Warning: mistreated recipe! If you have any intention of using those chewy curly no-boil lasagna, lumpia/wanton wrappers, manicotti tubes, tortilla, frozen crepes or other horrors please don’t even read this recipe. In fact, you might want to go out for dinner or make mac n’ cheese.
Like lasagna, this is a labor-intensive pasta recipe. It’s a dish of sublime goodness which deserves to be revered and prepared with loving care for the appropriate (grand) occasion. The effort will be totally worthy, I promise you.
The success of this dish is based on high-quality ingredients, a restrained amount of sauce, a relatively dry but wonderfully savory filling. By the time it is ready to eat, the pasta should remain al dente.
- 700 gr (forty 6- by 4-inch) fresh pasta rectangles or thin dry lasagna noodles
- for soffritto: 1 onion, 1 celery rib, 1 carrot, all finely chopped
- 700 gr (1.5 lb) good quality ground red meat. I use a mixture of pork and beef.
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 200 gr (7 oz) sliced ham, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 500 gr (1 lb.) fresh spinach, blanched, dried and chopped
- 60 gr (2 oz) finely grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano plus two tablespoon for sprinkling.
- 350 gr mozzarella or mild cow’s-milk cheese, sliced
- 2/3 cup Bechamel sauce
- 1.5 lt (6 cups) basic tomato sauce flavored with a handful of basil leaves
- Make tomato sauce and Bechamel
- Blanch spinach
- Slice ham, cheese and soffritto vegetables
- Make filling
- Blanch pasta sheets
- Assemble the cannelloni (see the full process here)
If you use your own pasta sheets you will need to triple my basic pasta dough recipe. Make them the day before, let them dry completely, covered with a thick kitchen towel so they will not curl up and break. Storing at room temperature is OK for one day, otherwise freeze the individual sheets and keep in a freezer box until needed.
As an alternative buy the thinnest possible lasagna noodles. Preparing the tomato sauce and blanched spinach in advance also helps with time management.
To make filling:
In a shallow heavy-bottomed pan saute onion, carrot and celery with two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. This is called a soffritto. When the vegetables are translucent, increase heat, add ground meat and saute quickly until just starting to brown. Deglaze with white wine, season with salt, nutmeg and black pepper and set aside to cool.
In a food processor, pulse ham, spinach and grated Parmesan until finely ground. Add to cooked ground meat together with 2-3 tablespoon tomato sauce. Do not use frozen spinach, they tend to retain too much water. If the filling is too moist the cannelloni will fall apart during cooking.
To assemble the cannelloni:
Bring a large pot of salted water to rolling boil, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Boil pasta 10 pieces at a time in a large pot, stirring lightly to separate, until just tender, about 1/2 minute for fresh pasta or about 3 minutes for dry noodles. Drain in a colander. Using thick rubber gloves gently transfer the pasta sheets on a clean work-top and lay them flat to cool. Preheat oven to 200 °C (400°F).
Transfer them to a baking dish arranging snugly in 1 layer. Spread cannelloni with a thin layer of tomato sauce, drizzle with Bechamel and sprinkle with 2 tablespoon grated cheese. Bake in the middle of the oven until the sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes.
Let them stand 5 minutes before serving. Cannelloni are ideal to serve a crowd, each piece just lifts out of the baking dish in a perfectly sized portion. In addition they can be frozen uncooked. Just make sure to thaw them completely before baking.