The rations of Thanksgiving leftovers have been consumed, the Tupperware is clean, and hopefully you’ve returned your pans to everybody (I will get my pan back, Tim—mark my words, I am relentless and to be feared). We’re in holiday limbo: still a couple weeks out from Christmas, still not sure what to eat until the next feast. Will I die if I consume only ham for an entire month? Can the human body sustain on pie alone? Reasonable questions this time of year, but allow me to submit manicotti, a dish that hovers between holiday casserole and Sunday dinner.
Manicotti are cheese-filled tanks drowned in red sauce. You’ve probably had this decidedly Italian American dish in its lowest form, either as a somber microwave dinner or oven-baked from a frozen, factory-made package. I’m actually a proponent of store-bought pasta, which has many redeeming qualities, but truly there is no substitute for homemade manicotti. The difference in quality is too stark. Tender, eggy pasta crepes with cheese filling and your own style of red sauce just removes all doubt. The recipe below is something I’ve honed for the last six years, and it’s worth it.
In my family, manicotti was what we ate on Thanksgiving and Christmas, my Italian elders’ response to their disdain for turkey, stuffing, and green bean casserole. Now it’s just a winter dish, something to pop in the oven and feed to half a dozen dinner guests. Let’s talk about how to make it good.
This is non-negotiable. The difference between store-bought and fresh ricotta is immense. Fresh ricotta is rich and has a subtle sweetness to it that you can’t get from name-brand cheese. There’s a recipe here, but to make it even more simple: it’s 2 parts milk to 1 part cream. Bring to a slow boil while stirring, squeeze half a lemon over it, then let it curdle for 15 minutes. Strain in a cheese cloth over a fine mesh sieve placed atop a large bowl. I let mine strain in the fridge overnight and the result is always a crumbly, large curd ricotta that’s excellent to work with. Also, the fresher and less processed the milk, the better the cheese. Sounds difficult, but it’s super easy and the payoff is huge.
Basically, you’re making crepes here.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups water
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, flour, and salt like a batter, then slowly add the water. The batter shouldn’t be too frothy. Now get a 10-inch sauté or non-stick omelet pan hot on medium heat, and spray a little cooking spray. Ladle out 3-4 tablespoons of the batter into the hot, greased-up pan. Rotate the skillet a bit to fill out the pan, then once the top looks like it’s mostly cooked, flip it over. It takes practice, but I believe in you! The shells shouldn’t be too brown, just that nice, eggy golden color. Once it’s cooked thoroughly, place it on a piece of wax paper that’s sprayed with a little more cooking spray. Stack each shell with layers of wax paper and cooking spray, and do this until the mixture is gone. You should have about 12-14 shells. I let them sit at room temperature for a while and then place them in the fridge to cool.
I’m not going on a suicide mission here by including a recipe for red sauce. Good Lord, imagine if I did that. Everyone does their red sauce differently, and I’m cool with that. I do mine with San Marzanos, garlic, onion, and basil (basil the last 30 minutes or so), but it’s hard to argue with Marcella Hazan’s recipe, too.
3 cups fresh ricotta
8 oz. Mozzarella cheese (preferably grated fresh, not shredded)
2 Tbsp. parsley
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano
No intricate instructions here; just combine and mix together thoroughly with a spatula, mixing bowl, your hand—whatever you’re comfortable with. Make sure to season with salt and pepper. Let the mixture chill in the fridge for at least an hour, too. This makes it easier to assemble.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread about 1/4 cup (or 3 tablespoons) of filling down the center of each circular manicotti shell, trying to spread the cheese mixture to the ends as well. Now roll it up tightly, while folding the ends inside as you go. It might look a little flat and imperfect, and that’s fine!
In a casserole dish, place about 1/2 cup of red sauce on the bottom with a little water. Spread it evenly throughout, although it doesn’t have to be a full-on layer of sauce. Line your manicotti in a row, one by one, seam-side down. Top with more red sauce and bake for 30 minutes uncovered.
I finish with more grated Pecorino and some chopped parsley. Fresh pepper is a good idea, too.