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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Julian's Cheese Manicotti

Who on earth is Julian? And if you're Australian, what on earth is manicotti?? Well, Julian is a character from some culinary mystery novels I've been reading recently that were recommended by Anne. The main character is a caterer in a fairly swish area of Colorado and just 'happens' to find herself invovled in lots of exciting mysteries and murders (Isn't it always the way? There's a police show here in Australia called 'Blue Heelers' set in a tiny little town around the mountains. Yet, for this tiny little town they sure have a heck of a lot of murders and terrorist attacks!). The author of these novels, Diane Mott Davidson, is evidently a keen cook and there are many recipes interspersed through the pages. Anne has already blogged about the chocoholic cookies, which I'm keen to make.
After reading three of the novels I had a couple of recipes I wanted to try, including the cookies. There weren't as many as you'd think though, as I found a few of the recipes a little too 'American' in style - involving taste combinations that didn't appeal or ingredient lists skewed towards lots of butter, cream cheese etc. But I have bookmarked a couple to try, and this manicotti recipe was the first - I loved the sound of a cheese filling mixed with fresh basil leaves and a light tomato sauce.
Now, manicotti. It's not something we have in Australia. Cooked hands?? Is that what it means? The cooking instructions made it sound like it was a type of cannelloni pasta tube. Well, evidentally it was a type of pasta that could be filled, so I used up a box of large shells (coniglie) I had. I thought it worked well, and produced something a little more interesting.

Actually, the recipe turned out much heavier than I expected, and was pleasantly filling; enough so that we had leftovers throughout the rest of the week! My brother and his friend, who had been planting trees and laying paving all day, and who were starving in that way young men get after a day's labour, sat down with great enthusiasm, but could only manage one plate. Unheard of - especially for my brother who is the biggest pasta and cheese fan I know! That's not to say he didn't enjoy it - I know he enjoyed eating the leftovers for every meal over the next few days! I think some of the problem in that regard may have been that I didn't bother looking for (and paying lots of money for) fontina cheese, when I knew we had lots of cheese in the fridge. The cheese I used was more strongly flavoured than fontina, so next time I might increase the amount of the bland cheese required and reduce the quantity of the more strongly flavoured cheese (as I can't ever see myself paying lots of money for fontina cheese unless I were trying to impress somebody.... )

Various elements involved in the creation of this dish....the tomato sauce reducing in the pan, the cheese filling, cooked pasta shells, and my own personal lubrication for the lengthy stuffing-of-shells procedure. :-)

I've already mentioned two of the substitutions I made (pasta shells, and non-fontina cheese), but I did make a few more. I used cottage cheese rather than ricotta because a: it's healthier and lighter b: it was 'price reduced for quick sale!' (second reason overshadowed the first, to be honest!). I had mozzarella in the fridge, and those two cheeses combined with the various bits of cheddar and Tasty in the fridge made a strongly flavoured cheese mixture that somewhat overpowered the fresh basil (I'd even doubled the quantity of the herbs). I couldn't see the point of using 6 large eggs, in the mixture, so I reduced it to 4 without any problems. I also couldn't see any reason for adding 6 TABLESPOONS of butter to the mixture. WTF?? I mean, is that a typing error? I somehow doubt it - I tend to believe it's one of those 'typical' American recipes I see that make me shudder. I mean, after however many pounds of cheese and eggs, they want me to add 6 tablespoons of butter? I don't think so! I think the filling was fine without the added cholesterol, to be honest.
So, I can still recommend this recipe as it was really tasty, but I'd suggest lightening the filling a little if you were to make it for your family. Of course, if you were planning a group death a la 'La Grande Bouffe' style, it'd be a great addition in its original format - just don't forget to finish off with a dessert blacmange in the shape and colour of wobbling breasts, ok? ;-)

Read on for the recipe:

Julian's Cheese Manicotti

from 'The Cereal Murders' by Dianne Mott Davidson
Makes 7 servings

1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, pressed or chopped
2 Tbls olive oil
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste, plus water (or 1 can chopped tomatoes plus some paste and water)
2 Tbls finely chopped fresh oregano
1 small bay leaf
salt, pepper

1 teaspoon olive oil
14 manicotti noodles

1 1/2 cups ricotta or cottage cheese
6 large eggs
3/4 pound Fontina cheese, grated
1/4 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
1/3 cup freshly grated best-quality Parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons soft butter (not margarine)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2-3 tbls finely chopped fresh basil leaves
freshly grated Parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top.

Preheat the oven to 180C (350c). To make the sauce, gently saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil in a saucempan over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir. Slowly add 4 tomato paste cans of water and stir. Add the seasonings and allow the sauce to simmer while you prepare the manicotti filling.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the olive oil, and drop in the manicotti. Cook just until al dente, about 10-15 minutes. Drain and run cold water over the manicotti in a colander. Set aside.
To make the filling, beat the ricotta with the eggs until combined. Add the grated cheeses and softened butter; beat until combined. Add the salt, pepper and basil. Beat on low just until everything is combined.
Gently fill the cooked manicotti with the cheese mixture and arrange in 2 9x13 inch pans. Cover the pasta in each pan with half the sauce; sprinkle on additional parmesan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is thoroughly melted and the sauce is bubbling.


