The tube-shaped pasta called cannelloni, which are also known as manicotti in the United States, are a relatively recent arrival on the Italian gastronomic scene. The esteemed Italian cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi didn't mention them in his seminal work, La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene, which he continued to update with new delicacies until 1911, while renowned Roman food writer Ada Boni, included several cannelloni recipes in her well-known 1929 cookbook Il talismano della felicità. So we can surmise that the happy invention occurred sometime in the late 1910s or early 1920s.
It's surprising that it occurred so recently because the concept -- rolling a sheet of pasta or a crespella (the Italian equivalent of a crepe) into a tube, stuffing it, pouring a sauce over it and baking it -- is remarkably simple. It can also produce extremely elegant results; thus cannelloni have become classic banquet dishes, of the kind that figure prominently at weddings, cenoni (New Year's Eve and Christmas dinners and such) and family reunions.
This doesn't mean you should limit them to special occasions. They're quick to make, especially if you use commercially prepared pasta shells, and tasty too. As modern-day food writer Stefano Milioni notes, any stuffing used in ravioli or any other stuffed pasta will work. However, since cannelloni are considerably larger than ravioli or tortellini you can also include coarser elements such as chopped porcini mushrooms or small shrimp in the filling that will provide pleasing texture variations.
The one thing you do have to remember is to make sure that the sauce you pour over the cannelloni once you have arranged them in the baking dish is somewhat more liquid than what you would normally use for serving on pasta, as it will thicken during baking.
As is the case with most other kinds of pasta preparations, there's a tremendous amount of variation in fillings and sauces. Here you also have several options with regards to the shells:
- You can make them at home, by preparing pasta dough, rolling it out thinly (about the thickness of a dime), and cutting it into 3-inch by 4-inch rectangles. Boil the sheets a few at a time in lightly salted water, removing them while they're still al dente (about 1-2 minutes, no more than 3 minutes) and place them on a moistened, clean kitchen towel. When they are all cooked, fill them by placing a few tablespoons of filling along the long edge of each and rolling them up into tubes, then put them in the baking dish, seam-side down, and cover them with sauce.
- You can buy dried, commercially prepared cannelloni or manicotti shells. Cook them according to the directions on the package, stuff them, and put them in the baking dish. As these can be a bit difficult to fill, sometimes using a pastry/decorating bag with a large nozzle is the easiest (and least messy) method.
- You can also make savory crespelle, the Italian equivalent of crepes, and roll them up around the filling as you would sheets of fresh pasta dough. Cannelloni made with crespelle have a wonderfully elegant texture.
- Cannelloni alla Besciamella
Cannelloni/manicotti with a simple, quick meat filling and a simple white sauce.
- Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni
A classic. Use mature spinach and a good-quality ricotta for best results.
- Seafood Cannelloni
Quick, easy, and quite delicate: A good choice for a special occasion.
[Edited by Danette St. Onge]