Recipe: Basil Ricotta Tortelloni with a Rustic Tomato Sauce

I had the privilege of learning this recipe from a very seasoned chef in Italy during a cooking class at his family restaurant. It was no surprise that he made creating this dish from scratch look simple. But after a few attempts (and mishaps) in my own kitchen, what surprises me now is that it's something I can put together without looking at instructions.

In his restaurant's kitchen, Chef Moreno demonstrated how to slowly incorporate the eggs into the semolina and the key to the best consistency (lots of slow mixing and kneading). He advised us to roll the dough thin enough to see a newspaper through, or, in his words, thin enough to "see Menaggio," a town across the lake from his restaurant in Verenna. He served this tortelloni with a light cream sauce, but I grew to prefer it with a tomato sauce instead.

Tortelloni is tortellini's big brother made with larger squares of pasta and more filling. Don't worry if yours don't come out perfect; half of the fun here is creating your own shapes. Try making this recipe for a crowd and letting each person fill and shape their own tortelloni.

I've made this pasta rolled out by hand and with a hand crank pasta roller. Somehow, each method takes me about the same amount of time. If you have enough counter space, try rolling by hand. You'll accomplish more at once and it will save you the frustration of passing the dough through the pasta roller again and again at decreasing thickness settings.

Homemade Basil Ricotta Tortelloni with a Rustic Tomato Sauce
Serves 4 and makes approximately 40 tortelloni

For the pasta dough
12 ounces durum wheat semolina flour (half of a standard 24-ounce bag), plus 1/4 cup for rolling
3 to 4 eggs

For the pasta filling
4 ounces fresh ricotta
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons basil, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 egg
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

For the sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup black olives, sliced
1 tablespoon capers, drained from brine
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced
2 cups tomato puree
1/4 cup basil, chopped

Making the Pasta Dough
To make pasta dough, pour flour onto a large cutting board or counter top. Make a well and add 3 eggs. Using your hands, break the yolks and slowly incorporate flour into the well, breaking up any clumps of flour with your fingers. Time is your friend here so go slowly. Once the egg mixture thickens and holds together well, incorporate all of the flour and knead the dough together. Dough should be slightly sticky but not wet. Add more flour or an additional egg if the texture is too wet (the dough will be too sticky to knead) or too dry (the dough will be crumbly and won't come together in a ball). The number of eggs used will vary based on the size of the eggs, the humidity in your kitchen, and a million other reasons (really!).

Knead the dough until all flour is incorporated and the dough feels elastic, about 5-10 minutes. The longer you knead, the more smooth and elastic the dough will become. Form dough into a ball, dust with flour, and wrap with plastic. Let rest for 20 minutes.

Making the Filling
Meanwhile, make ricotta filling. Mix ricotta with salt, basil, lemon, and egg. Set aside.

Rolling the Dough
Roll out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Because this dough will be folded onto itself to make the tortelloni, thinner is better. If you have a pasta roller, work dough through the thinnest setting. Take care to keep dough from drying out by keeping unused portions covered.

Shaping the Pasta
Using a pasta cutter, or just a sharp knife, cut dough into large squares, about 4 inches square. Put 1 heaping teaspoon of ricotta filling in the center of each square. Brush water along two edges of the square and fold opposite corner over to make a triangle, being careful to seal the filling inside. Holding the straight edge away from you, gently grasp the two opposing corners with your fingers and thumbs. Bring opposing corners toward each other, so the straight edge creases, and press corners together, one on top of the other, forming the tortelloni. This is easier than it sounds. However, don't stress out about the shape. Be creative and form the tortelloni into any shape desired.

Making the Sauce
To make sauce, add oil to a large pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Add olives, capers, and cherry tomatoes and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add tomato puree and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add basil, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cook tortelloni in a pot of salted boiling water until pasta is al dente, about 2-4 minutes. Serve hot with rustic sauce.

Visit the cooking class in Verenna, Italy: Il Caminetto

Related: How To Make Pasta: Tips From My Italian-Mother-in-Law

(Images: Stephanie Barlow)

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