Ravioli al Forno

I got a wild hair the other day. How is that different from any other day?

Well, I did not rappel down a cliff or go sky diving (been there, done that). I did not propose renovating another room in the house (still in process on that). I did not beg for a vacation to New Zealand (going – 8 years from now).

No. This wild hair involved turning on the oven. In August. On a 90° day. Weird, right?

I just had a hankering for something…different.

Clean eating has a great impact on the human body. When you cut out the processed garbage, the chemicals, the preservatives, the sugar – your body gets an injection of solid nutrition and fuel. Which makes it possible for you to live a more active, healthy life.

But sometimes? Sometimes you just need cheese. And freshly-baked bread. And an OTT dessert.

I dug through the cupboards and the freezer to see what I had on hand, because the grocery store is not my favorite place to be right now.

There was a bag of ravioli at the bottom of the freezer, tucked in next to a package of Italian sausage. I had shredded Italian cheese. Fresh spinach. Peaches. Hmmm…. Inspiration struck – ravioli, baked in the oven.

The gooey-ness of melted cheese began calling my name, and a meal began to take shape in my head.

Any Italian meal requires fresh bread. You might remember my struggles with bread from earlier posts. But I remain determined to get it right. For this dinner, I elected to try focaccia, figuring that it was easier than most other breads.

Given that I know nothing about the chemistry of bread making, I turned again to my trusty friends at Bread Ahead bakery. Using the recipe from their online baking e-book, I managed to construct a quite passable rosemary & sea salt focaccia!

The dough was really sticky (how much fun would your kids have with that?!), something I was definitely not expecting.

But the end result was dead on for smell, taste and texture. And if I need to work on shape, well, I can shoot for that next time!

Now for the ravioli.

Here’s what you need:

  • 20 oz. package of ravioli (whatever filling you like; refrigerated or frozen)
  • 1 cup diced pancetta or cut up bacon (roughly 6 slices)
  • Italian sausage – roughly 1 lb or 6 links, whichever you prefer
  • 16 oz. sliced baby portabello mushrooms
  • 5 cups raw spinach (you can use frozen, as long as you thaw and squeeze out the water first)
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 pint half-and-half or 2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp basil
  • 2 cups of your favorite Italian cheese combo (mix parmesan, asiago, mozzarella, etc. for best flavor), divided into 1 cup portions

Here‘s how you put it together:

  1. If you are using Italian sausage links, slice into 1/2 inch pieces. If you are using ground sausage, skip this step.
  2. If you are using frozen ravioli, cook according to package directions, but stop cooking just before the ravioli begins to rise to the top. Once you see a floater, stop cooking! You want the pasta to be al dente in order to keep it from getting soggy when you bake it.
  3. Next, heat a large skillet over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the Italian sausage. If using ground sausage, break into small chunks. You do not want this to end up looking like taco meat, rather more like the chunks you would see on a pizza.
  1. When the sausage is cooked around halfway through, add the pancetta or bacon, stirring to separate the pieces and to cook them evenly. Cook for approximately 3 minutes, until the pancetta begins to crisp.
  2. Add the mushrooms to the meat mixture, and stir to coat. You want the mushrooms to absorb some of the liquid from the meat, as that is where your flavor is. Cook for 5 minutes. Set aside.
  1. Now you’re going to make a roux, which is the flour & liquid mixture used to thicken a sauce. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter.
  1. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Watch the heat! Garlic can burn quickly, and no one wants to eat that!
  2. Gradually add the flour, stirring with a fork or a whisk, until the flour is incorporated into the butter, and the mixture thickens. This will happen quickly, so keep your half-and-half close by.
  1. As soon as the mixture thickens, add the half-and-half, basil and oregano, stirring constantly. Cook for approximately 5 minutes, until liquid thickens and begins to bubble. Remove from heat.
  2. Immediately add 1 cup of the cheese, a little at a time, again whisking with a fork or a whisk to blend. You should notice an immediate difference in the consistency.

Note: If the mixture is stringy, add a little more milk – maybe a tablespoon or so. It should not look like melted cheese, but like cheese sauce.

If your saucepan is big enough, you can complete the next steps right in that pot. If not, use a large mixing bowl.

  1. Add in the fresh spinach, stirring until all spinach is coated with the cheese sauce.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat & mushroom mixture into the same pan or bowl. Stir to combine.
  3. Gently fold in the ravioli. I would use a spatula here, to keep from breaking the ravioli into pieces.
  4. Spray a 9×13 casserole dish with cooking spray. Pour the entire mixture into the pan, using a spatula to gently spread it evenly.
  1. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup of cheese and bake in a 350° oven until cheese is melted and begins to brown. About 15 minutes. Do NOT over-bake or you will end up with a soggy mess!

That’s it! There are a lot of steps here, but I wanted to break it down for those of you who don’t feel quite at home in a kitchen, or who are nervous to try something new.

The only part of this meal that is left is dessert, and I am thrilled to send you to an amazing food blogger named Sam, and her food blog, Sugar Spun Run. I have loved every recipe I’ve tried from her kitchen, and these mini peaches & cream galettes are no exception.

Cheesecake tucked inside a flaky crust, topped with the season’s freshest peaches? Not Italian, but who cares? They were soooo good. And we had leftovers for the next day – woo hoo!

A quick note about timing:

If you are not a culinary whiz kid, timing out recipes can be your worst nightmare. So, here’s how I did it for a dinner planned around 6pm:

  1. I started the focaccia dough around 11am. It takes minutes to throw together, but 2 hours total to rise, so I wanted to make sure I had enough time.
  2. The peaches needed 30 minutes to sit after slicing and mixing, so I started them around 12:15pm. They sat while I made the dough (and don’t hesitate to break out the Pillsbury pie crust if you are not a pie crust master. We can’t all be good at everything!).

Once I started the galettes, I moved right on through the recipe. The finished dessert sat to the side while I prepped everything else, just over an hour start to finish.

  1. Right after I finished baking the galettes, the focaccia was ready to bake, so in it went. Reheating it for dinner meant about 5 minutes in the oven, so I wasn’t worried that it wouldn’t be ‘fresh’ for the meal. It was fine.
  2. At 5:15pm, I cooked the ravioli and set it aside. Then I sliced up my sausage and got everything else going around 5:30pm.

I hope this helps! And, as always, if you have questions, drop me a message and I’ll be happy to help!

Buon appetito!

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