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Manicotti

A SURPRISING NOODLE MAKES THIS DISH SO MUCH EASIER

We have a love/hate relationship with manicotti. Well-made versions of this Italian-American classic—pasta tubes stuffed with a rich ricotta filling and blanketed with tomato sauce—are true comfort food. So what’s not to love? How about putting it all together?

For such a straightforward collection of ingredients (after all, manicotti is just pasta, cheese, and sauce), the directions found in most cookbooks are surprisingly fussy. Blanching, shocking, draining, and stuffing slippery pasta tubes requires a lot of patience and time. And who wants to wrestle with a pastry bag to make a family dinner?

Some historical research prompted us to devise an unorthodox method for simplifying this dish. Traditional recipes call for homemade crespelle (thin, crêpe-like pancakes) or rectangular sheets of fresh pasta. In either case, the filling is spread over the flat wrappers and the sheets are then rolled up into neat bundles. Since the filling isn’t piped, there’s no need for the dreaded pastry bag. Now, making crêpes or fresh pasta isn’t convenient, but this research triggered a very good idea. Could we use another flat pasta sold in every supermarket—namely no-boil lasagna noodles—in their place?

The answer, we found, was yes. Soaking the noodles in boiling water for 5 minutes softens them just enough so they are pliable enough to roll around the filling. And hydrating the lasagna noodles in the baking dish that will eventually hold the filled manicotti means there are no extra pots of water, bowls of ice water, or colanders. When paired with a quick sauce, this humble family favorite is now easy to enjoy—and easy to prepare.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

A Separate Soak

Briefly soaking the lasagna noodles in boiling water makes them pliable enough to roll. But the noodles can easily stick together. Use the tip of a paring knife to separate the noodles as they soak. And don’t leave the noodles in the dish past the 5-minute mark or they’ll become mushy. Transfer the soaked noodles to a clean dish towel to dry off excess moisture that might otherwise dilute the cheese filling.

A Better Filling

It’s a given that ricotta makes the best base for the filling. Mozzarella (for both gooey richness and its binding properties) and Parmesan (for sharp, salty tang) round out the mild ricotta. However, mozzarella doesn’t bind the filling sufficiently. Two eggs thicken it nicely. Fresh parsley and basil balance the dairy richness.

A Smooth Sauce in a Hurry

A fairly smooth tomato sauce is the best option for smothering the filled and rolled manicotti. Rather than slow-cooking the sauce to break down the tomatoes, we simply chop the canned diced tomatoes in a food processor before adding them to a pan with olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. The sauce takes just 15 minutes to reach the perfect consistency. And we punch up the finished sauce with chopped basil for a hit of freshness.

Cover and Bake

To ensure fully cooked noodles, it’s important to make sure the manicotti are thoroughly covered with the sauce. Covering the dish with foil also helps cook through the noodles since it traps the steam to create a moist cooking environment. A toasty crust of cheese is a must-have finishing touch and easy to do during the last few minutes of cooking. Sprinkling the manicotti with Parmesan and running the dish under the broiler does the job in about 5 minutes.

manicotti-b

No-boil lasagna noodles are novel wrappers for an egg-enriched cheese and herb filling.

manicotti-a

Baked Manicotti

SERVES 6 TO 8

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 25 minutes to make tomato sauce (prepare filling while sauce is simmering)
  • 10 minutes to soak noodles and assemble dish
  • 50 minutes to bake, then broil, manicotti
  • 15 minutes to rest before serving (the cheese filling will firm up)

Essential Tools

  • Food processor to puree tomatoes
  • 13 by 9-inch broiler-safe baking dish (ceramic is best)
  • Aluminum foil to trap steam and soften noodles

Substitutions & Variations

  • It’s easy enough to vary this recipe :
  • Sausage : Cook 1 pound hot or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed, in 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat, breaking sausage into ½-inch pieces with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 6 minutes. Omit olive oil in sauce and cook remaining sauce ingredients in saucepan with sausage.
  • Prosciutto : Reduce salt in cheese filling to ½ teaspoon and arrange 1 thin slice prosciutto on each noodle before topping with cheese mixture.
  • Spinach : Add one 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed dry, and chopped fine, and pinch ground nutmeg to cheese filling. Increase salt in filling to 1 teaspoon.
  • Puttanesca : Cook 3 rinsed and minced anchovy fillets with oil, garlic, and pepper flakes. Add ¼ cup pitted kalamata olives, quartered, and 2 tablespoons rinsed capers to cheese filling.

Some brands contain only 12 no-boil noodles per package so buy two. If your baking dish is not broiler-safe (and glass dishes are not), brown the manicotti at 500 degrees for 10 minutes.

TOMATO SAUCE

  • 2 (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

CHEESE FILLING

  • 24  ounces (3 cups) part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 8 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (2 cups)
  • 4 ounces parmesan cheese, grated (2 cups)
  • 16   no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  1. For the Tomato Sauce: Pulse 1 can tomatoes with their juice in food processor until coarsely chopped, 3 or 4 pulses; transfer to bowl. Repeat with remaining can tomatoes.
  2. Heat oil, garlic, and pepper flakes, if using, in large saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until garlic turns golden but not brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in chopped tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt, bring to simmer, and cook until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Stir in basil and season with salt to taste.
  3. For the Cheese Filling: Combine ricotta, mozzarella, 1 cup Parmesan, eggs, parsley, basil, salt, and pepper in bowl.
  4. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Pour 2 inches boiling water into 13 by 9-inch broiler-safe baking dish. Slip noodles into water, one at a time, and soak until pliable, about 5 minutes, separating noodles with tip of sharp knife to prevent sticking. Remove noodles from water and place in single layer on clean dish towels; discard water and dry dish.
  5. Spread 1½ cups sauce evenly over bottom of dish. Using spoon, spread ¼ cup cheese mixture evenly onto bottom three-quarters of each noodle (with short side facing you), leaving top quarter of noodle exposed. Roll into tube shape and arrange in dish seam side down. Top evenly with remaining sauce, making certain that pasta is completely covered. (Assembled manicotti can be covered with sheet of parchment paper, wrapped in aluminum foil, and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month. If frozen, thaw manicotti in refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. To bake, remove parchment, replace foil, and increase baking time to 1 to 1¼ hours.)
  6. Cover dish tightly with foil and bake until bubbling, about 40 minutes, rotating dish halfway through baking. Remove dish from oven and remove foil. Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Sprinkle manicotti evenly with remaining 1 cup Parmesan. Broil until cheese is spotty brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Let manicotti cool for 15 minutes before serving.

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