Guaranteed, these authentic manicotti are not like the ones you’re used to eating in Italian restaurants. Manicotti are traditionally ricotta filled crepes, covered in tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella cheese – just like lasagna. Most manicotti you find on a restaurant menu or in American homes are made with tube-shaped pasta shells, which really makes them cannelloni. Manicotti are similar to cannelloni. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish which pasta dish you are eating. Cannelloni are pasta tubes filled with meat or a cheese and spinach mixture. Cannelloni are also made using pasta squares rolled into a tube. In short, manicotti are made with crepes and cannelloni are made with pasta.
My grandmother always made manicotti with crepes. These delicious, light crepe manicotti are filled with ricotta cheese. The recipe is a bit time-consuming, although you can prepare the sauce and crepes a day in advance and assemble the manicotti several hours before baking. If you’re short on time and don’t want to make the crepes, you can substitute store-bought pasta shells as a short-cut.
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Makes approximately 12 to 16 6-inch manicotti, 8 servings.
For the Manicotti Crepes:
1 cup flour
1 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Vegetable shortening for greasing
Special Equipment Needed: 6 to 6.5-inch flat-bottom skillet or crepe pan
For the Ricotta Filling:
2 pounds ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, divided
1 pound shredded Mozzarella cheese, divided
1 tablespoon finely minced Italian parsley leaves,
Ground black pepper
For the Tomato Meat Sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large onion (about 1cup), finely chopped
1 pound ground beef
2 (28 ounce) cans tomato puree, or crushed tomatoes
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
6 large fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 teaspoons sugar
Salt and ground black pepper
PREPARE THE RICOTTA: The night before, wrap the ricotta cheese in a clean dish towel and place in a medium bowl. This helps to remove excess liquid from the cheese so it isn’t runny.
MAKE THE RICOTTA FILLING: Place ricotta in a medium bowl. Add eggs, beat with a mixer or wooden spoon until creamy. Add 1/2 cup of grated cheese, 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and mix well. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.
MAKE THE MANICOTTI CREPES: Using an electric mixer, combine the flour, water, eggs, oil, and salt in medium bowl at low speed until smooth. Let the batter sit for 20 minutes.
Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Heat a 6-inch skillet over low heat for 2 minutes. Using a paper towel, lightly grease the bottom of the pan with vegetable shortening. Slowly pour a scant 1/4 cup of batter into the bottom of the skillet while swirling the pan to get an even thin layer on the bottom of the pan only. The trick is to try to make the crepes as thin as possible but don’t stress over it. Cook until the crepe is set, approximately 1 minute. To test for doneness, lightly press a finger on top, if no imprint is left the crepe is done. Remove from heat. Loosen crepe from pan with the tip of a knife to dislodge and carefully slide onto the baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the batter, placing each crepe next each other in a single layer. Use a sheet of parchment paper between layers. The crepes can be refrigerated for several hours or overnight. Cover crepes with plastic wrap before refrigeration.
MAKE THE SAUCE: Heat olive oil in a 6-quart covered stock pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Raise heat to medium-high, add ground beef and cook until browned. Stir in tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add tomato puree, 1 cup of water, and basil. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water to sauce if necessary for desired consistency. Stir in peas and sugar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook an additional 15 minutes. The sauce can be made a day ahead of time and refrigerated. Reheat and thin with a little water before using.
ASSEMBLE THE MANICOTTI: Manicotti can be assembled and refrigerated several hours before cooking. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. *Using 2 (9-inch x 13-inch x 2-inch) glass or ceramic baking dishes, place a layer of sauce on the bottom of one baking dish. Place the crepe bottom up on a flat surface. Spoon approximately 1/4 cup of the filling evenly down the middle of each crepe, leaving some space at the ends. Fold one side of the crepe over the filling and then the other side, completely encasing the filling and leaving the ends open. Place seam-side down in baking dish, placing 4 filled manicotti, side by side across the bottom half, along the width of the dish and 4 manicotti across the top half. Using a ladle, place a layer of sauce over the top of the manicotti. Sprinkle with half of the remaining grated cheese and half of the remaining mozzarella. Using the second baking dish, place a layer of sauce on the bottom and repeat layering remaining manicotti. Cover each dish tightly with aluminum foil. If not cooking immediately, manicotti can be refrigerated for up to 8 hours. Heat and serve any remaining sauce along with the manicotti.
BAKE THE MANICOTTI: Bake the manicotti for approximately 35 to 45 minutes, until sauce is bubbly and mozzarella is melted. Use a spatula to transfer the manicotti directly onto dinner plate or shallow pasta bowl.
*Note: You can use one baking dish instead of two, by stacking one layer of manicotti on top of the other in the same direction. However, it’s easier to dish the manicotti out by placing them in a single-layer using two baking dishes.