Things don’t always work out in the kitchen. Sometimes, even the best laid plans go awry, and all the preparation in the world can’t save you from the inevitable doom that comes with this thought: you’ve invited guests over for dinner, but dinner might just not get served.
Such was the scenario that faced me last night. With three hungry dinner guests at my back, I struggled with the absolute reality that the meal that I had planned for – the one I had spent hours preparing in advance, fantasized about serving, knew would be the best thing I made this season – was literally turning into kindergarten paste in front of me, and there was very little I could do about it. And hungry friends were waiting.
Let me back track.
About a week ago, I bought a squash. Remember me?
After letting the under-ripe squash hang out on the counter for a few days, I decide it was prime time to roast this baby, and I sliced it in half and tossed it in the oven. If you’ve forgotten how easy and magical it is to roast a squash, you can get a quick refresher here.
After finalizing plans for a small, casual dinner party at Cara and my apartment for last night, I began scheming. What to make with another roasted acorn squash? I could make my soup, but that took all the fun out of experimenting with a new recipe. Not to mention, I had two one-pound bags of double-zero flour collecting dust on top of my refrigerator, a relic of my father’s post-Italy baked goods obsession. But what to make with flour and squash… Squash bread? Not quite fit for a main course. Squash pizza? Despite the beauty of Keste’s pizza with butternut squash cream, it just felt a bit outlandish. Then, it came to me.
Handmade Acorn Squash Ravioli. An autumn dish that was simple enough to make – I already had the electric pasta maker, after all – that would work well as a main course and showcase both ingredients. I was sold, and immediately set to work researching various recipes for the perfect pasta dough, squash-based ravioli fillings, and a light sauce that would compliment but not overpower the dish.
With so much preparation, how could so much go wrong? Well, that’s lesson number one of the kitchen: be ready for anything, because just a few seconds could turn your whole plan upside down.
But that was the last thing on my mind two nights ago when I set out to prepare the ravioli in advance. I already had the acorn squash roasted, so I quickly pureed it and added it to some butter and garlic that I had sauteing over medium heat.
The squash sauteed until it was thick and dry, and then the remaining filling ingredients were added; soft, creamy ricotta cheese, sharp parmesan reggiano, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, and some grinds of fresh cracked black pepper and sea salt. I whipped and stirred the filling over the low flame until it became thick and creamy, letting most of the liquid cook off but leaving the mixture still somewhat moist.
While the filling cooled on the stove, I assembled the pasta maker, measured out my double-zero extra fine flour, and dumped it into the vast cavity of the machine. In went two whole eggs and a drizzle of olive oil, and I snapped the cover into place. With one hand, I reached around the machine to flip the mixing switch into the “On” position, and eagerly peered down to watch my dough begin to come together. Only one problem – nothing happened!
I figured the outlet must be blown, and I tried four more outlets before realizing the problem must be with the machine. After adjusting the switch several times, the pasta maker remained completely immobile, utterly lifeless. In my exasperation, I began to unscrew the front of the cavity that held the flour and eggs so I could remove its contents to mix by hand.
And with that, the yolks of the eggs broke and spilled onto the counter as a puff of flour flew up into my face. Sticky yolk dripped angrily over the grating of the pasta maker and onto my countertop.
Now, it was on. Me versus pasta machine. I tilted the entire device onto its side and dumped the contents onto the counter, placed the machine, which was still dripping with egg, into the corner of my kitchen, and began kneading the dough furiously. Soon enough, a fairly ragged but resiliant ball of pasta dough had come together, which I quickly threw some plastic wrap around and stowed on the counter while I proceeded to scrub down my mess and reboot.
Like I said, kitchen improvisation should be relished.
Not so long later, I had rolled out my dough, cut it into 30 equal rounds using a measuring scoop as a stencil, and begun to fill each circle with the acorn squash – ricotta mixture. Everything began running seamlessly, and it went a little something like this:
Step 1: Roll out your dough until it is super thin and slightly transparent – we’re talking an eighth of an inch here.
Step 2: For square ravioli, cut long thin strips of dough about two inches wide, which will be layered around the filling and cut into squares. For half-moon (or round) shaped ravioli, cut circles using a glass or measuring cup as a stencil.
