I didn't grow up in an Italian-American family in Jersey. My mother didn't extrude tubes of ridged manicotti from a bronze die she'd brought with her from the old country, nor did she flip dainty crepes to be filled with a rich veal ragù. My familiarity with manicotti comes mainly from two places: the high school cafeteria and the airport food court. Aside from the fact that patrons of the food court are typically less selective about their tablemates, the experiences are largely similar: fat, clumsy noodles cooked several shades past al dente; bland stuffings of grainy ricotta and frozen spinach, which attempt to make up for their blandness with sheer volume; dull sauce slowly drying out under a layer of rubbery cheese, lit by the warm glow of a heat lamp.
That the dish is still quite edible (dare I say, enjoyable) even under these most inauspicious of circumstances speaks to its innate appeal. We also know that its cousin, the crepe-style manicotti Daniel wrote about, made with thin egg pancakes instead of pasta, is a dish with not just great flavor but history on its side. If you were lucky enough to be born into a family with an excellent Italian-American cook heading up the kitchen, you probably already know the answer to the question I asked myself: How great could Italian-American spinach and ricotta manicotti be if you optimized every ingredient and served it fresh from the oven?
(Hint: really, really great.)
Starting manicotti with tubes of store-bought dry, ridged pasta seems pretty simple, right? Boil, stuff, sauce, bake, done. But it's never that easy. Those fat noodles, with their large surface area, tend to stick to each other even in a large pot of boiling water, and a few of them will inevitably tear or crack during draining. Once they're precooked and ready to stuff, things get even worse. Here's the real problem:
Manicotti tubes are simply a pain in the butt to stuff. You can try doing it with a long, narrow spoon, but you invariably end up tearing them at one end. (It doesn't help that the accordion folds are almost like perforations, custom-designed to make tearing easier.) If you want to do even more work, you can transfer the filling to a pastry bag and pipe it in, but I can tell you: Piping a thick filling with one hand while hanging on to a slippery tube of pasta with the other is like trying to perform a tracheoscopy on a live sardine—and we all know what that's like, right? No thanks.
Instead, it's easier to forget about the steam-tray-style ridged manicotti from the cafeteria and use a more traditionally Italian approach, starting with flat sheets of pasta and rolling them around the filling rather than trying to stuff them.
Using actual fresh sheets of pasta (either store-bought fresh pasta designed for lasagna or homemade pasta rolled into four-inch-wide sheets) is the best approach if you value impeccable texture. But the shortcut that Cook's Illustrated offers—using no-boil lasagna noodles soaked in boiling water until pliable—is a great compromise if you can't get your hands on fresh.
If using fresh pasta, I cut it into squares about four inches on each side, then boil them very briefly in well-salted water (just 30 seconds does it) before draining them in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel. If using no-boil noodles, I soak them in boiling water for five minutes, drain them on a towel, then cut them crosswise into two squares apiece.
You may fret that it's not true manicotti because it ends up as a rolled tube with a seam instead of a completely enclosed tube.
You may fret, but fretting is not going to get you any closer to a delicious meal, so I suggest you just deal with that seam like an adult—by drinking an extra glass of wine and getting on with the filling.
The number one problem I ran into when constructing the filling for my manicotti was moisture control. Ricotta and blanched spinach are the two main ingredients in the filling, and both of them are quite wet.
Using a lower-grade commercial ricotta cheese made with a stabilizer (typically xanthan or guar gum) can help trap that excess moisture so that it doesn't weep out as the manicotti cooks, but it comes at a big price: That type of ricotta is invariably grainy and bland. Higher-end ricottas* contain no stabilizers and have a much fresher flavor, but are not so good at retaining their water as they heat up.
Unless you've got a local specialty dairy that makes great ricotta, I'd suggest looking for Calabro, our favorite nationally distributed brand.
Overly wet ricotta can have a serious impact on baked manicotti. The filling leaks out of the tubes, and you end up with something more like lasagna soup than a baked pasta dish. Draining ricotta in cheesecloth set inside a strainer is a good solution, but it can take several hours to drain sufficiently. Instead, I turn to the same trick I use in my recipe for ricotta gnocchi: Dry it with towels.
