I remember the first time I tried my Italian aunt-in-law’s spinach and ricotta cannelloni: it was love at first bite. Fresh egg pasta was flattened into sheets, cut into rectangles, lined with a spinach, ricotta and Parmigiano Reggiano mixture then rolled into tubes before being gently laid on a bed of freshly made besciamella sauce. Sometimes she would top it with more besciamella and a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese--like a true Emiliana—while other times she would add a few spoonfuls of homemade tomato sauce that had simmered for length on the stove. Both options had me back for seconds—let’s be honest, sometimes thirds—when she served this dish at a long Sunday lunch or on Christmas day to feed our family and extended relatives. No one could ever say no to the irresistible hot rolls of fresh pasta, soft cheese filling and a golden crunchy top.
If you love pasta, you’ve likely eaten the American-Italian version, manicotti. Although they look similar, it’s a far cry from the real thing. American restaurants, cafeterias and mall food courts serve this “Italian” dish using overcooked machine-extruded cylinder pasta, a bland filling of watery ricotta and frozen spinach and top it off with so much cheese that it turns into a rubbery layer as it sits under the yellow glow of a heat lamp. I usually cringe when I walk past these trays.
The trick to this recipe, and all Italian cooking, lies in the simplicity of seasonal and high quality ingredients. By using ingredients rich in their natural flavors, it doesn’t take much to make a dish shine. For this recipe in particular, don’t use bland frozen or baby spinach that only add volume; instead, opt for fresh spinach from your local farmer and fresh ricotta from a local dairy farm. It may take a little longer to hunt down these fresh ingredients, but you really will be able to taste the difference. And, since this recipe does require time and effort, you want it to be worth it.
Makes: Serves 4-5
Difficulty level: medium
Total time: 2 1/2 hours
For the dough:
200g all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 jumbo eggs
1-2 tablespoons water, if needed
For the filling:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 lb fresh spinach, cleaned
10.5oz fresh ricotta
3.5oz Parmigiano Reggiano
3 pinches nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the besciamella:
2 cups whole milk
1/3 cup flour
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 pinch nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the tomato sauce:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 onion, finely chopped
11 oz tomato puree
1 pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Make the dough:
Attach the dough hook to the stand mixer and add the flour and eggs. Mix on speed 1 for 3-5 minutes, stopping the stand mixer at least once to scrape down the sides. When the mixture comes together as a homogeneous ball, check to see if it’s the right consistency by pushing against the dough with your finger. If it leaves an imprint (like a ripe peach) and doesn’t stick to your finger, it’s ready. If the dough, however, is sticky turn the stand mixer back on and gradually add a little more flour, stopping every so often to check the consistency until it no longer sticks to your finger. If the dough doesn’t come together in a ball, add a tablespoon of water at a time until it does. (If you add too much just incorporate more flour until arriving at the consistency mentioned above.)
If you don’t have a stand mixer, make a well with the flour on a large workspace, add the eggs. Use a fork beat the eggs and gradually push the flour towards the egg and beat all together until the mixture comes together in a single mass. Knead by hand until it’s homogeneous and elastic; about 10-15 minutes.
Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Make the filling:
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and spinach, cover and cook for 5 minutes until wilted. Discard the garlic. Let cool.
Now add the spinach to a salad spinner and spin out the extra moisture. Put the spinach on a paper towel, roll and squeeze to take out any remaining moisture. Put the spinach on a cutting board and chop roughly then add to a large bowl. Add the ricotta*, Parmigiano Reggiano, nutmeg and season with salt and pepper to taste. Finally stir in the eggs. Put in a pastry bag or large freezer Ziploc bag and store in the refrigerator. *Note if the ricotta seems watery, blot with paper towels to take out the moisture.
Make the besciamella:
In a small saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat.
In a medium saucepan melt the butter over medium heat then whisk in the flour. Continue to stir until the butter/flour mixture is a light brown. Remove from heat and pour in the warmed milk whisking vigorously. Put back on medium heat, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes until the besciamella has thickened. Add the nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and pour into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap.
Make the tomato sauce:
Heat the extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions until translucent, but not brown; about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Add the tomato puree and pinch of sugar and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Roll out the pasta sheets:
Remove the pasta dough from the plastic wrap. Cut the dough in two, and roll out each piece to #5 with a pasta roller or stand mixer roller attachment. (You can also use a rolling pin.) Now cut the sheet into 3.5 x 5.5 inch rectangles.
Boil the pasta sheets:
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt well then add three sheets at a time and boil for 1 minute each. Lay out each cooked pasta sheet on a baking tray lined with a clean kitchen towel. Be sure that the pasta sheets are not overlapping and are extended well. Repeat until you have cooked all pasta sheets. Let cool.
Make the cannelloni:
Set up a clean working space with all of your prepared ingredients. Cut off the tip of our pastry or Ziploc bag.
Lightly cover the bottom of a 9 x 14 baking dish with besciamella.
Take a pasta sheet and set on a clean cutting board. Add a thick layer of filling to the longest side. Roll to form a cylinder then put in the baking dish. Continue until you have 10 cannelloni. Spread the remainder of the besciamella over the cannelloni. Top with two lines of the tomato sauce. Grate a little additional Parmigiano Reggiano on top, if desired.
Cook the cannelloni:
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Cover the cannelloni with aluminum foil. Bake for 30 minutes on the center rack. Remove the foil and continue baking for 10 minutes. In the last 2 minutes put on the upper rack and turn the broiler to high until the top is nice and golden. Buon appetito!