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Three Cheese and Spinach Manicotti will warm you up

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: November 22, 2023, 6:03am
3 Photos
Cheese-and spinach-stuffed manicotti crafted with homemade crepes and a simple marinara will lift you out of winter&rsquo;s doldrums.
Cheese-and spinach-stuffed manicotti crafted with homemade crepes and a simple marinara will lift you out of winter’s doldrums. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS) (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) Photo Gallery

When did fall slide into winter?

I know we don’t officially change seasons until Dec. 21, but boy, it’s sure nippy outside. Brrrr. Could there be a better time to warm up with some homemade pasta?

This cheesy, meatless recipe is a family favorite because it brings back so many great memories — and isn’t that the ultimate goal when we cook for others? It harkens both my much-loved Italian neighbor Josephine, who taught me how to make the light and airy crespelle that encases the lush filling, and also my husband, for whose surprise birthday party I first made the dish many years ago.

What makes the manicotti even more special is that it’s so easy to make, without any fancy equipment or hard-to-find ingredients. All you need is a nonstick pan, a saucepot and a casserole dish, and Alexa playing some Pavarotti to get you in the mood.

The trick to making great crepes is to be sure to let the batter rest for at least 30 minutes before cooking, so the gluten in the flour can relax. Also, less is more when spreading it in the pan — you want thin and delicate, with crispy edges.

If you like saucy pasta, double the marinara ingredients.

Three Cheese and Spinach Manicotti

Makes about 15 crepes, serving 4-6. From Gretchen McKay

For marinara sauce:

¼ cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic

1 28-ounce can San Marzano plum tomatoes

Pinch red pepper flakes

Pinch dried oregano, optional

For crepes:

4 eggs

½ cup water

½ cup milk

1 cup flour

Pinch of salt

For filling:

16-ounce bag frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well drained

15-ounce container ricotta

½ cup grated pecorino Romano

1 cup shredded mozzarella

Add olive oil to a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When it sizzles, add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add crushed tomatoes and 1 cup water, along with a pinch or two of red pepper flakes and oregano, if using. Stir to combine, then season to taste with a pinch or two of salt. Turn heat to medium-low and let simmer while you prepare crepes and filling.

In medium bowl, whisk eggs, milk and water together until well combined. Slowly add flour, continually whisking until you have a smooth batter with a texture of heavy cream. Place in refrigerator to rest for at least 30 minutes.

Place drained spinach in a clean dish towel or piece of cheesecloth and squeeze (and squeeze again) to remove any last bits of water. Chop into small pieces and place in a large bowl. Add ricotta, pecorino Romano, shredded mozzarella and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Taste, and add salt if it seems underseasoned.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and lightly brush a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or two 8-by-8-inch pans with oil.

Remove batter from fridge and whisk it briefly to dissolve lumps. Heat an 8-inch nonstick pan over medium heat. Add a scant ¼ cup of batter and swirl it in a circle to spread a thin, even layer of batter on the bottom and up the sides of the pan. When crepe edges appear dry, about 30 seconds, use a rubber or offset spatula to carefully flip it over and continue cooking for another minute or so. Transfer to plate to cool, and repeat with remaining crepe batter. Don’t worry about stacking them — they won’t stick. You should get 13 to 15 crepes.

Spread 2 generous tablespoons of cheese mixture across each crepe, and roll up burrito style. Spread a layer of marinara in the bottom of the baking pan(s) and place crepes seam-side down on top of sauce. Spread a little more sauce on top and sprinkle with additional pecorino Romano. Cover with foil, and bake for 25-30 minutes, until sauce is bubbling and cheese is browned. Serve hot, with a little more grated cheese for passing.