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Ravioli is a traditional Italian pasta dish made by stuffing rounds or squares of pasta dough with a filling, creating a sort of pasta "pillow." The dish is wildly popular outside of Italy, and can be readily found in fresh and frozen form in most Western supermarkets. The fillings for ravioli are limited only by the imagination, as are the sauces which can complement it, and making the pasta at home is fun and relatively easy, if cooks want to experiment with new flavors.
Stuffed pasta dishes can be found in many cultures, and have been made for centuries. In Italy, the term “ravioli” is derived from a word meaning “to stuff,” and the pasta has appeared in Italian literature since at least medieval times. Within Italy, depending on where a person travels, he or she can have it stuffed with meat, ricotta, seafood, and a variety of vegetables including spinach, squash, and seasonal mushrooms. Regional Italian cuisine highlights unique flavors and specialties of the area, and is an interesting to explore Italian culinary history. Typically, the ravioli are boiled and served with a rich sauce, although some parts of Italy bake their pasta in cream sauces after boiling them.
Although many consumers associate meat with ravioli, there is actually a long tradition of vegetarian ravioli in Italy. On Fridays and during Lent, vegetarian versions are a popular option, because for Catholics, red meat is forbidden during fast periods. Less wealthy Italian families ate meatless versions more often, and there is a long culinary history of pasta filled with cheese and vegetables, along with interesting spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Seafood ravioli is also common in port towns of Italy, and is often served with delicate lemon sauces that highlight the flavor of the fish.
All ravioli starts with a pasta dough, typically made by mixing egg, flour, salt, olive oil, and water. The dough is kneaded and worked to a smooth, moist consistency, and then allowed to rest while the filling is made. The filling is usually cooked and mixed with egg so that it stays together, and after it cools the dough is rolled out into a flat sheet. Small spoonfuls of filling are placed approximately 0.5 inch (1.5 centimeters) apart before another sheet of rolled out dough is carefully placed on top. A ravioli rolling pin is rolled over the two pieces of dough and the filling, sandwiching the filling into small pockets of dough that can be gently cut apart and cooked.