This recipe comes with a warning: If you eat this homemade version of manicotti, it is very unlikely you will ever be able to enjoy the store-bought variety that comes frozen in an it-all-tastes-exactly-the-same tube again.
With that being said, my mother's manicotti (pronounced mon-e-gotta in my house) takes time, and a little bit of effort, but it is easily achieved by just about any cook.
In my opinion, this is Italian cooking at its finest.
Yes there are many steps, especially if you make your own homemade sauce (and of course you should!), but it is worth it.
Making manicotti isn't hard, but it does take a little practice making the crepes (or shells), but if you can make a pancake, you can make a crepe and remember, just like pancakes, you can always throw the first one (or two) away!
While you can easily buy manicotti shells in the grocery store, and make your own filling or use the recipe that follows, you are not going to experience the full flavor of this dish.
The dried pasta tube that they sell in the store tastes like just about every other boxed pasta, whether it's spaghetti, lasagna noodles or elbow macaroni. If you were blindfolded, you would never know the difference.
By making your own shells, you get to experience a whole other layer of flavor. The crepe is soft and although it's thin, it's a little spongy, which allows it to soak up the flavors from the filling, as well as the sauce that tops it.
In this case, you just can't compare homemade to store-bought.
Growing up, I loved it when my mother would make manicotti.
It was usually served as a first course on a holiday, such as Easter, or a special Sunday dinner when lots of relatives would come. It was always followed by a big salad, a meat course (with potatoes and vegetables), and then dessert either homemade by my mother, or purchased from an Italian bakery in Bayonne, N.J. by one of my aunts.
My mother had numerous sisters and brothers, and I grew up with lots of cousins and second cousins. Sunday dinners were a big deal when we were growing up, and being around all that family is something I miss.
Recreating this recipe is like taking a little trip back in time. If I could go back to those days, I'd go in a heartbeat, even if it means sitting at the kids' table!
Makes 30-40 shells
1/4 cup oil, or more if needed
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup flour, more as needed
1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix together eggs, oil, salt and water and beat until foamy. Add flour and mix well. Dip your finger into the mixture, and if it coats your finger and sticks, it is ready. If not, add flour two tablespoons at a time until you have the right consistency. I found I only needed to add the first two additional tablespoons of flour, and it was fine. It should resemble a very thin pancake batter.
Get crepe pan hot (I use a small skillet with curved sides, about 7-8 inches in diameter.) Pour some oil on a paper towel, and wipe it carefully onto the hot skillet (repeat this step every 8-10 crepes, adding more oil to the paper towel as needed). Using a -cup measure, pour crepe batter into pan and swirl. After a few seconds, when edges get dry, turn without breaking the crepe. (This may take a couple tries, but you will get the hang of it, I promise. I found it was ready to flip when I could shake the pan from side to side and the crepe started to slide.) After a few more seconds, when the crepe is cooked through (but not browned!), turn it out onto paper towels to cool. Repeat until you have cooked all of your crepe batter.
3 pounds ricotta
cup freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or Locatelli Pecorino Romano, plus extra for topping
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt (more if needed)
About a 1/2 cup to cup of shredded mozzarella, plus extra for topping
Mix together all of the ingredients for the filling, except for the spaghetti sauce and the extra cheese for topping.
In a large baking dish (you will need more than one), spread about a quarter-cup or more of spaghetti sauce so that the bottom is lightly covered.
Spoon about a quarter-cup of the ricotta filling into the center of each crepe. Roll each side in and place, seam side down, in the baking dish, in a single layer. When the dish is full, top with sauce and sprinkle with mozzarella and grated cheese.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes. Cheese should be melted and bubbly.