A Manicotti for All Seasons June 16, 2009Posted by Toy Lady in Cooking, Food, random stuff.
I have a theory about Italian-American food. (Please keep in mind that I’m a Midwestern Swede, so try to keep my theory in perspective.)
It’s all the same. While there may be an occasional exception, for the most part, classic Italian-American cuisine involves three parts:
- Cheese filling
- Tomato sauce
While there are variations on the theme, it’s all the same. Lasagna, stuffed shells, filled ziti, manicotti. Where’s the difference?
The size and the shape, that’s all.
I figured this out a long time ago, and since then, I’ve been refining and perfecting my . . . formula. Yeah, the formula.
Add America’s Test Kitchen to help with a little technique, and I think we have a winner!
So we’re going to make manicotti (or, more properly, I think, cannelloni), but keep in mind that the filling – and the sauce – will work just as well for any pasta incarnation you may desire.
Please also keep in mind that I am not Italian, I don’t have a little old Italian nonna to rely on – this is simply my interpretation of an Italian-American classic. An interpretation that has satisfied more than its share of diners, for the record.
We’re going to start with the cheese filling. In this case, I used 2 15-oz. containers of part-skim ricotta, along with half of an 8-oz. block of neufchatel cheese.
See, there’s a lot of stuff going on here, and there’s no reason not to go the lower-fat route wherever possible, right? After all, we want to be around to enjoy this another day.
To these cheeses, we add a large egg, about 1/2 cup grated parmesan (or romano) (or a blend) and about 1/2 teaspoon each of:
- garlic powder
- crushed red pepper
- black pepper
If you’re using fresh herbs, use about 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons of each.
Hold off on the salt for now – there’s going to be more cheese, and cheese brings a lot of salt to the party.
We’ve come to rely on the stand mixer – it’s just easier. Either way, be sure to thoroughly blend everything. It’s going to have the consistency of a really loose cheesecake batter, which isn’t surprising, really, considering it’s basically ricotta, cream cheese and egg. With some parm thrown in for good measure.
Now you’ll want to stir in about a cup and a half of shredded mozzarella. Part skim, of course.
Meanwhile, we turn our attention to the sauce. We used 2 quarts of home-canned tomatoes (actually, it was our last quart and two pints, but whatever) – if you didn’t manage to can any tomatoes last fall, 2 28-oz. cans of whole tomatoes are just fine. Just dump them – undrained – into the food processor.
Yes, we’re using the stand mixer AND the food processor. What’s the point of having a kitchen full of gadgets if you don’t use them, after all?
Meanwhile (yes, another meanwhile), heat in a large saucepan over medium heat:
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
Once this starts to get fragrant, go ahead and stir in the tomatoes with a little (1/2 tsp.) salt. Let it simmer about 15 minutes until it starts to thicken into a sauce.
Off heat, stir in a couple of Tablespoons of chopped fresh basil, then set aside.
Now comes the fun part. You know those manicotti tubes that you have to handle so carefully, and pre-cook, then cool, then fill using a pastry bag?
Try the Barilla no-boil lasagna sheets.
Seriously. Just pour about an inch of boiling water into a 9×13 pan, drop the lasagna noodles in, one at a time, into the hot water, just long enough to rehydrate, about 5 minutes. They’ll get sort of soft and bendy – perfect for rolling.
No stuffing – just rolling.
Pull them out of the less-than-hot water and let them drain on a kitchen towel. Or, if you happen to have an overabundance, on a couple of layers of homely gingham cloth napkins.
Spread about 1/4 cup of the ricotta cheese mixture on each pasta sheet – place the cheese on one end, and use a spatula or a tablespoon to spread about 3/4 of the length of the noodle, and roll up each manicotti. (I still think it’s really cannelloni, but really, what’s the difference if it’s all the same thing anyway?)
Meanwhile (this is the last meanwhile), ladle about a cup or so of sauce into the bottom of your ultimate baking pan – we actually used 2 pans – one to cook right away and one to freeze and for my brother to cook later.
I’m such a nice big sister.
Place the rolled pastas carefully in the baking dish on top of the sauce.
When all pastas have been filled, rolled, and placed, cover with the remaining sauce, taking care to be sure the pasta is completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – covered. Pretty much.
If you’re going to bake now, then this is the time. If not, then you’ll want to cover the pan, once it cools, tightly with plastic wrap, then with foil.
Helpful Hint: If you’re going to want to freeze it, stick a baggie of cheese between the plastic wrap and the foil – about 1/2 cup each of parm and mozzarella for the full recipe (do your own math if, say, you’re going to bake 3/4 now and freeze 1/4) (By the way, there are 16 pasta sheets in a box of Barilla lasagna noodles. Makes the math easier.).
Anyway. If you freeze the pasta, thaw it completely in the fridge for a day or so. Otherwise, carry on.
Cover with foil (remove any plastic wrap, if any), and bake at 375 until bubbly (though how you can tell through the foil is beyond me), about 40 minutes, then remove the foil.
Remove pan from the oven, and heat the broiler.
Meanwhile While the broiler is heating, sprinkle the remaining cheese mixture over the manicotti. Broil until bubbly (again) and spotty brown – in a word, GBD.
Oh, and you’ll have some filling left over. Fear not. It will freeze, or you can make a double batch of manicotti, or you could stuff some shells, put together a lasagna, make some spaghetti pie, or even fill some ziti.
Or you can do what we did and turn pizza night into calzone night.
I’m telling you, it’s all the same thing.