Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Baked Manicotti

I am pretty sure that I have mentioned before my love of Italian food. I can't get enough of the stuff. If I lived alone I would eat Italian every day. An Italian lady I worked with in Australia made the BEST authentic Italian tomato pasta sauce I have ever tasted and even now I can taste it if I think hard enough about it. Her name was Luciana Garofollo - How's that for Italian? Her husband's name was Bruno. When I was about 19 or so she and her husband went overseas on a trip (can't remember where) and she had me stay at her house and look after her three sons. They had a very large and gorgeous home that was very Italian in style and a backyard that was littered with terracotta. Lovely! Before Luciana left on her trip, she spent weeks preparing meals for us to eat in their absence. She had them all neatly placed in Tupperware containers with labels and they were stacked in her freezer. I simply had to reheat them. I don't think I have ever eaten so well. I begged her to adopt me. I WILL MAKE IT TO ITALY SOMEDAY and when I get there, I'm sure I'll gain 20 pounds eating myself silly.

I saw the cooks at America's Test Kitchen make this dish one Saturday on PBS. From the moment I watched them make it, I knew I had to add it to my menu. It did not disappoint me. I especially loved that the recipe used the lasagna sheets negating the need to break out my pastry bag to stuff the shells. This was easy to make and was oh so delicious!

Baked Manicotti
America's Test Kitchen


Tomato Sauce
2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes (in juice)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes , optional
Table salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Cheese Filling and Pasta
3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
4 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 cups)
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese (about 2 cups)
2 large eggs , lightly beaten
3/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
16 no-boil lasagna noodles (see note above)

1. For the Sauce: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. 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 until fragrant but not brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Stir in basil; adjust seasoning with salt.

3. For the cheese filling: Combine ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan, mozzarella, eggs, salt, pepper, and herbs in medium bowl; set aside.

4. To assemble: Pour 1 inch boiling water into 13 by 9-inch broiler safe baking dish, then add noodles one at a time. (NOTE: I used about 4 cups of boiling water — it was more than an inch high, but the noodles weren’t completely covered otherwise.) Let noodles 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 kitchen towels; discard water in baking dish and dry baking dish.

5. Spread bottom of baking dish evenly with 1 1/2 cups sauce. Using soupspoon, spread 1/4 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 baking dish seam side down. Top evenly with remaining sauce, making certain that pasta is completely covered.

6. Cover manicotti with aluminum foil. Bake until bubbling, about 40 minutes, then remove foil. Remove baking dish, adjust oven rack to uppermost position (about 6 inches from heating element), and heat broiler. Sprinkle manicotti evenly with remaining 1 cup Parmesan. Broil until cheese is spotty brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Cool 15 minutes, then serve.

STEP BY STEP: Manicotti 1, 2, 3

1. Soak no-boil lasagna noodles in boiling water for 5 minutes until pliable, using tip of paring knife to separate noodles and prevent sticking.

2. Using soupspoon, spread about 1/4 cup filling onto three-quarters of each noodle, leaving top quarter of noodle exposed.

3. Roll each noodle by hand and place in baking dish, seam side down.

A note from the kitchen- We prefer Barilla no-boil lasagna noodles for their delicate texture resembling fresh pasta. Note that Pasta Defino and Ronzoni brands contain only 12 no-boil noodles per package; the recipe requires 16 noodles. The manicotti can be prepared through step 5, covered with a 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 the manicotti in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.) To bake, remove the parchment, replace the aluminum foil, and increase baking time to 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

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