Step 3: Pause to admire your handiwork. This is a crucial part of the process, for the record.
Step 4: Add some squash filling to the center of the ravioli dough and using your finger, gently wet the rim of the dough with some water so the dough becomes slightly sticky.
Step 5: Fold the dough over the filling, press the edges down to bind them, and use a fork to seal the deal.
Step 6: I would imagine this step includes sprinkling the surface that you lay the ravioli on, and the tops of the ravioli themselves with some semolina flour. This prevents sticking. I did not do this. Read on….
With 30 perfect ravioli lined up neatly on wax paper, I wrapped my works of art in some more plastic wrap and placed them in the fridge for safe keeping until they would be served up tomorrow.
The following evening, things started off well…
There are few things in life that I believe cannot be fixed with butter (high cholesterol and weight issues, withstanding), and while I didn’t realize this little pot of heaven could be my saving grace at the time, melting up a stick over a nice, low flame is never a bad thing. Especially when you have this to pair it with:
Can you think of anything that goes better with butter than sage? I can’t. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that if butter were a plant, it would BE sage. This herb has such a rich, smooth flavor and velvety texture that is the perfect mate for the creaminess of butter, adding earthy low notes that elevate just about any dish sauced with this to the next level.
That’s right. Browned Butter Sage Sauce.
Making this is really as simple as melting a stick of butter over low heat, adding the torn up sage leaves, and then continuing to cook the butter at an extremely slow rolling simmer (and I mean barely simmering – I yanked this off the heat several times) until the butter begins to become a dark, rich caramel color. I was worried I wouldn’t know when it was done, but once it’s finished, trust me – you’ll know.
With the sauce ready, the water boiling, and my friends’ stomachs growling, it was go-time. I pulled the acorn-squash ravioli from the fridge and removed the plastic wrap with a flourish while my fellow-foodie-friend, Corinne, watched eagerly. But something was wrong…. The ravioli looked, well, wet.
I reached out to pick one up and place it as a tester in the boiling water, and my fingers sank right through the dough into the gooey filling beneath. Frantic, I began to struggle to scrape the soggy ravioli off the wax paper and quickly get them cooking, but it was fruitless. The ravioli were melting faster than polar ice caps in an Al Gore documentary, and there was nothing I could do to salvage them.
I glanced sheepishly at Corinne, and was about to say something about the great Thai place around the corner, when she said, “Well, what if we do this…”
And with that, she set to work, sprinkling the messy dough balls with flour and rolling them up into what could only be referred to as “dumplings.” She asked for brown sugar, and showed me how to sprinkle it out and roll the newly formed dumplings in it, then in flour, and then drop them into the boiling water to quickly puff up and cook. As we stood recovering the messy remnants of our soon-to-be supper, Corinne talked easily about what else could make this dish even better – a drizzle of honey over the dumplings; a soft sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs and more dark brown sugar right before serving; raisins added right into the filling, next time.
And with this, I learned one of the greatest lessons any amateur home cook can learn – Improvisation.
This might seem obvious, but I’m usually a cook with a plan. I have my ingredients laid out, and a recipe in my mind, if not on paper. I follow the instructions I’ve set for myself, and execute the dish the way I’ve come to understand that it should be made. When things fall apart in the kitchen and I’m the only one eating, I suck it up and make the most of the meal. But when cooking for others, if things go wrong, I claim defeat, and it’s usually the take-out menus I’m reaching for.
In the end, our dinner wound up being absolutely delicious. Our “Corinne-Acorn Dumplings” – a name only two girls fueled by several glasses of Pinot Noir could come up with – were smothered in not only the browned butter sage sauce, but sprinkled with brown sugar, breadcrumbs, and a small douse of honey. Next time, nutmeg and cinnamon will make it even better. As we ate slowly and gratefully, Corinne suggested we do this again next week, so we could take a stab at really perfecting the recipe. It wasn’t getting it right that mattered most, but enjoying the process of experimenting along the way.
In that moment I had thought, this sauce saved the dish. But really, Corinne saved the dish – and that in and of itself is a tribute to how optimism and improvisation are the two best tools any chef can take into the kitchen.
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