Manicotti are a traditional Italian dish, made out of cannelloni that come with a ricotta-parmigiano-parsley filling, and which are baked in tomato sauce and with lots of mozzarella cheese. Yeah, it’s comfort food at its best. I try to only make this dish once a year, I find it does an amazing vegetarian main dish for Christmas – and have actually not eaten it since I went gluten-free for lack of proper gluten-free cannelloni.
When I made crepes the other day though, I had four left over and in the evening decided to convert them into manicotti, because I happened to have ricotta at home and all other ingredients that I needed for manicotti. You can make manicotti with crepes – as you can lasagna, so why not try it? I bought the ricotta thinking that I would make something involving a cake or a dip or both, but this worked, too! Oh, boy! It was such an amazing dinner! Our arteries were probably not very happy, and we ended up eating the left-overs for lunch the next day, but I think it was totally worth it. There’s always next year, right?
As always: I strongly suggest you use fresh herbs when making this recipe. It makes a world of a difference. This dish really strives on the parsley. If you’re not a fan of cooked parsley (like my father-in-law) you could substitute with fresh basil and fresh oregano.
Four crepes (see my recipe here)
For the filling:
250g (that’s half a pound) fresh ricotta
2 large eggs
1 large wedge parmigiano cheese (about 40g)
1 cup fresh or defrosted spinach (if you’re using frozen spinach, check it’s gluten-free!)
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
For the tomato sauce:
500g canned chunky tomatoes (that’s one pound)
100 ml gluten-free vegetable broth
one onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
salt, pepper, chili flakes – to taste
extra virgin olive oil
For the topping:
70g mozzarella cheese, grated
You can use fresh mozzarella, but I find that it looses way too much liquid while baking and I thus prefer to work with the already grated stuff that’s sold at the supermarket in bags and ready to go. One word of advice: ensure to check whether this cheese is in fact gluten-free. It is often treated with starch (which could be made of wheat) to avoid all of the grated cheese sticking together in one huge lump and assist in easier handling of the cheese in the ktichen.
Drop the ricotta in a bowl, add the eggs and the grated mozzarella. If you’re using frozen spinach, defrost it. If you’re using fresh spinach, cook it gently in a pan until the leaves have shrunk. Drain them of their liquid and chop them up. Add to the ricotta-egg-parmigiano-mixture. Add the parsley, stir well, add salt and pepper to taste.
You can cook your tomato sauce the traditional way (fry up the onions and the garlic in a pan, add the tomatoes, a bit of water and then season with salt, pepper, basil and chili flakes). Or you can drop everything into a microwave-safe dish, turn the microwave on for about three minutes and call it a day. I did the latter, I think it works really well for tomato sauces which are going to be cooking another round in the oven (e.g. I do my tomato sauce for pizza in this fashion, too, if I’m in a hurry). If you want, you can also double the amount of tomato sauce in order to create a bit more emphasis on it, if that is your thing.
To assemble the manicotti:
You can use a large casserole, and place the manicotti next to each other. I didn’t have that much tomato sauce, so I chose to use my small dish and to pile two layers of crepe over each other, and filling the space between both crepes with a bit of tomato sauce. I guess this works much better in a rectangular dish than it does with one that is oval or round, but to each its own!
Heat your oven to 220°C.
Line the bottom of your casserole with one third of your tomato sauce.
Spoon one fourth of your filling into the middle of a crepe (as to form a thick line of filling running from one end of your crepe to the other), fold it up (starting from one side) and carefully transfer it into your casserole and place on top of the tomato sauce. I find this works best, if you pick the filled crepe up from both ends and kind of spoon it with one of your hands, so that it won’t fold out and run away in the middle of it. You may have to have another person help you in this as well as with keeping the manicotti in place in your casserole dish while you fill the subsequent crepes. I didn’t have another person to help me, so I used the weight of a spatula, which I placed on the side of my first crepe. It worked really well and no mess was made!
Once you have finished a first layer of manicotti, you can spoon another layer of tomato sauce over them (and then cheese, if you have only one layer) and then add the second layer of filled manicotti. Cover the last layer of manicotti with the remainder of the tomato sauce and drizzle your grated mozzarella over it.
Like I mentioned above: a ready-made version of mozzarella-cheese works best, but you can use the fresh kind (the mozzarella ball that comes in a small plastic bag full of liquid) after draining by simply cutting the ball of mozzarella into thin slices.
Place your casserole dish into your oven and bake your manicotti for about forty-five minutes to an hour – until the filling inside the crepes is cooked. I find that when baking dishes of this kind in my oven, it’s always a good choice to place a baking tin or another, larger casserole below your baking dish. These type of dishes tend to splatter when coming to a boil in the oven and it’s so much easier to clean a large casserole or a baking tin instead of having to go amuck on your oven. You can tell that it your manicotti are ready, when the filling is firm and spongy. It is not cooked, if your filling is still liquid!
As always, the middle takes the longest to cook, so I suggest poking a chopstick or tooth pick into the middle of your casserole and checking the texture of your dish after about forty-five minutes.
I suggest covering your dish with aluminum foil after about fifteen minutes. This way the inside of your manicotti will cook faster and the cheese crust on top will not burn, plus your dish won’t dry out as fast.
Once your manicotti are cooked, remove from oven and serve manicotti while still warm. This dish goes well with a wine of your choice and a fresh, bright and delicious salad, e.g. with roasted garlic vinaigrette.