Momma P’s Cheese Cannelloni
My Ma would often make these on the days when no meat is allowed including Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Cannelloni, in our family, were always made with cheese. It was the manicotti that were made with meat. I thought the difference in name had to do with the filling. But it turns out, it has everything to do with the actual pasta part of the dish. Both dishes involve stuffing pasta tubes with filling. Cannelloni is fresh pasta, rolled out into lasagna-like sheets. The dough can also be a runnier mixture made into crepes. Whatever pasta you choose, it’s a bit of detail work…but well worth it.
Every once in a while, my Ma would make it all from scratch, crepe-style, carefully rolling in the filling and then positioning the stuffed cannelloni “just so” so they wouldn’t unravel or flatten too much. Those were good, good days. The crepe was ever so slightly chewy adding to the creaminess of the filling. I’m going to give those a try, one of these days.
But then, there were days and more of them when my mother was working, where she’d take a short cut. She’d buy the pre-made pasta tubes. I never minded. It was the filling I was after. So. Much. Cheese. What’s not to like?
This dish was always topped with a simple tomato sauce. Nothing thick, nothing to too spicy. Just a simple light meat sauce. You could also have a plain margarita basil sauce as well as I generally make with this dish.
This is one of those dishes that seems like it would be a lot of work, but if you buy the pre-made shells, it’s pretty quick. Just stuff them, line them up, get some sauce on there and let the oven do the work. The payoff is lovely.
Here’s your RTI:
Be gentle with the pasta shells – they can break with too much pressure.
I use oven-ready shells, so no pre-cooking necessary.
I’ve only ever made this with frozen spinach. Why? It’s faster and easier. Do your best to drain it (I squeeze it between my hands over the sink), otherwise you will end up with a runny filling versus a creamy one.
You can absolutely use fresh spinach. You simply have to cook it first which presents an opportunity to flavour the spinach as well, if you cook it in some olive oil and garlic. You also have to drain it and chop it finely. Chopping it finely means it will flow into the cannelloni shell easily. No chopping = annoying cheese-squeezing bottleneck. Make an executive decision. Finely chop the spinach!
Be generous with the base layer of tomato sauce.
- Baking pan which will fit your pasta shells
- Bowl to mix filling.
- Grater for mozzarella or food processor
- Pot to make tomato sauce
- Wooden spoon for stirring
- Cutting board
- 1 pound ricotta
- 1/2 pound spinach (well drained – fresh or frozen and minced)
- 1/2 ball mozzarella (shredded)
- 2 egg yolks (If you forget and add the albumen, no biggie. The filling will just be a bit “looser”)
- 1 tsp salt (If you like a lot of salt, add more)
- pinch pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 onion, minced
- 2 cloves, garlic smashed
- 1 ( 2 cups) jar tomato preserves you slaved over last summer (Post on that soon. It’s actually super fun) or passata you can buy at the grocery store or a big can of crushed tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes are best but regular ones will do)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- Salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
- Sprig or a few leaves of basil
Yield: Enough sauce to cover 20 cannelloni and have some to spare.
- Mince the onion.
- Peel and smash the garlic (If you like garlic in your sauce, mince it and cook with the onions)
- Heat olive oil in the pan til warm
- Dump the onion and garlic in the olive oil and hear the sizzle. Allow them both to cook for about 3 minutes. I fish the hunks of garlic out.
- Then pour in the jar of tomato preserves or passata or a big can of crushed tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes are best but regular ones will do)
- Add half a jar of water
- Let the sauce cook over medium heat. It will bubble and make a mess on your stove, which is how it should be with all those stubborn little splashes of tomato sauce EVERYWHERE, little reminders of your prowess in the kitchen.
- Keep cooking the sauce, stirring every few minutes, until it thickens. At least 30 minutes, maybe longer.
- Add basil leaves and season with salt and pepper and give it a taste. Keep seasoning until you like it.
Putting it all together:
- Have your tomato sauce ready and waiting on the side.
- Mix the ingredients for the spinach and cheese filling together.
- Stuff the tubes. Easiest to do this with a piping bag or a freezer bag with one corner snipped off. Fill the bag with cheese. Squeeze the cheese out of the lopped off corner.
- Once the pasta tubes are stuffed, lay them on a tray or sheet.
- Pour some sauce to cover the bottom of your baking pan.
- Arrange the stuffed tubes in your baking pan.
- Once the tubes are snug, pour some more tomato sauce over top, making sure to get a bit between each cannelloni and some sauce along the sides of the pan as well.
- Top with grated parmesan or romano cheese or both so that it can melt into umami goodness on top.
- Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes until they are soft and “fork-able”.
Welcome to Momma P’s Spinach Cheese Cannelloni!