By spreading the ricotta over a few layers of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel set in a rimmed baking sheet, then pressing the top with more towels, you can remove excess moisture almost instantly, leaving your ricotta ready for cooking. (I've found that some brands of ricotta will stick a bit to the towels, but it's easy enough to scrape the drained ricotta off with a spatula.)
On to the next troublemaker, the spinach. It posed two problems: excess moisture and lack of flavor. Many recipes recommend frozen spinach, which I find to have a tough, almost gritty texture. I prefer mature flat-leaf spinach or curly spinach, if I can find it—avoid baby spinach at all costs if cooking, since it ends up with the flavor and texture of muddy toilet paper. Spinach wilts rapidly when blanched in boiling water, which is the usual way of breaking it down before adding it to manicotti filling, and that wilted spinach clings to water like a towel. After it's chilled with cold water, a process that prevents it from losing color too quickly, spinach can retain around 25% of its starting weight in excess moisture. That's a lot of water! To deal with the moisture, I went with a three-step drying process.
First, I took it for a spin in the salad spinner to get rid of as much of the surface moisture as possible. Next, I spread it out on a layer of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel to blot dry.
Finally, I rolled the spinach up in a tight bundle and pressed on it to soak up any last bits of remaining moisture.
After sending it through the wringer, I combined it with my dried ricotta, a single egg (to help bind it), a combination of shredded mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, and a dash of nutmeg and ground black pepper.
I rolled the mixture into my pasta and baked off a sample batch with some sauce. Texture-wise, it was a complete success. The filling was moist and juicy, but not wet or runny. Flavor, on the other hand, was somewhat lacking: It was really difficult to discern the spinach through all of the dairy and tomato sauce.
It actually made me wonder why spinach is such a common filling for manicotti. Is it because it's healthy? Because it dilutes the dairy-rich ricotta with its greenness? At some point in history, was spinach much more flavorful than it is today? Whatever the answer, I wanted to find a way to pack more flavor into the filling.
I tried a couple of things, like sautéing the spinach instead of blanching and using curly spinach or frozen spinach (despite my reservations) instead of flat-leaf. But the real solution turned out to be easier: Just don't use spinach.
Okay, don't use only spinach. By using a 50/50 blend of spinach and fresh arugula, I could get far more leafy-green flavor into the manicotti. That, along with a bit of peppery heat from the arugula, actually made the spinach taste more like spinach than spinach alone.
(Now I'm thinking about trying out some creamed arugula for Thanksgiving this year, though, try as I might, I can't think of clever new lyrics for Popeye's theme song using "arugula" in place of "spinach.")
The Way to Stuff
With the pasta selected, the filling mixed, and a few different tomato sauces to choose from (there's Daniel's Quick and Easy Italian-American Red Sauce and Fresh Tomato Sauce, or my Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce), the only questions left are about assembly.
The first issue is how to stuff and roll the pasta. In Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, her advice for making cannelloni is to spread the filling over the pasta in a thin layer, then roll it up jelly roll–style. This is thoroughly in line with the Italian ethos of using a relatively low ratio of filling and sauce to pasta. But this style of manicotti is an Italian-American dish, so I think we can be more generous with the filling here.
I like to spread a large dollop of filling down the center of the pasta and roll it up enchilada-style, encasing the filling fully with the sheet.
To arrange the manicotti in the casserole dish, I also diverged from the more classic Italian approach, in which you'd spread the sauce evenly all over the pasta. Instead, I spread the sauce on the bottom of the casserole, laid the rolls down un-sauced, then spread a line of sauce down the center of each row of pasta before topping the whole thing with cheese (a combination of mozzarella and Parmesan) and baking it. I covered the casserole with foil for the first half-hour of baking to help the cheese melt evenly and keep everything moist, then uncovered it for 15 minutes at the end for browning. (Dotting it with butter sounded like a fun idea, but proved to only make the manicotti greasy in the end.)
It comes out of the oven bubbly, steamy, and brown, with a gorgeous mix of saucy, cheesy, and crispy bits. It's tempting to put it on the table and dig right in, but that's a mistake—unless you enjoy coating the roof of your mouth with ricotta that feels like liquid-hot magma.
The nice part about leaving the edges of the pasta un-sauced is that it leads to the creation of these bits:
And those bits are the best bits.