Yum, yum, yum, & yummy! When passionate about cooking, it’s hard to say what your favorites are. But, certain things I just get so much satisfaction and pleasure out of a making. And, manicotti is one of them!
With manicotti, my moment of zen is affirmed when I open the oven door and get hit in the face with the aromas of a marinara baking infused with slightly charred crepes and subtle fragrances coming from the fresh herbs and spices in the ricotta filling. It’s a pure joy not to mention the visual of all this.
Like with all my pasta, bread, and fillings I try to keep things light in texture but intense with flavor. So, while the ingredients are simple and few, the techniques and preparation are key. I routinely get compliments on this dish. The most popular one is how light the manicotti and filling are along with its unique flavor. I believe the unique flavor is just because they are super fresh and made from scratch. I do not use any mozzarella in the filling but I do push the envelope a bit with the nutmeg, freshly cracked pepper, and fresh Italian parsley. Just to the point where a little more might be a little too much.
Baking them uncovered all the way is key as well. I love it when the crepe shells (that transform into pasta dough in the oven) become a little charred and crispy on the edges. It really adds to flavor and texture. And the smell of the overly caramelized almost burnt tomato sauce that lies on top!! It is just so simple and so beautiful!
So let’s begin . . .
The night before, open the ricotta container and place all of the cheese in a strainer. Place a piece of saran wrap directly on top of the ricotta. Put the strainer on a tray or in a bowl to catch the liquid. Keep it on the counter for about an hour to loosen it up at room temp then refrigerate in the strainer overnight.
If you feel like it, you can do the crepes, ricotta filling, and marinara the night before as well. Then, the day your guests arrive all you have to do is assemble the manicotti which is lots of fun! I like to assemble them in front of my guests just before antipasto. They usually get a kick out of it. (And it reminds them not to eat too much antipasto!)
We are going to use a basic flour, water, and egg crepe. No milk. The dairy from the ricotta is enough. Besides, we are going for a pasta feel in the end. A basic crepe is the exact ingredients of pasta with different flour and water proportions.
I like to vigorously whisk it all together but a food processor does a great job too. We want to make the crepes as light and thin as possible. So we need to get those tiny air bubbles going while mixing the flour, water, and eggs. Once the ingredients are mostly mixed you can add a pinch or two of salt and continue mixing. Oil is not needed to be mixed in with the crepe batter. We will be mildly greasing a small pan with some light olive oil for just about every other crepe.
I like to fill the bowl with the water and eggs first, get them mixed then slowly whisk in the flour. I start with the measured ingredients below and then adjust as needed with water or flour. Remember we are shooting for a thinner crepe batter therefore a thinner crepe.
Whisk vigorously until you have a silky smooth textured batter that is maybe just a tad looser than your traditional pancake batter. Now cover and refrigerate for an hour. Do not skip this resting/refrigeration step or you will be frustrated when trying to make your soon-to-be-perfect crepes.
After resting for an hour, take your crepe batter out of the fridge and let it sit in the room temp for about 30 minutes. Place a 6-inch nonstick shallow frying pan on the stove. Have a paper towel or two and a small ramekin with a little bit of olive oil ready as well. Give the crepe batter one last vigorous whisk to get some air in there.
Dip the crumbled or folded paper towel in the olive oil just a bit and grease the pan. Put the heat on medium to medium-high. When the pan gets hot and the oil starts to almost smoke, pour a small flat ladle full of crepe batter in the pan. When pouring start with the center then outward in a circular motion. Then, pick up the pan and swirl, and tilt it in all directions so the crepe batter thins out evenly to the edges to get a nice 6-inch diameter crepe.
At this point let the pan sit still on the flame and do not touch it or the batter. Once you see tiny bubbles and holes start to form on the surface of the batter, gently check the edges of the forming crepe by sliding a spatula along to make sure they are not sticking. Tap the pan on the stove and slide back in forth to loosen the crepe from the surface of the pan then flip with the spatula. (hey if you can single-handedly flip it using the panhandle all the power to you!) Cook for another 10 seconds or so and slide on a dish. Grease pan if needed. Repeat until the batter is done while stacking the crepes on the dish.