  • I asked Matt to read your post, as he is the 'expert' on Italian foods. Here's what he had to say:

    Manicotti is in fact an alternate name for canelloni, but any sort of large
    pasta suitable for stuffing will do for a recipe like that.

    If the heavy slant towards butter and cream is, in fact, American (a thing
    of which I'm not convinced), I'd say in our defense that we didn't make it
    up on our own; it probably came to us from early-mid 20th century styles of
    French and Italian cooking in high-end restaurants. However, American
    cuisine has never really been big on cream and has been in full
    retreat from both of those ingredients since the 80s. Which is not to say
    that we don't overload on calories, but those tend to come in the form of
    high-fructose corn syrup and various fats hidden in processed foods, fried
    food, fatty meats, and too-large portions. Now, a triple-decker
    cheeseburger with bacon and barbeque sauce with a quart of Coke and a plate
    of french fries that blocks your view...that's American.

    For the cheese combination, it's not surprising that the cheddar
    overwhelmed the basil. Cheddar, I think, doesn't blend well with anything
    with even the slightest delicacy and will definitely break the balance of
    the traditional quattro formaggi blend. If you're going to substitute for
    fontina, look for an *extremely* mild cheese, and a relatively soft one.
    Think brie rather than cheddar, although brie would be much too rich. A
    very young Monterey Jack, maybe, although that's also probably rare or
    unavailable in that hemisphere as well.

    By Blogger Stephanie, at 5/11/2005 02:17:00 am  

  • Hi Matt! I'm thrilled to hear from you; it's a real acceptance of our hobby when people's partners join in (mine still views this hobby with a little amusement, though he shouldn't-he's getting some damn fine food out of it).
    I should apologise somewhat for the unsubstantiated statements about American cuisine in the post yesterday. I was writing that post on a shrot lunch break at work, trying to avoid my supervisor's glare, so I couldn't be as thoughtful and balanced as I would have liked. I know if somebody made a sweeping statement about how they didn't like Australian cuisine (all that beer or canned beetroot or something) I'd be a bit nettled. What I meant was the type of American recipes you find when you're searching for something on the internet; 90% of the time the recipes brought up are heavy on cheese and cream and lots of packaged foods ie cake recipes using instant pudding, jello or cool whip. A bit like what Anne made for her IMBB12 Taboo food entry! (A cake recipe made with tomato ketchup and Splenda has been the one found on a site to make me gasp in horror just recently). To me it's cooking straight out of the 60s & 70s, but seemingly still has a lot of popularity in certain cooking circles. That's the type of 'traditional' American cooking I mean. I fully agree with you with your comment about large portions and enormous hamburgers etc. I've travelled quite a few times in the US and just *longed* for fresh vegetables and something that wasn't overly sweet and/or swimming in cheese - especially when I was around Kentucky and Indiana.
    I know I really shouldn't have used a cheddar in this filling (and then complained about too strong a sauce!), and I did mean to explain that we had lots of cheddar in the fridge from a recent party. Next time, it's really not something I'd do. You see, my family are Northern Italian, and have been brought up on excellent pasta - especially cannelloni made by my nonna, homemade noodles and all. Such a generous use of cream and butter is not part of their pasta culture there; the northern pastas are rich, but not over the top, like this recipe. Nonna wouldn't have approved of that recipe at all (and definitely not my use of cheddar cheese instead of fontina). I'm not really certain what I could substitute for fontina down here though, as we don't have Monterey Jack (it's that orange one, right?). Perhaps a mild Asiago? Otherwise, leave it out altogether and focus on the ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan; I think that'd be a strong enough combination that wouldn't overpower the basil.
    I will return soon with a reworked recipe; I think I might even ask Nonna to make cannelloni with her and document the process. She won't be around forever and I really want to be able to recreate her dishes (her homemade gnocchi with her meat ragu is out of this world, and my mum has never been able to do it herself. It's up to me now...)

    By Blogger Niki, at 5/11/2005 02:59:00 pm  

  • Oooh, you're so brave! I'm definitely trying this one now - I have tried one of her other recipes.. hm.. I think - the Hoisin Turkey? but it was a long time ago. Her recipes do need tweaking, I totally agree. I actually found a good source of Fontina here, so I just might try it! It looks great with the stuffed shells, but I think I'll have to resort to regular canneloni-large-pipe-thingies. :)

    By Blogger Anne, at 5/11/2005 04:57:00 pm  

  • jack is uncoloured and can be a good cheese! particularly the dry jack, an excellent grating cheese.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/12/2005 10:17:00 am  

  • http://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/dryjack.html

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/12/2005 10:41:00 am  

  • You might try provolone dolce as a substitute for fontina...can you find that in Australia?

    I agree that your comments about "American" cuisine seem rather sweeping and unjustified, as do your comments about *longing* for fresh vegetables when traveling in the States. I assure you, they are widely available, even in Indiana and Kentucky.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/11/2005 03:43:00 am  

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