Manicotti: Oh, man!

ManicottiManicotti allows operators to use a variety of toppings and fillings for a hearty pasta entrée

Manicotti is a tubular shaped pasta that is typically filled with a ricotta cheese mixture. As culinarians, we are always coming up with creative ways to heighten the dining experience by incorporating other compatible ingredients and perhaps even a new type of sauce to blanket these pasta creations.
You probably want to know what type of pasta you should use to assemble manicotti. Here’s the good news –– we have several options to make manicotti.

First, you can simply purchase dry manicotti tubes and boil them in salted water until tender and cool them in an ice bath. The issue I have with using this method is that these tubular shaped pastas usually crack or break during the cooking and cooling process. But then you’ve got to fill these tubes, which would require much work or the use of a very wide-tipped pastry bag. It also forces you to only use a smooth filling and doesn’t allow you to incorporate chunks of roasted chicken breast or other hearty ingredients. This is why I prefer to use pasta sheets that are generally used for making lasagna.

This is the easiest and quickest method to use for making manicotti. You can buy pasta sheets fresh or frozen that are approximately 8 inches by 12 inches each. You can cut each sheet into six pieces of 3 inches by 4 inches. You can use a spoon or a food portioning scoop (like an ice cream scoop) to fill our little rectangles and then roll them up. Manicotti can be placed two or three to an order in an individual casserole and topped with a marinara sauce and baked. Finish them in the oven with a topping of mozzarella or provolone cheese for an easy entrée.

You can also bake all of your manicotti in a larger pan in the same manner and then portion them on a plate to order.

I generally use the same filling as my lasagna cheese filling for manicotti, which would look like this:

3 pounds quality ricotta cheese
3 eggs
1 pound shredded mozzarella and provolone blend
1 cup Parmesan
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

There are some restaurants that just don’t have access to fresh pasta sheets or tubes of pasta, and so they choose to use crepes for their manicotti. This is certainly a possibility, but not my preference simply because a crepe is much more delicate than pasta. If you want to use crepes and are going to make them yourselves, I would encourage you to make them a little bit thicker than your average crepe.

Crepes are simply made of three eggs; one cup of flour; one cup of milk and a pinch of salt. Heat a six-inch or eight-inch Teflon pan to medium high. Spray the pan with a little non-stick spray, then pour two ounces of crepe batter into the pan and swirl the batter around to cover the bottom of your pan. Within about 30 seconds you should be able to flip the crepe and continue cooking for another 20 seconds. You can make all your crepes and stack them. Then fill them when you are ready.

One more option in making manicotti would be to use egg roll or wonton wrappers. That is a fresh, raw dough that you can simply use as is. Lay them out, fill them and then bake them in your sauce. That will cook the pasta shell.

One very popular Manicotti that I run as a special is a Chicken & Spinach Manicotti entrée. I simply take my standard manicotti filling and incorporate some sautéed fresh spinach and diced roasted chicken breast. I like to change the sauce up on this one. A creamy Alfredo sauce over these manicottis really enhances the richness of this dish.

You can get creative and look around at your ingredients and incorporate whatever you think will work well. A seafood manicotti is a real treat. You can accomplish this by folding in some cooked bay scallops, shrimp and crab into your filling mixture. An Alfredo or even a Rosa sauce (a 50/50 blend of Alfredo and marinara) would be perfect for this seafood manicotti.

Let’s talk Cannelloni for a moment. Now don’t confuse cannelloni with cannoli. While cannoli is still a tubular shape, it is a crisp pastry filled with a sweetened ricotta filling served as desserts. Cannelloni is very similar to manicotti. Where a manicotti is primarily filled with cheese, a cannelloni is filled with primarily meat although it does usually contain some cheese, which acts as a binding agent. Cannelloni is usually filled with a mixture of cooked and ground meat like beef and veal. I make a chicken cannelloni for my Sunday buffet and folks love them. We grind up some of the trimmings from our chicken breast and cook them with some carrots, onions and celery. We add a little bit of ricotta and season the filling with salt, pepper and garlic. We assemble the cannelloni in the same manner as manicotti, and lay them out in a hotel pan. We bake them in some chicken broth and cream, and finish them on the buffet with a little extra Alfredo sauce.

We then place a stripe of marinara right down the middle of the row of cannelloni. This makes the dish visually appealing. To add one more eye-appealing component as well as a fantastic flavor profile, I sometimes also add another stripe of pesto to bring in the colors of the Italian flag.

Adding manicotti to your menu can really enhance your customer’s dining experience. They are quick and easy to assemble and offer a quick cook time, so give these tubular sensations a try!

Jeffrey Freehof  owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at International Pizza Expo.