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The food you see above is not an enchilada. It's not a kati roll, a tofu-skin roll, or a burrito. It's not cannelloni, either, though it could be. It is crepe-style manicotti, but really only because I decided to call it that.
Here in the United States, manicotti is made from either long, ridged tubular pasta or thin crepes, filled with any variety of things, covered in sauce, and baked. But then again, the same could be said for cannelloni. After digging through cookbooks and looking online, I've come up with little additional information to clarify just what manicotti is* and how it differs from cannelloni, not to mention from other baked pasta dishes. I've seen many people, including native Italians, speculate that it is an entirely Italian-American invention. But that doesn't appear to be the case, either.
* I mean this in the culinary sense. The word manicotti is commonly used to refer to the kind of fur muffs you see used as hand-warmers, and also to fittings for pipes and machinery.
Best I can tell, manicotti is a relatively rare pasta shape from Campania, and it is not necessarily stuffed. For instance, I found this recipe for manicotti (the tubular-pasta kind) on an Italian site, in which it's cooked with tomato, eggplant, and basil. I also found a page on this Italian gastronomy site about Campanian ziti and paccheri (two other tubular pasta shapes), in which the paccheri is described as "smooth manicotti," indicating some regional awareness of a shape of that name.
Still, those clues are hardly conclusive, and it's clear that, if manicotti is a pasta shape in Italy, it's not a well-known one. Here in the States, meanwhile, where thousands upon thousands of southern Italians (including many from Campania) arrived more than a century ago, it is. And at some point, they decided to create a version with crepes, called crespelle in Italian, instead of pasta. Look, it's delicious all sorts of ways, so no matter how hazy the provenance, I'm all for it!
My version features thin crepes rolled around a rich white veal ragù ("white" meaning that it has no tomato sauce), then baked in a dish with a simple tomato sauce and a creamy layer of béchamel. Though the dish has several components, they're all easy to make, and some, like the ragù and tomato sauce, can be made in advance for even greater ease. In fact, the whole dish can be made and assembled in advance, then thrown into the oven to heat through before serving.
Let's quickly break the main parts down.
Since this dish already has plenty of tomato sauce in it, I decided to go with a tomato-free white ragù here, to keep it from being overloaded with tomato flavor. I chose ground veal, since the meat has a naturally high gelatin content that helps give the sauce an extra-luxurious texture. You can, of course, use almost any filling you'd like, such as ricotta and spinach, or mushroom.
To make it, I start by frying minced onion, carrot, and garlic in olive oil. This type of chopped mixture of aromatics is known as a battuto in Italian; once thoroughly cooked, it becomes a soffritto, the aromatic flavor base of so many soups and sauces. I like the vegetables minced pretty finely, so that they mostly disappear into the ground meat. In my own obsessive mania, I minced all of mine by hand, but that can be a pain. If you want to save time, give it all a few pulses in the food processor.
As soon as the soffritto is nicely browned, I add half of the ground veal, breaking it up with a spoon and cooking it until it's browned pretty deeply. This browning, known as the Maillard reaction, builds deep layers of savory flavor, but it comes at a price. The meat toughens up and dries out in the process.
The solution is simple: Don't heavily brown the other half of the meat. After the first half is deeply browned, I add the remaining veal, breaking it up and stirring just until it's cooked through. Then I'm done, with a good mix of well-developed flavor and still-tender meat.
At this point, I pour dry white wine into the pot, which stops any further browning from taking place and adds enough liquid to allow you to scrape up any remaining browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
Once the alcohol smell has cooked off the wine, I add milk to the pot, very much in the style of a Bolognese sauce. Some people claim that milk tenderizes the meat, but our tests have shown otherwise. More likely, it adds a silky-smooth texture and a sweeter, more rounded flavor that only makes the meat seem more tender.
