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Spinach and Cheese Cannelloni

Here, tubes of fresh pasta filled with creamy spinach and ricotta are topped with a savory meat and tomato sauce. The sauce, filling and pasta can be made up to a day in advance, and then the dish can be assembled just before baking and serving.

Ingredients:

For the sauce:

  • 2 Tbs. olive oil 
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped 
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1/2 lb. Italian sweet fennel sausages, casings discarded and meat coarsely chopped 
  • 1/2 lb. ground beef sirloin 
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 
  • 1 can (28 oz.) plum tomatoes, drained and chopped 
  • 1 can (28 oz.) plum tomato puree 
  • 6 fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces 
  •   

For the filling:

  • 1 lb. spinach, stemmed and rinsed well 
  • 1/4 cup water
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 
  • 2 lb. whole-milk ricotta cheese 
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten 
  • 1 1/4 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 
  •   
  • 1 lb. fresh egg pasta dough (see related recipe at left)

Directions:

To make the sauce, in a fry pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the sausage, beef and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring and breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until it is browned, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in the basil, remove from the heat and set aside.

To make the filling, in a saucepan, combine the spinach, water and a pinch of salt. Cover, place over medium heat and cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain the spinach and let cool, then squeeze to extract the excess liquid. Finely chop the spinach. In a bowl, stir together the spinach, ricotta, eggs and 1 cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Make the pasta dough according to the recipe, then divide and roll out each piece into a sheet 1/16 inch thick, as directed in the related tip at left. Lightly flour a rimmed baking sheet. One at a time, lay the pasta sheets on a lightly floured work surface and, using a knife or pastry wheel, cut into 4-inch squares. Layer the squares flat on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them so they don’t touch and separating each layer with a lightly floured kitchen towel.

Preheat an oven to 375°F. Spread a thin layer of the sauce in the bottom of two 9-by-13-inch baking dishes.

Lay a pasta square on a work surface, spoon about 3 Tbs. of the filling along one end of the square and then roll into a tube. Place the tube, seam side down, in one of the prepared dishes. Fill the remaining pasta squares in the same way and arrange them in the dishes. Spread the remaining sauce on top of the rolls, dividing it evenly between the dishes. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over the top.

Bake the cannelloni until they are tender and heated through and the sauce and cheese are bubbling, about 40 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 8 to 10.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Italian by Michele Scicolone (Oxmoor House, 2007).