NPR listener Alice Benner says her Italian grandmother made ravioli that was "indescribably delicious."
Benner told us that she's tried to re-create the recipe many times. "The dough — the consistency — is totally wrong, usually too thick," she writes.
Benner's grandmother used Romano cheese in the filling — probably from an Italian deli in Chicago — but Benner says when she makes the ravioli, "the Romano cheese I've used never has the same punch. I've all but given up trying to make them."
Unfortunately, Benner didn't have her grandmother's recipe, only a memory of the dish, so she asked All Things Considered's Lost Recipes project for help.
Della Croce was intrigued by two ingredients in the filling: the rice and the Romano cheese. And she used her knowledge of regional Italian cooking to unravel the ravioli.
She asked Benner in an email: "Did her grandmother use olive oil or butter? Answer: olive oil. Did she cook with tomato sauce? Answer: Yes. So the olive oil and the tomato sauce put her either in the central or southern part of Italy. But then again, there was the rice, which put her in the northern part of Italy."
Della Croce was getting warmer. Turns out, Benner's family came from Tuscany, and they were shepherds. So della Croce delved into her collection of cookbooks from the Tuscany and Liguria regions and found a historical recipe for spinach and rice ravioli that was nearly identical to the one Benner had described.
But there was still one ingredient to puzzle over: the Romano cheese, or pecorino Romano. "It's a very sharp, very salty, aged sheep's cheese. And I knew that would overpower the other ingredients," says della Croce.
It also wouldn't melt during cooking to help bind the filling together. "It would have to be a younger cheese, which would give it a melting quality, but have a more mellow flavor," she notes.
Della Croce suggested Benner try a Tuscan sheep's cheese, or pecorino Toscano, for the filling, since that's her family's home region. Sure enough — Alice Benner had her spinach and rice ravioli, the way Nonna used to make it.
You can find the recipe della Croce adapted for Benner here.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Time now for our Lost Recipes project, where we try to fix old recipes that just don't quite work out the way they should. Today, we're going Italian.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
With a recipe for Spinach and Rice Ravioli. Listener Alice Benner of Praire du Sac, Wisconsin, told us about this dish her grandmother used to make. Benner writes that it was indescribably delicious. But the recipe was never written down. Benner has tried to recreate it herself with no luck. And the Romano cheese never adds the right punch. She laments, I've all but given up trying to make them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Well, our first reaction was, Alice, no, don't give up. Our second reaction - since we didn't know much about making ravioli from scratch - was to contact Oldways, a Boston-based organization dedicated to traditional foods and cooking. They introduced us to an expert on Italian food, Julia della Croce. And she was the perfect kitchen detective to reveal the secrets of this ravioli.
JULIA DELLA CROCE: First of all the description, indescribably delicious, really hooked me. I really wanted to make them come out right.
CORNISH: Now Julia, I don't understand how you could figure out this recipe just by hearing, you know, grandmother from Italy, and spinach and rice and ravioli. I mean, what are the clues in that sentence that helped you figure out what could have been in this recipe to recreate it?
CROCE: One of the major clues was the rice. For the most part, rice figures in a lot of cooking in northern Italy in particular. So I asked her a number of questions. I asked her did her grandmother use olive oil or butter. Answer: Olive oil. Did she cook with tomato sauce? Answer: Yes. So the olive oil, the tomato sauce put her either in the central or southern part of Italy. But then again, there was the rice, which put her in the northern part of Italy. Sure enough, she did say that her family was from Tuscany, and they were shepherds, shepherds and farmers.
I researched historical recipes from the Tuscany Liguria area where they would've typically used sheep's cheese, and I came up with a recipe that was almost identical with the one that she was describing that is made in the valley in the Apennines called the High Trebbia Valley near the Tuscan border. And so I figured if her great grandparents were shepherds they probably lived in the mountains or in a valley, in, you know, that type of area. And there it was. I had the recipe.
CORNISH: Now, you've told us about the ingredients. What about the method? Ravioli isn't easy in any way. I mean, back then or now, so what exactly about the technique did you divine from this?
CROCE: Well, making ravioli isn't difficult, you know, once you learn how to make the dough. The ingredients are pretty simple. You know, you're sauteing sausage, you're cooking the rice in milk, that's how it's done in a historic recipe I found. You're using either spinach or some other green of the season. And in this case, also mushrooms. And then you're putting it together and you're adding the cheese, which, you know, in a way binds it. Oh, it also has an egg yolk in it which binds the filling, too. So it stays nice and compact, you know, when you cut the ravioli open.
CORNISH: So Julia, I heard you mention there the cheese. And it sounds like that might have been the missing link for this recipe in terms of taste?
CROCE: I think it was the missing link. She told me she was using pecorino Romano, which is a very sharp, very salty, aged sheep's cheese. And I knew that that would just overpower the other ingredients. And also, because it's aged, and therefore it's dry, it wouldn't have a melting quality. I knew that she would probably want a sheep's cheese, but not that particular one. It would have to be a younger cheese, which would give it a melting quality, and it would have to have a more mellow flavor.
Still a sheep's cheese, which is very tangy, gives good flavor to the filling, but not pecorino Romano. So I suggested that she go and locate a Tuscan sheep's cheese since her family came from Tuscany, and try it with that. And she said that the recipe wound up tasting just like she remembered it.
CORNISH: Well, Julia, thank you.
CROCE: You're so welcome.
CORNISH: Julia Della Crocce is the author of a number of cookbooks, including her latest, "Italian Home Cooking." You can find her recreated recipe for Spinach and Rice Ravioli at our food blog, the Salt at npr.org.
BLOCK: And some of you might be wondering about those original New York full sour pickles we talked about last month. They're the pickles at...
JOANIE VICK: Tickles Your Tongue. There's an acid taste that absolutely hits the tip of your tongue the first time you bite into a pickle.
CORNISH: That's listener Joanie Vick of Nashua, New Hampshire. And she's been pickling since mid-July, using a recipe another kitchen detective gave her to help reproduce Grandma Minnie's full sours. Vick has emailed us to say, the perfect pickle requires patience, and time is on my side. Yes, it is.
We'll get the skinny in our next installment of Lost Recipes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME IS ON MY SIDE")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) But you'll come running back. Said you would baby. You'll come running back. I told you so many times before. You'll come running back to me.
BLOCK: Yes it is. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.