~ Making Manicotti Using Italian Crespelle (Crepes) ~
Manicotti is one of the oldest shapes of pasta that is still prepared today much like is was originally. In ancient times, the pasta dough was prepared, rolled into a large sheet, cut into good-sized squares, then boiled. The pasta squares were then filled with a flavorful, savory cheese or meat mixture and rolled up. After placing them in a baking vessel, they were/are usually topped with a tomato and/or bechamel sauce and baked in the oven. Modern day manicotti are sold as dried, pre-formed pasta tubes, approximately 4" long and 1" in diameter, or: the same size as the pasta squares after they are rolled up. Dried manicotti shells are readily available in most grocery stores and all Italian specialty shops. After the manicotti shells are boiled, they are stuffed, sauced and baked using the same filling mixtures and sauces as the more traditional, old-world style manicotti!
Manicotti (singular and plural) means "sleeves" in Italian, and, whether you prefer or prepare the ancient-style or the modern-style: they are a delicious entree that is well-suited for all sorts of entertaining. (They hold up really well in a chafing dish and portion/present beautifully, which makes them perfect for a buffet supper.) I like to prepare them in the traditional, old-world style, but replace the fresh pasta squares with Italian "crespelle". Crespelle, sometimes referred to as manicotti pancakes, are thin, Italian pancakes, very similar to French crepes and are commonly used in many regions throughout Italy. It is probably worth mentioning that manicotti prepared using pasta squares or crepes, in certain regions of Italy, can be interchangeably referred to as cannelloni, which means "large reeds" in Italian. That being said, cannelloni are never made using the pre-formed pasta shells... those are always manicotti!
Crespelle are not technically pasta, but can be and are used in place of pasta in recipes that call for pasta sheets (like lasagna). Once prepared, they can be rolled or stacked, and filled or interleaved, using a wide variety of savory meats, cheeses, seafood or vegetables as filling. Traditionally, they are quickly sauteed on a seasoned pan in a small amount of melted butter, however, modern non-stick surfaces produce a lighter, easier to work with crespelle and eliminate the need for butter completely. I like to use a small, 6" square non-stick stovetop griddle, instead of a round crepe or omelette pan for two reasons: Square crespelle are in keeping with the traditional square pasta sheets, and, square crespelle make rolling manicotti or layering lasagna a breeze!
A bit about my crespelle recipe: The recipe I have for crespelle was given to me from my very first friend here in State College, Eileen Dayton. Back in 1974, Eileen and I started our jobs on the very same day at the executive headquarters of the then Central Counties Bank. She was in accounting and I was the executive secretary to the three vice-presidents in charge of lending (commercial, installment and mortgage). We nervously struck up a friendship together over lunch and found out we were a pair of married foodies (w/o children) and lived two blocks from each other. She invited my husband and I to their apartment for dinner the following Saturday night and she made manicotti. As the story goes, Eileen's maiden name was Guadanola, and her parents were both Italian-Americans who hailed from Brooklyn and knew a thing or two about cooking. The apple didn't fall far from the tree because Eileen is a marvelous cook. Thirty years later, Mrs. Guadanola's crespelle recipe remains much the same as the original. I find it to be better than most other versions. Why? Well, it is ever-so-slightly heavier in texture, or, less delicate than a crepe, which means it closely mimics the taste, texture and feel of pasta sheets!
It's Time to Make the Crespelle
8 jumbo eggs, at room temperature
1 cup Wondra Quick-Mixing Flour for Sauce and Gravy (Note: all-purpose flour was in the original recipe and can be used, but I find I like the granular Wondra better.)
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
no-stick cooking spray
~ Step 1. Place the milk and eggs in a 1-quart measuring container. Using an electric, hand-held stick-blender (or a whisk), blend until the mixture is uniform in color.
~ Step 2. Gradually blend in the flour, nutmeg and salt. The mixture will be smooth and the consistency of heavy cream. Blend in just enough of additional milk to equal 4 total cups of total batter. Set aside for about 15-20 minutes.
~ Step 3. Spray a 6" nonstick stovetop griddle or a crepe pan with no-stick cooking spray and place over medium-high heat.
~ Step 5. Slip a nonstick spatula under the crespelle and carefully flip it over to cook on the second side, about 10-15 seconds. Turn crespelle only once.
~ Step 6. Repeat this process until all batter is used, remembering to briefly stir the batter each time before ladling and cooking, placing them on a large serving platter as you work (it is ok to randomly overlap and stack them). You will have 20-22 crespelle. Cool completely. About 45-60 minutes.
Notes about this process: It is not necessary to spray the griddle or pan with any additional no-stick spray after the first time. Also, this is a very forgiving recipe. If one or two crespelle get a little browner than others, don't worry about it. Also, crespelle can be prepared several hours and up to 1 day in advance, just cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. I have not had good results freezing them, so, don't waste your time with that experiment!
One additional note: If crespelle are stacked, the first side (the darker side) is referrerd to as the "top". If crespelle are rolled, the first side (the darker side) is referred to as the "outside". This is how they will be referred to for the remainder of this recipe!
It's Time to Make the Manicotti Filling
4 ounces each: grated mozzarella and provolone cheese
1 cup coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 jumbo eggs, at room temp
1/2 teaspoon each: nutmeg, salt and coarsely ground black pepper
1 10-ounce package frozen, chopped spinach, thawed (do not cook it to thaw it), squeezed completely dry (optional)
no-stick cooking spray
~ Step 1. In a large mixing bowl, using a large rubber spatula, combine the ricotta, mozzarella, provolone and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Using your fingers, pull apart and add the optional spinach to the bowl. In a 1-cup measuring container, whisk together the eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add egg mixture to cheese mixture. Fold until thoroughly combined, making sure there are no pockets of cheese or spinach.
It's Time to Assemble the Manicotti
~ Step 2. Place the first crespelle, second side up, on a flat work surface. Measure and place a generous 1/4 cup of the cheese mixture, in a lengthwise strip, to within 1/2" of the edge on either side, across the center of the crespelle.
~ Step 3. Lift the side of the crespelle closest to you up and place it on top of the filling. Roll the crespelle over and place it, seam side down, in prepared baking pan. Repeat this process until all crespelle are filled and/or there is no more filling left, placing 10 manicotti side-by-side in each pan:
It's Time to Top and Bake the Manicotti:
You'll need 1-quart of your favorite pasta sauce and 1/2 cup of additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. You can find my recipe for ~ Mel's Fresh & Spicy Tomato-Basil Sauce (Marinara) ~ in Categories 8, 12 or 22. Drizzle 1/2 cup of sauce evenly across the center of each row of manicotti in each dish. With a spoon, distribute and spread the sauce to within 1" on either side of each manicotti. Evenly sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the additional grated cheese over the sauce on each row of manicotti.
Bake, uncovered, on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, 25-30 minutes. The edges of the crespelle will be lightly browned and the cheese centers will be puffy and firm to the touch. Remove from oven and allow to rest, about 5 minutes, before serving.
Special Equipment List: 1-quart measuring container; hand-held electric stick blender or a whisk; 6" nonstick stovetop griddle, preferably square, or an omelette pan; 1/4 cup ladle or measure; nonstick spatula; cheese grater; large rubber spatula; 2, 13" x 9" x 2" casserole dishes; 1-cup measuring container; thin spatula
Cook's Note: If you happen to have some 6", individual, oven-safe, round or oval au gratin dishes in your dish collection, you can portion two manicotti into each one, top, bake as serve as directed. This makes for a really elegant presentation at a sit-down dinner or luncheon!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)