So I have a friend who has always disliked "macaroni." By this, she has so far meant any pasta of any kind cooked any way. This is a woman who has a great affinity for the carbohydrate, and for cheeses, so I've always been determined to find a way to help her integrate the many wonderful pastas (particularly those combined with cheese) into her repetoire of beloved dishes. Much to my surprise and delight, when we went out for my birthday dinner at a famous local restaurant, she adored the cannelloni that my husband ordered. I took a bite myself and noted that it was covered in a delicate cream sauce with parmesan and nutmeg and that the cannelloni was quite al dente! (I learned that it's more the "jiggly" texture of pasta that she didn't like, so highly al dente works best!)
I (foolishly) told her that I'd be happy to try to make her a clone, and woke up one morning to do so, realizing that I had only tasted the sauce and pasta and not the filling (which the menu claimed was made of mortadella and "three cheeses"...which specific cheeses were undisclosed...oy!). I also remembered by sight that there was spinach in the mixture, and knew there were mortadella pieces of some description (my husband said "small and thin"), but was awash in an atmosphere of uncertainty about all of the other ingredients!
After going to the local grocery store and staring at the cheese case, I selected three cheeses: ricotta (to make up the bulk of the mixture), mozzarella (to add the traditional salty Italian element), and italian-style fontina (to add creaminess and a depth of flavor to the cheese mixture). Okay, okay, I also added a fourth cheese, parmesan, because honestly, what italian dish doesn't have parmesan?
My friend (and my husband) loved the dish and proclaimed it to taste "exactly like the original, but better"...what luck. :)
Below is the recipe that I came up with (fair warning: I guessed on the quantities I used!):
Three-Cheese Cannelloni with Mortadella in Cream Sauce
One package manicotti or cannelloni
3 tbsp butter
1-2 tbsp flour
12 oz heavy whipping cream
2-4 oz skim milk
1 tsp garlic powder
4 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
dash cayenne pepper
dash fresh nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and broken apart
6-8 oz sliced mortadella ham (found in deli section)
1 large shallot, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, chopped
dash crushed red pepper
3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cups part skim ricotta
1.5 cups shredded italian style fontina
1.5 cups shredded mozzarella
1/2 beaten egg
1 tsp salt
15-20 grinds black pepper
To prepare the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucier and add flour, stirring to let the roux (butter/flour mixture) come together. Add the garlic powder, cayenne, and nutmeg and cook through. Gradually stir in the cream, whisking, and let the mixture come to a bubble over medium heat. Use the milk to thin the sauce slightly if the texture is too thick. Add the parmesan cheese and use salt and pepper to taste. Take off the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, boil the pasta in salted water (should taste like the ocean) for a minute or so less than the range listed on the pasta package. It should have a lot of bite (though no crunch), because it will be further cooked in the oven. Rinse the pasta to ensure it doesn't stick together while you work on the rest of the dish.
For the filling, cut up the mortadella into small strips. Mine were about 1/4 inch by 1 inch. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet and add the garlic, shallot and a dash of crushed red pepper to the pan. Salt them (to draw out moisture) and cook until nearly translucent. Add the cut up mortadella to the skillet and cook for several more minutes, until the meat is slightly browned. Remove from the heat.
Mix together mozzarella and fontina cheeses together and save out 1/4 of the mixture for the top of the dish, once assembled.
Add the mortadella/garlic/shallot mixture, spinach, the three cheeses (ricotta, remaining mozzarella and fontina mixture), and salt and pepper to the bowl. Mix through and taste for proper seasoning, THEN add half of a beaten egg to a bowl and mix together. Add a ladle or two of the sauce and mix (as much as you need to make the mixture stick together like a thick paste).
With all of the components, completed, assemble the dish by adding a ladle of sauce to coat the bottom of a 9x13 pan/lasagna pan. Add the filling to a freezer bag and cut off the corner so that you can use it as a piping bag. Pick up a manicotti/cannelloni, and squeeze some of the mixture to the bag into each side of the pasta. Place in the dish and repeat until the filling is gone and/or you have filled the dish. Ladle the sauce over until there is a lot of extra (it will bake in in the oven and it will reheat a lot better if there is a lot of sauce in the pan). Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella/fontina mixture and some additional grated parmesan over the top.
Bake in a 375 oven for 30-45 minutes (or until top is browned). Putting the pan, if it's shallow, on a cookie sheet is a good idea, just to catch any sauce that drips over during cooking. Let set for at least a few minutes when it comes out of the oven so that the sauce can redistribute and the dish can cool slightly.