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23 Aug

Night of the living ravioli – This past Saturday, the Big Hominid himself visited my humble abode and we made some tasty ravioli. The original plan had been for me to head up to his place, but at the last minute I suggested he come down to our place. Despite the long trek that would mean, he agreed. If you can read Konglish, you may want to check out his account of our ravioli-fest. Then you can come back here, where we speak English most of the time.

It was about half past three that we met up at Ori Station and then drove back to my place. We decided to get to work on the cheese filling right away, because I like to get that out of the way early.

On the left are the ingredients in their initial state: ricotta, fresh mozzarella, Australian cheddar (Bega!), parmesan, two eggs, and some basil, oregano, and fresh parsley. On the right, of course, is what it looked like after a vigorous forking. It may look like egg salad, but what you see there is cheese goodness waiting to be encased in fresh pasta and boiled to perfection.

The next step, of course, is to make the pasta itself. One of the many nifty things I picked up during our recent visit to the States is a hand-crank pasta machine. It is primitive but effective. I suppose if I were lazy I could have bought an extruder, which presses the pasta out through variously shaped dies, but the manual roller appeals more to me. Maybe it’s the idea of doing everything by hand, or the fact that I find the idea of pasta being pushed through a die less natural. My wife learned from my adventures with our bread machine that if I say I am going to use a piece of equipment, I most certainly am going to use it. So, knowing that the twenty dollars and change they charged for the machine would be an investment in fresh pasta to eat, we made the purchase.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. You need to have some dough before you can put it through the rollers, and (as I quickly learned) dough does not make itself. Before my first pasta adventure (a spaghetti that turned out not that badly, considering it was my first time) I had already decided that I would make the dough by hand, and after actually doing it once I realized that I wouldn’t be able to use the bread machine even if I wanted. The motor in our bread machine would burn out rapidly if I tried to make pasta dough in it. So it was by hand whether I liked it or not.

For as simple as bread can be, pasta is even simpler. There are only two essential ingredients: flour and water. You generally want to use a flour with a high protein content like semolina, but they don’t sell that in Korea (at least not that I know of) so we had to settle for bread flour. To boost the protein content (thus making the pasta more elastic and chewier) I added a tablespoon of wheat gluten to each cup of flour. I also used an egg and a tablespoon of olive oil per cup of flour. The following collage of photographs shows the dough-making process. Like the photo, the process is long, and Kevin was kind (and bored) enough to snap a bunch of photos along the way.

At the top left are all the ingredients. I’ve already added the eggs and now I am measuring out the olive oil. The glass on the left is water, and that goes in as I knead. First I collapsed the pile of flour and mix it together with my hands to get all the liquid absorbed. Then I added some water and kneaded some more. The third photo shows a midway point between no water and still not enough water. In the fourth photo I’ve finally added enough water and the glass is put aside. It doesn’t look like there is enough water in the dough, but I had heard that a rookie mistake is to add too much water to the dough while kneading. Pasta dough is supposed to be very tough, and if you add too much water it won’t roll out properly. Then you have to add more flour, throwing off the proportions of the ingredients.

I suppose I could measure how much water I use and then use that amount the next time, but this works for me. The fun starts once you get the dough to the point where it looks like you need just a little more water. You resist the urge to add more water and begin to beat the crap out of the dough. It is an effort- and time-consuming process, but I suppose it is also a good stress reliever. The fifth and sixth photos show the dough as the moisture gets worked through it and it becomes more consistent. At the bottom is the “finished” piece of dough.

I use the scare quotes there because the dough isn’t actually finished. That’s just stage one. We let the dough rest for a little while we set up the machine. It comes with a screw clamp that allows you to fix it to the counter so it doesn’t jump around while you’re cranking away. Our cabinets, unfortunately, don’t have much of an overhang, so we have to open up the cabinet in order to clamp the machine down—as you will see in this next photo.

The next step in preparing the dough is to pass it through the rollers a number of times at the widest possible setting. We cut the dough into four pieces (which is why I made it into a square at the end) and then rolled them one by one. What you see in this photo is the first roll of the first piece of dough. Not too pretty, right? It usually isn’t at first, but after rolling and folding the dough a number of times on the widest setting, we ended up with a smooth and consistent dough. Pasta dough is so tough that it’s nearly impossible to get one hundred percent consistency by hand, and the initial rolls are actually part of the kneading process.

Once you get a fairly consistent and uniformly shaped thick sheet, you start putting the pasta through the rollers at narrower settings. At this point the dough can be considered complete, so you only need to get the pasta to the right thickness and width. Usually you only need to pass it through once at each setting, sometimes twice early on if you have to fold the sheet to adjust its shape. For the ravioli sheets we started at 7 (the widest setting on this machine) and worked our way down to 3, which seems to be a pretty good thickness for ravioli.

