Easter is on the horizon and while lasagne features in many Italian holidays, for Easter there are cannelloni. Sadly anyone who has had the frozen or ready-made versions of cannelloni may shudder at its mention but the real deal is exactly that. Fresh ricotta mixed with spinach and stuffed into pasta tubes can only be delicious. Layered with béchamel sauce and baked makes a delicious first course. If a layer of ragù is added, it becomes the feature dish that no one can get enough of.
Last Easter our cousin from Puglia was with us and we rang his mother to ask what they were eating. She said they were having a rather simple meal that year and then recounted at least ten dishes many of which we were also eating, except that their “simple” lunch included twice the number of dishes for half the number of people! Their meal included an omelette made with wild asparagus they had foraged that day, cannelloni with ragù, roast lamb and at least another 7 dishes.
Given the growing number of vegetarians, cannelloni as one of the Easter dishes makes everyone happy. It also saves the host from trying to scrape together enough sides to feed vegetarian guests. For large crowds, the recipe can be doubled and one tray done with ragù and the other done without.
Cannelloni (baked pasta tubes stuffed with ricotta and spinach)
500 grams spinach, rinsed in several changes of water to remove all sand
500 grams ricotta, strained
100 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
pinch of nutmeg
250 grams cannelloni tubes
1 litre bechamel sauce
1 recipe ragù bolognese (optional)
Black pepper, freshly ground
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Cook the spinach in a large frying pan over high heat, covered. When all the spinach has wilted, remove from the pan and add to a colander. Press the spinach out with the back of a wooden spoon to release as much moisture as possible. When cool, chop the spinach.
Mix the spinach with the ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, eggs, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.
Place the mixture into a pastry pan with a large nozzle (no larger than the circumference of the cannelloni tube you are stuffing). Pipe the filling into the cannelloni.
Evenly spread 1/2 cup of the béchamel into the bottom of a rectangular baking tray. Top with the cannelloni. If you like, add a layer of ragu sauce on top. Finish with the rest of the béchamel sauces spreading evenly. Bake for 50 minutes or until the pasta is cooked through and the top is golden.