But I would urge you to try to find it—it lends a very special, unusual taste to the dish.
Dressing your tortelli
You can also dress your tortelli di zucca, if you like, with a more elaborate sauce. Personally I don’t think that the pumpkin stuffing goes particularly well with tomato-based sauces, but some wild mushrooms sautéed in butter with pancetta, for example, would be delightful.
On the name
The term ‘tortelli‘ is one of the most confusing in the lexicon of pasta shapes. It can be another word for ravioli, but can also be rounded, or rounded and twisted as for a larger version of tortellini. And you will sometimes find tortelli di zucca in these shapes as well. And in Ferrara, they make cappellacci di zucca, made with a very similar stuffing (without the amaretti, as mentioned above). The pasta is cut into squares but then the two corners are joined to form a little ‘hat’ (hence the name, which comes from cappello, Italian for hat, since the shape was said to resemble the straw hats that peasants used to wear.
Waste not, want not…
By the way, after you’re done making your homemade pumpkin ravioli, don’t throw away those pumpkin seeds! They are wonderful roasted in a slow oven with just a few drops of oil or melted butter until lightly brown (about 30-45 minutes) and seasoned with some sea salt. Or, for something a bit fancier, try out these two recipes by fellow foodie, “Cookin’ Canuck”.