Monday, September 2, 2013

Cheddar Sweet Potato Tortellini

I LOVE tortellini. Though I never buy tortellini because I will only buy the good stuff, and then the price shock makes me exclaim, "I could make these for a tenth the price!" But for years I've never made them, because it takes planning - the dough has to rest at least two hours, you need a clean space big enough to roll out the pasta, and the patience to shape each and every tortellini. That last part is the biggest deterrent. Anyway, I finally sucked it up, and made my dreams come true!

In principle, tortellini is easy, they just take time and patience. It starts with the pasta dough. I cut my usual recipe in half:

Pasta Dough
(Yields ~40 Tortellini)
8oz. All Purpose Flour
2 Large eggs
1Tbsp Water
1Tbsp Olive Oil (or any vegetable oil)
pinch salt

I usually just eye-ball the water and oil and adjust it as I go. Pasta can be made either entirely by hand or with a mixer. I love the experience of kneading pasta dough by hand, but sadly my wrists are semi-destroyed after years of abuse in professional kitchens. So, I start my dough by hand and let my Hobart-KitchenAid mixer do the heavy work of kneading for me. 

"The Well Method" is the traditional beginning to pasta dough. A "well" is made in the flour for the eggs, oil, and water. Then with a finger or two, stir the wet things together, slowly incorporating the flour as your go.

At this point, I turn the mixing over to the mixer machine, but I definitely encourage everyone with healthy wrists/hands to knead it by hand! After a few kneads or turns of the mixer, check the consistency of the dough - if there are dry bits that the dough refuses to pick up, add another Tbsp or two of water. If the dough is sticky and moist, add a Tbsp or two of flour. Keep a close eye on your dough and touch it often to respond to it's needs. The goal is to have a single ball of dough that bounces back when you poke it and is smooth to the touch -- not sticky in any way!! If it's at all sticky, it needs more flour! The dough needs to knead for at least a couple minutes, and if you're having to make several additions of flour and/or water it could take 10-15 minutes. 

Kneading dough is a beautiful culinary dance! I see it as a fairly intimate process, a silent conversation between dough and hands. Hands and dough moving together, responding to each others movements,  just like a partner-dance. I think it's relevant here to mention a fabulous quote direct from a Parisian chef at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris via a previous pastry-chef/coworker, "knead the dough like you knead your wife's ass."

Once your dough is lusciously smooth, firm, and elastic (after 5-15 minutes of kneading), wrap it in plastic and let it sit at room temperature for at least two hours, or in the fridge for up to 24 hours (it'll be fine for 48 hours, but I don't recommend it). The reason the dough needs to rest has to do with gluten..


A few words about gluten and molecular structure of dough:

Gluten is a complex mixture of several proteins found in some grains (e.g. wheat, oats, barley, rye, spelt). There are two classes of gluten proteins: the glutenins and the gliadins. The glutenins are the muscle; shaped like a spring to provide elasticity and strength (or toughness) to dough. The gliadins act like ball-bearings, softening the effect of the glutenins and helping them to slide past each other. When you knead dough, you are moving these proteins around with the goal of stringing glutenins together from end to end. Water molecules combine with the glutenins to make strong disulfide bonds between glutenin molecules that are not easily broken.

When you over-knead, you begin to forcibly break up the long glutenin chains that you worked so hard to build. These chains likely break somewhere in the middle of each glutenin molecule, not at the disulfide bonds, which makes them harder to repair.

So why does dough need to rest? Because when you knead dough, in addition to making these long disulfide-linked glutenin chains, you're also stretching out the coiled structure of the glutenin molecules and allowing them to form weak bonds with neighboring proteins. This essentially creates a tightly knotted molecular mess. By giving the dough time to "rest", the glutenin springs contract into their natural, non-stressed formation and they break any unnecessary weak bonds. So resting ensures the health of long glutenin chains.


While the dough is resting, prepare the filling and everything you will need to make the tortellini.

Cheddar Sweet Potato Filling
5 tiny Sweet Potatoes
(or 1 gigantic Sweet Potato. When in doubt, tis better to have too much than not enough.)
~1/4cup White Cheddar Cheese, grated
~1mm slice off a stick of Butter (salted or unsalted)
pinch salt
big pinch Black Pepper, freshly ground

This is simply what I came up with based on what was in my kitchen at the moment. I encourage everyone wanting to recreate this to have fun with the filling! Put whatever you want inside your tortellini. Put something different inside each tortellini to make dinner an exciting Easter-egg hunt!

Anyway, for this filling, cook the Sweet Potatoes using your favorite method. I boiled them. They could also be steamed, baked, microwaved, grilled, wrapped in foil and thrown into a fire.... anything goes, just make sure they're cooked.  

I found the green water to be a fascinating consequence of boiling sweet potatoes...

Peel them once they're cool enough to touch, and then mash them with the cheese, butter, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

To roll out the pasta dough it really helps to have a pasta machine, but it can certainly be done with a simple rolling pin too. Cut the dough in half (re-wrap the half you are not using immediately), use your hands to flatten it and dust it with flour. It's hard to use too much flour at this stage. Flour frequently.

Run the dough through the machine on the thickest setting and then work your way incrementally to the 2nd-to-thinnest setting. For tortellini, there's no reason to go all the way to the thinnest setting. Gently move your first sheet of pasta dough to a well-floured surface and roll out the second half of the dough.

Cut circles out of the dough. I used a 7.75cm ring cutter which produced slightly larger than normal tortellini. 

The scraps of dough can be mushed together and re-rolled to make more tortellini. The more you re-roll the dough, the tougher it will get, so I recommend only doing this once. Any resulting scraps from the final re-roll, can be cooked and eaten as simple, unfilled noodles.

Crack a large egg into a bowl and beat it with a fork as if you were going to make scrambled eggs. This will be used like "glue" to seal in the filling of each tortellini.

Building a Tortellini
1) Scoop a small amount of the filling onto the center of a dough circle.
2) Brush the edge of the dough with egg.
3) Fold the dough in half over the filling.
4) Use your fingers to seal the edges together
5) Pop that collar!
6) Press together the loose ends.

Seal the edge by pressing them together...

...folded and sealed...

...collar popped...

...push the ends together..

...squish the two ends together.

Voila! Tortellini!

If you don't want to eat all these tortellini right away, they should be frozen. Always freeze on a cookie-sheet first and then transfer them to a bag once frozen. To cook frozen tortellini, put them directly from the freezer into boiling water. I haven't tried this yet, so I'd check one after 5 minutes to see if it's done or not.

To cook fresh (non-frozen) tortellini, simply boil in salted water for about 3-5 minutes.

I ate the first batch with nothing more than olive oil, salt, and pepper. Though any sort of pasta sauce would be delicious. These are also surprisingly filling!

Reference: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee