I feel like I should use my best infomercial voice when I say this post is “two, two, two recipes in one.” The first recipe is for homemade pasta, which, if you’ve never tried to make it, is much easier than you undoubtedly think. The second is for the manicotti filling — rich, creamy, and, in this case, packed with spinachy goodness.
If you decide to give this a go you’ll definitely be rewarded. Fresh pasta is tender, silky and delicate, with a flavor unrivaled by dried pasta. Pair that with a savory manicotti filling highlighted by the tang of fresh ricotta and parmesan, the smoothness of fresh mozzarella, and the brightness of spinach and onions, and you’ve got a winning dish.
Manicotti, fresh out of the oven
Homemade pasta is one of those things that, when you find out how easy it is to make, will have you rolling out batch after batch. How easy? Try four-ingredient easy…or even three, if you’re a purist and omit the olive oil. It also lends itself to a bit of experimentation once you get the hang of it, adding fresh pureed spinach or chopped herbs to the dough as desired. But…there is a little bit of a time investment in making your own pasta, and you’ll need some specialized equipment in the form of a pasta machine (or a lot of patience, flour for dusting, and a good rolling pin).
My pasta machine has followed me around since college and is none the worse for wear over the years. It’s also one of those things that can sit in a cabinet for months, years even, waiting for inspiration to strike. Which is what happened recently. It had, in fact, been years since I last made pasta, but Daughter 1 expressed an interest. More of a curiosity, really, when I decided to use up the last of this fall’s butternut squash to make ravioli (a post, perhaps, for another day…once we perfect the filling).
I should have realized just how much fun it is for kids to not only make dough, but to roll the dough through a hand-cranked pasta maker into progressively thinner and thinner — and longer and longer — sheets. Both our girls absolutely loved helping me, improvising by making “crackers” with the dough scraps and rolling and re-rolling any bits they could get their hands on. And no, no fingers were crushed in the process. Whew!
Rolling the pasta dough
So, manicotti seemed like the perfect kid-friendly project. Once you roll out the long sheets of dough it’s easy enough to cut them into six-inch sections. Then it’s just a quick swim in boiling water before being stuffed and baked. This same pasta recipe, however, can be used for making plain old pasta, to be cut down into spaghetti or fettuccine and doused with a butter/garlic sauce or a ladle of marinara.
But back to the manicotti. I liked this filling for several reasons. Even though we included some meat in our batch it’s easy enough to leave the meat out for a vegetarian manicotti, which I think I prefer. We used extremely fresh ricotta and mozzarella from Fulper’s Dairy Farm, currently available at the Slow Foods Central New Jersey Winter Market among other places. The spinach we used was frozen, but you could use fresh chard or kale if you have it on hand. Just be sure to wilt it in a hot sauté pan first and squeeze out as much liquid as possible before adding it to the recipe.
I had a couple of champion rollers in our kitchen. Daughter 1 manned the pasta machine, and then did double duty by instructing Daughter 2 on how to fill and roll the manicotti (they are going to put me out of a job soon; good thing I’m still needed to boil water and work the oven). Daughter 2 impressed me with how carefully she spooned the marinara sauce over the finished rolls, and they both put on the finishing touches with a generous sprinkle of grated mozzarella.
Our expert roller – great job for a kid
We will definitely make this dish again. Now that I’ve dusted off the pasta machine I’ve got all sorts of pasta adventures in mind. But if you don’t have a pasta machine or are short on time, don’t let that stop you. A good-quality dried lasagna noodle can sub for the homemade pasta sheets — just boil the lasagna noodles longer, until they are al dente. That quick swap will definitely get this dish on the table quickly, and may just save your sanity on a packed weeknight.
Assembling the manicotti
One final note on the below recipe: the amounts here will make approximately 12 generously-filled manicotti, feeding 6 – 8 people. If you have fewer mouths to feed (and don’t want to make extra and freeze them, which you could easily do), I suggest making the full batch of pasta dough and only use half of it for the manicotti — it’s kind-of difficult to put in one and a half eggs, and two eggs will make this dough a little too wet. Then halve the filling amount. You’ll get 6 – 7 manicotti that way, and some dough to be rolled out and cut the next day for a big batch of fettuccine.
Here’s how we prepared our dish:
Spinach Manicotti with Homemade Pasta
2 cups all-purpose flour
Generous pinch Kosher salt (about 1/8th teaspoon)
3 fresh eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil
Manicotti Filling Ingredients:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 16-ounce bag frozen spinach, thawed and wrung in a clean kitchen towel to remove as much moisture as possible
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
4 cups grated fresh mozzarella cheese
2 cups grated fresh parmesan cheese
Approximately 1 cup cooked, crumbled and cooled Italian sausage (from 2 large links) or similar amount ground beef – optional
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to season, and additional salt for the pasta water
1 24-ounce jar marinara tomato sauce (when we don’t make our own, we’re partial to Wayne, PA-based Vesper Bros. Signature Marinara these days)
Begin by making the pasta. Mix together the flour and the salt and, on a large, clean surface (a large cutting board or marble slab works well). Mound the flour into a hill and then make a deep well in the center of it…large enough to hold the eggs. Break the eggs into the well, add the olive oil, and begin to slowly beat the eggs with a fork. Working carefully, begin to incorporate a little flour at a time into the eggs until a loose dough forms. When the dough is too stiff to use a fork any longer, begin using your hands to knead the dough, using the heel of your hand to press the ball of dough away from you and your finger tips to bring the dough back towards you.
Making the dough – eggs and olive oil in a flour “well”
When all ingredients are well incorporated and the dough is stiff but still pliable, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours. During this time the gluten strands will relax and the dough will become softer. It’s much easier to work with a dough that has rested because it won’t spring back when it’s rolled out.
The dough, before it has rested
While the pasta dough is resting, make the manicotti filling. Begin by sautéing the onions in 1 teaspoon olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the drained and squeezed spinach to the onions and stir well, breaking up any large clumps of spinach. Add the garlic, stir, turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool.
In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the ricotta, 2 cups of mozzarella (save the additional 2 cups for sprinkling on top of the rolled manicotti), the parmesan, eggs, salt and pepper to taste, and any cooked and cooled meat you are using. Stir in the cooled onion/spinach mixture. Set aside until the pasta is ready.
Meanwhile, fill a large stockpot with water, salt it liberally, and bring to a boil over high heat. At the same time, preheat oven to 375 degrees and prepare a large Pyrex baking dish (4.8 quart, if you have it, or two 2-quart baking dishes…or whatever baking sheets you have) by ladling in several large spoonfuls of the marinara sauce, enough to coat the bottom of the baking dish(s).
Getting back to the pasta dough, remove it from the refrigerator after it has rested. Working with one-quarter of the dough at a time, run it through the roller of your pasta machine on progressively more narrow settings, going through the press twice on each setting. You do not need to go to the narrowest setting (which is “7” on my machine, but “9” on newer Atlas pasta machines) — this is a little too thin for the manicotti.
After the last time through the roller you’ll have a very long strip of dough that is 6-inches wide and many, many inches long. Lay it out on a flour-dusted surface (don’t allow dough to double over on itself or for the raw pasta sheets to touch one another…they will stick like crazy). Trim the uneven ends and, using a ruler, cut approximate 6-inch sections to make 6-inch by 6-inch pasta squares. Keep pasta squares separated from one another but covered with a clean, damp kitchen towel. Repeat these steps for the remaining dough quarters. You’ll get approximately 12 – 14 pasta squares in total.
When all your pasta sheets are cut, cook them by briefly sliding them, two to three at a time, into the stockpot of boiling salted water. They only need to cook for a minute or two. When they rise to the surface remove them with a slotted spoon and place on a clean plate or baking sheet.
Fill each manicotti by spooning a generous amount (between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup) of the filling along one side of each pasta square and rolling it up to enclose the filling. Place it, seam side down, into the marinara sauce in the bottom of your baking dish. Continue to fill manicotti and line them up in the baking dish…or dishes, depending on what you have on hand.
Rolling the manicotti filling in the pasta sheets
When all the manicotti have been filled, spoon the remaining marinara sauce over the top and then sprinkle with the remaining grated mozzarella cheese. If you want, drizzle a little olive oil over any exposed pasta at the ends of the manicotti (where the sauce doesn’t coat the noodles).
Waiting to go into the oven
Place the baking dish onto a baking sheet (helps protect your oven if the sauce bubbles over) and bake for 45 minutes to one hour at 375 degrees. Dish is ready when the sauce is bubbling, the mozzarella cheese is melted, and the manicotti at the center of the baking sheet are hot. During the last minute or two of baking you may want to broil the top to slightly brown the mozzarella. Be careful not to burn the cheese.
Remove from the oven, allow to cool for about 10 minutes (or the manicotti filling will be quite loose), and serve.
Serves: 6 – 8
That first bite can be hot
Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 1 prefers this dish without meat. She’ll eat two helpings. She doesn’t rate the meat version quite as highly though. Daughter 2, who normally professes not to like spinach, cleaned her plate.
Parent rating: four stars. This is like an easy lasagna, and we have in fact used the filling for lasagna before. Rolling it in delicate pasta sheets somehow makes this dish even better. Great winter meal. Warm and warming, and everyone can lend a hand getting it ready.
Enjoying the manicotti