* A note about crepes. The reality of the situation is that if you have never made crepes it can be a little frustrating. There’s an old saying, the first one always gets thrown out! The trick is to keep the pan greased, hot, and keep moving swirling and flipping. They cook super fast so you have to get a rhythm going. Like anything else. Practice makes perfect.
Once your crepes are done and all stacked up neatly, let cool, cover with saran wrap, and refrigerate until needed.
The marinara for this manicotti is going to be super plain and simple. Why? Well, we spent all this time making beautiful homemade tasty crepes and soon-to-be wonderful light and perfumy ricotta filling. We don’t want to smother it all in an overly zealous sauce.
So for the marinara, in a medium saucepan, sautee the minced garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and basil leaf in extra virgin olive oil on medium to low heat. Once the garlic starts to sweat or turn slightly brown, add the blended San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes. Give it a good stir. Once it starts to simmer shut the heat off. The marinara is going to bake in the oven with the manicotti. There is no need to cook it all the way through on the stove. Letting it finish while baking will give it a nice fresh taste.
Put your marina aside until needed.
The Ricotta Filling
Well here is the star of the show! Take the ricotta out of the fridge that’s been draining all night long. Place it in a large mixing bowl. Add the fresh cracked black pepper, kosher salt, nutmeg, fresh chopped parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the eggs. With a wooden spoon, mix well until all of the ingredients are blended in.
Assembling The Manicotti
Place your crepe on a clean work surface. If one side of the crepe is more browned than the other, place the browned side up so it is hidden when you roll it. I like the outside of the manicotti to be a consistent lighter color.
With a regular ole’ kitchen tablespoon, place a heaping amount of the ricotta filling just a bit off-center (closer to you) onto the crepe. Give it a little side to side spread if needed and roll from the bottom. You do not need to roll super tight, but just make sure you pull a little as you roll so the crepe is snug around the ricotta mix.
With the seam side down, place manicotti in a rectangular baking dish lined with marinara sauce about 1 ½ inch apart.
With a ladle, start to fill in with the sauce. Ok now….we are not going to completely drown the manicotti in marinara sauce. Fill in with the sauce between the manicotti until it’s a little over halfway up to the crepe leaving the tops of the crepes bare. When finished, just put a nice thick line of sauce down the length of the manicotti in the middle leaving the crepe partially exposed on each side.
Bake in an oven preheated to 385 degrees Fahrenheit uncovered for about 45 minutes or until desired doneness. I like to hit it with the broiler at the end to give it a beautiful baked look and taste. If you are going to play with the broiler do yourself a favor and set a timer for about 4 minutes at a time and do not get involved with anything else!
I like to serve this family-style in the same tray the manicotti was baked in. Garnish with a little extra sauce if needed, a light dusting of grated cheese, and a beautiful bunch of basil or parsley leaves in the center of the tray.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Thank you for visiting my blog!
Makes 16 Manicotti
For the Crepes
2 cups of 00 Caputo Flour
2 cups of water
¼ teaspoon of salt
For the Marinara
2 12oz cans of blended San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
¼ cup of extra virgin olive
3 garlic cloves minced
Sea salt to taste
Fresh cracked pepper to taste
Whole fresh basil leaves ( a small handful, half in the oil, half at the end before serving for garnish)
For the Ricotta Filling
1 3lb container of high-quality whole milk ricotta drained overnight in the fridge
2-3 eggs depending on the size
½ teaspoon of sea salt
2 heaping teaspoons of fresh cracked black pepper
2 heaping teaspoons of nutmeg (freshly ground would be great may have to cut back though)
1 tablespoon of grated parmigiano reggiano.
A generous handful of fresh chopped parsley. Large chop!