sweet and simple manicotti

Friends, ever since I embarked on this blog adventure in January, I have had a steady stream of support from many of you. And even though I started this blog for my own selfish reasons ( a) I could never remember what recipes I had tried and loved, and b) writing for the government is not always so exciting), I have been truly blessed to have a number of you cheer me on and come along for the ride.

This particular recipe started with one of my most consistent cheerleaders, my lovely cousin Jessie.  She sent to me — from the great city of Pittsburgh, no less — the newest edition of America’s Test Kitchen’s magazine.  I was looking for delicious recipes to feed a crowd at the time (it was only a short week before the previously mentioned eat-a-thon), and was thrilled when I came across a recipe for manicotti that promised to be both “simpler” and “better” than most other incarnations of this dish.

You start by making your tomato sauce with 2 huge cans of diced tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil, and red pepper flakes.  After you’re done, you move on to the cheese filling.  And what’s the super-secret key to this simplified version of manicotti?  Instead of using shells, which tend to rip when you fill them, you roll up cheese-slathered, no-boil lasagna noodles.  I’m all for shortcuts, and this one saves you your time and your sanity.

I assembled this dish the night before the eat-a-thon, and then baked it until bubbly about an hour before serving dinner.  The sauce was light and garlicky and the filling was thick (not runny, like so many manicotti fillings).  Everyone loved the end result, earning this recipe a spot on my “make for parties” gold-standard list.

Baked Manicotti

Courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen Television Show: 10th Anniversary Best Recipes

Serves 6 to 8

TOMATO SAUCE:

2 (28-oz) cans diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Table salt

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (confession: I only had dried)

CHEESE FILLING AND PASTA:

3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese

4 oz Parmesan cheese, grated (about 2 cups)

8 oz whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 2 cups)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves (again, I used dried)

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

16 no-boil lasagna noodles (use Barilla)

1. FOR THE SAUCE: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Pulse 1 can of the tomatoes with their juice in a food processor until coarsely chopped, 3 or 4 pulses.  Transfer to a bowl.  Repeat with the remaining tomatoes.

2. Heat the oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a large saucepan over medium heat until fragrant but not brown, 1 to 2 minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes.  Stir in the basil; season with the salt to taste.

3. FOR THE FILLING: Combine the ricotta, 1 cup of the Parmesan, the mozzarella, eggs, parsley, basil, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl; set aside.

4. Pour boiling water into a 13 by 9-inch broiler-safe baking dish until 2 inches deep.  Slip the noodles into the water, 1 at a time, and let them soak until pliable, about 5 minutes, separating them with the tip of a knife to prevent sticking.  Remove the noodles from the water and place in a single layer on clean kitchen towels.  Discard the water and dry the baking dish.

5. Spread 1 and 1/2 cups of the sauce evenly in the bottom of the baking dish.  Using a spoon, spread 1/4 cup of the cheese mixture evenly on the bottom three-quarters of each noodles (with the short side facing you), leaving the top quarter of the noodle exposed.  Roll into a tube shape and arrange in the baking dish, seam side down.  Top evenly with the remaining sauce, making certain that the pasta is completely covered. If you plan on serving the manicotti at a later date (up to 3 days in the fridge, or 1 month in the freezer), stop here.  Cover the manicotti with parchment paper, then wrap the dish in foil.

6. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and bake until bubbling, about 40 minutes.  Remove the baking dish from the oven and remove the foil.  Adjust the oven rack to the uppermost position (about 6 inches from the heating element) and heat the broiler.  Sprinkle the manicotti evenly with the remaining cup Parmesan.  Broil until the cheese is spotty brown, 4 to 6 minutes.  Cool 15 minutes; cut into pieces and serve.

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