After rolling out the first sheet of dough, I realized that Kevin had done nothing so far but chop some of the ingredients for the cheese filling and take a whole bunch of pictures. He was starting to grow restless and make strange noises, so I let him take a shot at rolling the second piece of dough. Yes, I know it looks like he is squeezing out a loaf of his own in this photo, but the second sheet of dough turned out to be the best of the bunch. Beginner’s luck, he said. I wonder.

Once the sheets are rolled out they need to be hung for a short while to set. They don’t dry completely, of course (that would take hours), but they become easier to handle. The sheets hanging here are the second, third, and fourth, from left to right (I told you the second sheet was the nicest). Not sure what happened with the last one, but it turned out a bit longer and not as wide as the others. It also doesn’t have the straight edges that the other sheets have because I cut the ends off of the other sheets with a knife and stuck those leftover pieces onto the next piece of dough before it went through the rollers. I consider cutting off the ends of the last sheet and rolling out single circles of pasta for half-moon ravioli, but by that point we just wanted to get on with the process.

Of course, in order to hang the pasta you need a hanging device. They do make pasta racks, and one of these days I’m going to get around to making one myself, but we had to improvise, I went out earlier in the day and cut a relatively straight branch, then suspended that between two chairs and draped waxed paper over it. It may not be fancy, but it worked fine.

When we got done with the final sheet of pasta it was time to start making the ravioli, starting with the first sheet again. Here you can see the cheese mixture making its grand entrance, ready to be wrapped in lovely pasta. The water is to remoisten the inside surface of the dough so it sticks together. Forgetting this step would be fatal to the ravioli, as they would fall apart in the pot and be unable to fulfill their destiny.

I make ravioli like I make omelets, spreading the filling on one side and then flipping the covering over on top of it. You can spread the filling right up to the lengthwise center of the sheet, since you won’t need any margin on that side. The other sides need a little bit of margin for sealing purposes, but not as much as you might think at first. The spoon, by the way, was used to scoop the first pile of filling onto the sheet, but then I remembered that it was much easier to just use my fingers and decorum was thrown out the window (although, in truth, decorum had taken a nose dive long before that, probably at about the time we started referring to the pasta sheets as “flattened phalluses”).

After folding the pasta sheet I sealed the lengthwise end and then sealed each individual raviolum (shut up, Microsoft, raviolum is too a word!), pushing out the air as I went along. Then I cut them up with a knife and handed them off to Kevin, who used his dainty fingers to make sure the ravioli were properly sealed. He did an excellent job of sealing, and only one raviolum opened a bit during boiling. The egg in the cheese filling holds it together pretty well, though, so minor holes are no cause for concern. The next photo shows the results of the first two sheets of pasta.

By this time we were starting to get hungry. Even sitting there uncooked, those ravioli looked good—huge pasta pockets of cheese goodness. It was probably at about this time that Hyunjin set the water to boiling, and when we finished making the ravioli we brought them upstairs to be cooked. After making the first sheet of ravioli I had predicted we would have 27. We ended up with 28, and had about one raviolum of filling left. I thought that wasn’t too bad, considering that I didn’t measure out the filling and just went by feel.

I was so mesmerized by the boiling water and the ravioli as they cooked in it that before I knew it I had tossed every last raviolum in the pot. “I guess we’re eating them all,” I said. I had originally thought that the amount would be more than enough for three people, but I had not taken the great, gaping maw of the Big Hominid into my calculations. As it turned out, 28 large ravioli was just the right amount.

The cooks stand proudly by their creation

Hyunjin took this photo of the two cooks, me with the ravioli on the right and Kevin with his amazing Technicolor sauce on the left. Kevin asked me if I was afraid of having my picture taken while wearing an apron, and I replied (as he recorded in his Konglish version) “I not afraid sex!” Indeed, I am not afraid of sex. I realize that many may not understand the connection between aprons and sex, but trust me—it exists. Besides, I’ve been photographed wearing things far more, um, interesting than aprons. But that’s another story entirely and has nothing to do with ravioli.

Finally, after hours of pasta making, we finally got to sit down and taste the fruits of our labors. I’m pretty sure that homemade pasta tastes better than store-bought pasta, and I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that you slave over it for hours before you actually get to eat it. There is a Swedish proverb that says “Hunger is the best spice” (yeah, I didn’t know it was a Swedish proverb either until I looked it up), and we were certainly hungry.

