Cooking Up History: Niccolò Paganini’s Ravioli

The following is a guest post from Music Reference Specialist Paul Allen Sommerfeld.

Niccolo Paganini. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The contents of Paganini’s famed ravioli recipe are well known, but few people seem to attempt making it. So to get a sense of what Paganini might have himself eaten after a long day of performing—perhaps providing a sense of home while on tour—I decided to take a stab at recreating the meaty dish!

But first, some context. The Music Division has in its possession a collection of Paganini materials that were purchased by Mrs. Gertrude Clarke Whittall in 1944. Most relevant to the task at hand, the collection of notebooks, diaries, and correspondence includes Paganini’s own handwritten recipe for ravioli.

 

Paganini’s recipe for ravioli. Whittall Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Paganini was known to have a voracious appetite, and was particularly fond of Genovese cuisine. After a painful operation from an infection of his saliva glands, Paganini wrote to a friend that he would more quickly recover if he could find a ‘signora’ to cook “divinamente anche alla Genovese” (Letter to Luigi Germi, 20 October 1828).

Paganini’s own ravioli recipe reveals his own considerable appetite:

1 1/2 lb. flour
2 lb. lean beef
butter
tomatoes
mushrooms
1/2 lb. lean veal
a calf’s brain
Lugano sausage
an onion
three eggs
pinch of borage

Lest anyone cry out in revulsion at the ingredients, I have a disclaimer. I omitted the brains, having never cooked nor eaten them myself. As for the final result, I’ll unpack the process following Paganini’s own instructions.

For a pound and a half of flour, two pounds of good lean beef to make the sauce, place in the frying pan some butter, then a small amount of finely chopped onions, and brown slightly.

The instructions started off easily enough. I only had to decide the kind of onion to use. I chose to go with a red onion to add a little more spice. Moreover, the red onion is reminiscent of the Cipollini onion grown in southern Italy. It’s not from the northern Genoa region, but Paganini may have been familiar with the flavor from his extensive travels.

 

 

 

 

Put in the beef, and cook till it begins to take on a bit of color. For a thick sauce, take a few pinches of flour and gradually sprinkle them into the meat juices to brown, then take some tomatoes, break them up in water, pour some of the water into the flour in the frying pan and mix well to dissolve. Finally add some finely chopped and pounded dried mushrooms, and that’s the meat sauce.

Adding sprinkles of flour to the beef indeed helped thicken the juices. But I have to confess that I purchased crushed tomato in lieu of making my own sauce. Having attempted my own tomato sauce in the past, I was not prepared to commit an entire day’s labor to the sauce. I also found that the final touch of mushrooms rounded out the flavor—a thick and hearty sauce that looked more like bolognaise than ravioli. All it seemed to be missing was salt, pepper, and garlic. Perhaps it’s my own taste, but I’ve always put garlic in my tomato sauce. Without its presence here, however, I could really taste the tomato.

 

Now for the pasta. To lift the eggless dough: a little bit of salt in the pasta will help with its consistency.

Because I knew I would be making my own pasta, I didn’t feel so bad about cutting corners on the tomato sauce. In fact, Paganini doesn’t provide much guidance. I felt a bit like I was performing a technical challenge on the Great British Bake Off. So I did a little bit of recipe reconnaissance and found a recipe for eggless ravioli dough. I was able to mix, knead, and cover it for a short rest with relative ease, if only because I’ve been baking my own bread for years.

 

 

Now for the filling. Using the same pan as for the meat, in the sauce, cook half a pound of lean veal, then remove, chop it and pound it. Take a calf’s brain, cook it in the water, then remove the skin covering the brain, chop and pound well, separately take a little lugano sausage, remove the skin, chop and pound separately. Take a good pinch of borage, boil, squeeze out thoroughly and pound as above. Take three eggs, sufficient for a pound and a half of flour. Beat them thoroughly and add the various ingredients listed above, which should be pounded again, adding a little Parmesan cheese to the eggs. And that’s the filling.

I had already decided to omit the brains, so my primary challenge here was the Lugano sausage, which I couldn’t track down locally. I finally managed to find a recipe online that at least approximated the “slightly cheesy” sausage in flavor, if not in appearance. I was able to make an equivalent by mixing ground pork, ricotta, pecorino romano, spinach, pine nuts, and garlic. Borage was equally difficult to obtain, but I found multiple sources that listed spinach as an acceptable substitute. Finally, because both my veal and pork were already ground, I didn’t need to chop and pound the meat before cooking it.

 

 

 

You could use a capon in place of the veal, and sweetbreads in place of the brain for a more delicate filling. If the filling is hard, add some meat juice.

Veal was definitely easier to acquire than a capon, so I chose to stick with the original. I find sweetbreads as unappetizing as brains, so I dismissed that option as well. And my filling was assuredly not hard, but very moist!

 

For a ravioli, cut the pasta slightly wet, and leave for an hour covered to give thin sheets.

Not being a pasta expert, I was a tad puzzled by this step. I decided to let the pasta rest before the labor-intensive work of cutting, filling, and sealing the ravioli began. One by one, my ravioli pile increased. Because the dough was still a bit wet and sticky, it didn’t always want to seal, as my misshapen ravioli demonstrate.

Forty-five minutes later, I had 15 ravioli ready to cook. Paganini’s recipe doesn’t specify how, but I found the answer online. I brought a pot of water to a “gentle” boil, dipped them in, and let them cook until they were floating—about 2-3 minutes.

 

But how did it taste?

I invited over two friends—a fellow musicologist and the food historian from the National Museum of American History—to help me assess my efforts over a glass of red wine and recordings of Paganini’s more intimate guitar sonatas. While we all admitted my pasta was a little too thick, we all agreed the flavors were subtle, yet tasty. It’s a hearty dish, and five ravioli were more than enough. I would gladly make the dish again, but would add garlic to the sauce and more ricotta to the filling.

So yes, readers, if you are so inclined to connect with Paganini’s food and music in one event, his recipe is indeed delicious—if a bit time-consuming. Just leave out the calves’ brains.

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