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Secrets of the dough: Hundreds volunteer to make ravioli for St. Leo's Catholic Church

Alex Kawecki, Jhuron Thompson and seven of their friends were determined to make heaps of dough Saturday morning. They had an excellent reason.

When Michael Seidman asked other members of Towson University’s Club Lacrosse for their help in a fundraising project, they didn’t need much persuading. He didn’t even have to bribe them with an offer of using the morning’s work to fulfill part of the college’s community service requirement.

“As soon as I heard that we’d be making ravioli, I was all in,” Kawecki said.

OK — it’s possible that Seidman might have mentioned that participants would qualify for a free and freshly made chicken Parmesan lunch after the ravioli-making session.

“What’s the downside?” asked Joey Snight, 20. “I’m always hungry.”

Seidman’s takeaway from the morning’s labors was that sizing the ravioli properly was key. “The hardest part was getting the amount of filling right,” he said. “In the beginning, the ones I made were too small.”

They were among about 150 people on Saturday (plus another 220 last week) who volunteered to put together the signature ingredient for a March 3 ravioli dinner at the Rev. Oreste Pandola Learning Center, 908 Stiles St. in Little Italy. The dinner, which also includes spaghetti, meatballs, salad and Italian bread, is one of the biggest fundraisers for the nearby St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church, 227 S. Exeter St.

Organizer Sue Corasiniti, wearing an apron decorated with peppers that covered her from her neck to her knees, estimated that St. Leo’s has been throwing its ravioli dinners for roughly eight decades.

“Years ago, the neighborhood ladies would put their kids to bed and then come over to the church to make ravioli,” she said. “It would take about a week.”

But it’s been decades since the cooks had to roll out the pasta by hand. Now, volunteers using industrial mixers and commercial pasta machines produce smooth sheets of uniform thickness. Each of the biannual events requires 100 five-pound bags of flour, five cases of eggs and 22 cases of ricotta cheese.

“We made 4,000 ravioli for each dinner,” Corasiniti said. “During the good years, a ravioli dinner can raise $20,000.”

Joann McDonald, 64. of Dundalk learned the craft of ravioli-making from her grandmother. She remembers pouring a mound of flour directly on the table, adding a pinch of salt and a drib of oil, and then beating in the eggs until a dough began to form.

“Then you cover the dough and let it rest for about 20 minutes,” she said. “That’s important.”

On Saturday, she was passing the craft on to her granddaughter, Alivia McDonald, 9, of Dundalk and Alivia’s best friend, Emma Boone, 9, of Dundalk.

“You have to get them when they’re young,” McDonald said. “When they’re teenagers, they don’t want to be bothered.”

This was Emma’s first try at ravioli making, but Alivia is an old hand. She started out as a scrap girl when she was barely as tall as the table but quickly progressed to making the pasta pockets. She obligingly demonstrated her technique:

First, Alivia smoothed the sheet of dough flat against the table. Then she imagined a line running down the very center of the dough. Just over the line, she placed heaping spoonfuls of the ricotta filling about three inches apart. Then, the girls folded the long end of the dough over the short end and pressed the edges together. With a pastry crimper, they cut the dough into square pockets with a ricotta lump in the middle.

“The hardest part,” Alivia said, “is getting all the air out.”

Emma demonstrated the trick she had learned — placing one finger from each hand on both sides of the ricotta lump and pressing down while gradually moving her fingers forward. Then the girls pressed down the remaining three sides of the square with the tines of a fork. Presto — perfect ravioli.

McDonald said she’s glad to have such hard-working and reliable helpers. She hopes the girls will learn how meditative and calming cooking can be, that it can be a comfort and a pleasure. And she hopes that decades in the future and after she is dead, making ravioli will be a way for her grown granddaughter to conjure her memory.

“There is a bond that comes from cooking with kids,” she said. “It’s something special you can do together.”

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