Besides the ravioli, we had some bread (which you can see next to Hyunjin’s plate) and vegetables with a yogurt dip that Hyunjin made. The bread was a simple Italian-style bread that I make when serving Italian food. Just flour, water, a little sugar and salt, and yeast, plus some baguette-making techniques to give it a hard crust and chewy inside. It’s mainly for mopping up sauce, which is why it is kept simple. The vegetables were all fresh from the field: cucumbers, celery, cherry tomatoes, and carrots. I did not think to pick any vegetables that did not begin with the letter “C.”

On a side note, I think this photo is evidence of my theory that people being photographed just before eating look unusually awkward. Kevin may look natural here, but only to those who don’t know that he never smiles for photographs. Go ahead, look back at the two photos of Kevin in this entry. It may look like he is smiling in the previous photo, but that’s actually his patented frown-smile™, where he somehow manages to frown and make it look like a smile. But in this photograph he is actually smiling—a sure sign of awkwardness among large hominids.

Here you can see not only the cooked ravioli, but the lovely sauce that Kevin made at home and brought with him. You should check out his entry for photographs of the sauce-making process, along with a Konglish commentary. This photo is the last time both ravioli and sauce were ever seen alive. Rumor has it they were mercilessly slaughtered and eaten shortly after this photo was taken.

Of the 28 ravioli, Kevin ate 11, I ate 10, and Hyunjin ate 7. I’m pretty proud of my count, as I usually fail miserably to match Kevin in terms of gustatory input. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was definitely full. Not full to the point of exploding, just full enough to be satisfied. I’m beginning to suspect that Kevin’s stomach is something of a bottomless pit, though—after dinner he went home and began eating chunks of parmesan cheese.

I think I’m getting the hang of this pasta thing now. In a way it’s easier than bread, but it can also be more subtle. I’d like to try different types of pasta as well. I have an attachment that cuts sheets into spaghetti and linguini, but there’s a lot you can do with plain sheets of pasta. The next time I make lasagna I’m definitely going with homemade noodles (which will just be pasta sheets cut to the appropriate length). I’d also like to try experimenting with different colors and flavors—like spinach spaghetti with a pesto sauce for a green experience.

It is certainly a time-consuming process, and while it is not difficult it takes a lot of elbow grease. But I think it is the effort involved that makes it so rewarding. I’m glad I live in a country where you can just go out to the store and buy most foods ready-to-eat, but it’s also nice to be able to make these foods myself. There was once a time when that was the only way, and maybe it wasn’t as rewarding then, but there’s something about making food from scratch that feels good. Maybe making my own bread and pasta is not as manly as hunting for meat, but somehow it makes me feel more mature, like I actually know what I’m doing and I’m not just bluffing my way through dinner.

There is one final photo to wrap up the evening, a photo that is noticeably absent from Kevin’s account. After seeing some of the artwork he had left after the recent bazaar his students held, I called dibs on the “Water from a Skull” piece. It’s another take on the artwork that will decorate his upcoming book by the same name, and you can see that artwork on the site dedicated to the yet-to-be-published book. I’ve got to be honest here—I like the version I got better than the one on the cover.

It might look a bit odd to the uninitiated, but there is a story behind it. The Silla monk Wonhyo decided to travel to China to study the Way, but along the way something happened that made him turn around and return to Korea. He went to sleep one evening and woke up in the middle of the night thirsty. He groped around in the dark and came upon a gourd filled with water. He sipped it and found it sweet, so he drained the gourd and went back to sleep. In the morning, though, he saw that the gourd was actually a skull, and he grew sick and vomited. He realized then that the only difference between the sweet water he had drunk in the night and the water that made him vomit in the morning was the knowledge that he had drunk from a skull. From this he gained enlightenment and returned to Korea, since he no longer needed to travel to China to find the Way.

Kevin’s rendition obviously takes some artistic license with the subject. Wonhyo most likely did not raise the skull high above his head and let the water splash down on his face. But the way Kevin chose to portray the scene expresses a dynamism that perfectly conveys the spirit of the story. Thinking the skull a gourd, Wonhyo eagerly drank the water, and that eagerness is expressed through the gusto with which he raises the skull here. The absence of the face may be a stylistic choice in favor of simplicity, but for me it is very meaningful. The only face in the photo is that of a dead man, the skull from which the water pours. The eyes are drawn upward to this skull, reinforcing the incongruity between the refreshingly splashing water and the vessel from which it comes. In a way, Wonhyo is removed from the picture and we are faced with this incongruity—what do we see? And it is with that thought that I will wrap up today’s entry. Tune in next time for a very special entry inspired by a thoughtful reader.

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