For a full-on white ragù to sauce a pasta like spaghetti, I'd also add some stock at this point, then simmer it all together into a sauce. But since this is only going to become the filling for my manicotti, not a sauce for pasta, I don't really need to do that. Instead, I combine the ragù with béchamel sauce, just as one does with a classic lasagna. The béchamel thickens the ragù and gives it a rich creaminess that's far better than most ricottas could ever hope to deliver. You can read my article on making a lump-free béchamel here.
Most crepe recipes that I've seen call for a ratio of two eggs to one cup of flour and one and a quarter cups of liquid—either milk, water, or a combination of the two. Of course, there are variations on that, including this New York Times crepe manicotti recipe that calls for an astoundingly high ratio of eight eggs per one and a half cups of flour.
I tested out a few different variables for my crepes, including whether to use water or milk as the liquid, whether resting the crepe batter after mixing really makes a difference (a claim you often hear), and whether that high egg ratio in the New York Times was worth using.
Between milk and water, my preference was milk. It created ever-so-slightly more substantial, spongy crepes with a more well-rounded flavor, almost definitely due to the lactose and milk proteins. The water-based ones, on the other hand, tasted bland (though, as you'll see below, it may not matter).
To test the resting factor, I made two identical batches of crepe batter, one 30 minutes before the other. As soon as I made the second batch, I started cooking, in order to see if that 30-minute rest for the first batch made a noticeable difference. It didn't. I see no harm in making the crepe batter a little in advance and letting it stand, but I'm not convinced it's necessary.
Finally, the batter made with a much higher ratio of eggs led to crepes that browned much faster and stuck to the pan more readily. I didn't love them, so I'm using the more common ratio in my recipe.
I also cooked all the various crepes into one version of my final manicotti dish, and not one taster could distinguish among them, which suggests that whatever subtle differences there are in the cooked crepes are largely lost once they're stuffed, covered with sauce, and baked. This means you can probably get away with using water in your batter if you don't have milk, without a significant effect on the dish. But my recipe calls for milk anyway, since I ended up snacking on some leftover crepes, and I found them more enjoyable that way—I suspect you'll think so, too.
To cook the crepes, make the batter, and then, when you're ready, heat a 10-inch nonstick pan (or a crepe pan, if you have one) and melt a small amount of butter into it. Pour a ladleful of the batter in, and immediately swirl it all over to cover the pan in a thin, round sheet.
Let it cook until it starts to look dry on top and is browning on the bottom.
If the crepe sticks slightly to the pan, free it with a spatula. The fastest way to turn it is to master flipping it, which looks harder than it is (plus, it's fun once you get the hang of it). Otherwise, you can flip it with a spatula, or even your fingertips—loosen an edge with a spatula, lift it slightly, then just pick it up. Because crepes are so thin, they don't hold on to heat very well, which makes them relatively cool to handle, even when they're still in the pan.
Once the other side is lightly browned, transfer the crepe to a parchment-lined plate or tray, stacking the crepes as you go.
The last thing you'll need before assembling the manicotti is tomato sauce. You can use any basic marinara-style tomato sauce here, like my Quick and Easy Italian-American Red Sauce, or a more involved one, like Kenji's Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce or my Fresh Tomato Sauce. (You can even use a good-quality jarred sauce, like Rao's.)
To put it all together, set a crepe on a work surface and spoon a generous amount of ragù onto it, then roll it up into a tube.
Spread an even layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, and arrange the rolled-up crepe on top. Continue rolling crepes with the ragù and arranging them side by side in the dish until it's full.
Then spread some reserved béchamel on top, followed by another layer of tomato sauce.
I like to grate Parmesan cheese all over before placing the dish in a preheated 350°F oven until it's heated through and lightly browned, about 25 minutes.
The finished dish is rib-stickingly rich and hearty, with layers of meaty, creamy ragù, tender crepes, and tangy tomato sauce.
Go ahead and call it an enchilada if you want. No one will notice, they'll be so busy stuffing their mouths.
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