Jen's Kitchen Blog

Learning to cook the food I like to eat…

Cannelloni

Posted by jenskitchen on January 15, 2014

Time Life Foods of the World Series

My parents had a set of Time Life Food of the World books on the bookcase in the living room when I was growing up. These gorgeous books featured the food of different regions and countries with a hard cover book that contained information and beautiful photos as well as a companion spiral-bound recipe book. I would read those books and look at the pictures and the recipes and dream about food. Sometimes I would dream about travelling to the places featured in the books… other times I would dream about hosting fabulous dinner parties using these regions as inspiration. These were just dreams when I was younger… first, being about 12, I wasn’t able to travel much further than the back yard… second, I didn’t cook. As much as those books inspired me, I still didn’t know my way around the kitchen. My mother was a good cook. Dinner was on the table every night. It was good (except for the occasional overcooked veggies). But, in my eyes… my mom disappeared into the kitchen for a while, and then, as if by magic… food appeared. It never occurred to me to go in to the kitchen and watch… or even offer to help.

Time Life Foods of the World: The Cooking of Italy

When I moved out of my parents house, I quickly realized that food stopped magically appearing out of the kitchen. The food that I was preparing in my first little kitchen was far from magical. Dinner consisted mostly of Ramen Noodles, Tuna Fish, and Spaghetti (out of boxes and cans). It was pretty bad… but it kept me alive. (Kind of… thinking back… my meals were pretty gluten heavy and very processed. I was making myself sick with my food – and not just because I wasn’t a very good cook.)

It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I decided I really wanted to learn to make home-cooked meals. The kind I grew up with. While I was visiting my parents house, those books on the shelf caught my eye again. I grabbed the Cooking of Italy spiral recipe book off the shelf and decided then and there that I was making a home-cooked meal featuring a recipe from that book.

Never mind that I could barely boil water. I was going to choose a recipe and teach myself to cook. And, I wasn’t going to start small… No, no, no… I chose the recipe for Cannelloni. The description: Pasta Tubes Filled with Meat and Baked in Tomato and Cream Sauce made my mouth water. I was that 12 year old girl again dreaming of trips to Italy or fabulous dinners at my own table… only now I was 25.

First of all… This recipe is really four recipes. First, there is the pasta dough that is made by hand. Second, the tomato sauce made from real tomatoes instead of opening a jar or can. Third, the Besciamella, and finally, the filling. Boy, when I do something… I really do it. For someone whose whole cooking experience consisted of opening cans and boxes and heating the food in a pan or pot, I was being really ambitious. Luckily… I didn’t know any better and I set out to make the Cannelloni.

It wasn’t the cheapest meal I had ever made. For one thing, I don’t think I had any of the actual ingredients to make this already in my kitchen. But I was committed to this plan of mine. I bought all the ingredients and read and re-read the directions. I made each of the four recipes (one at a time – truthfully, I had no idea that you could be working on more than one part at a time). The whole recipe took me twelve hours to complete. It was a good thing I started in the late morning… and I never gave up. I just kept going. Pasta – check. Tomato sauce – check. Filling – check. Besciamella – check. I was ready to put my Cannelloni together. Twelve hours later, my poor, neglected oven finally got some use.  Twenty minutes after that, I was ready to try my homemade creation.

Oh my… The Cannelloni was like heaven on a plate. I think I might have cried a little (though that could be because I was exhausted by that point). The dish tasted better than anything I had eaten in a decade… and considering that everything I had eaten in that decade had come out of a box, it really shouldn’t have surprise me… yet, it did.

That Cannelloni was my first attempt at cooking. And, wow! I was inspired. I taught myself a few other dishes that year… and for several years I made the Cannelloni once a year (even though it no longer took me 12 hours to cook – it was still a dish that took several hours).

Fast forward another decade. When I discovered that I would feel better if I kicked gluten out of my body and my kitchen, I said goodbye to pasta and bread. Goodbye doughnuts and cakes and pies. And, for a long time, I was okay with this. My body was becoming healthy. I was finding a healthy weight (unlike a typical Celiac, when I eat gluten, I gain weight… a lot of weight… with a combination of gluten-free and low-carb dieting choices I was able to lose weight – 1/2 of my starting body weight to be exact.) And, then… I kept shrinking. People started to ask me if I was eating enough. There were whispers of anorexia or bulimia. While the early phases of Atkins had helped me slowly but consistently lose 100 pounds, I suddenly found myself losing more and more weight. I was adding in more and more carbohydrates… trying to find that perfect balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats that would keep me at a healthy weight. There just weren’t enough veggies in the world to get the carbohydrate levels right. I started looking at grains. I had already gone gluten-free at that point, so wheat, rye, and barley were out. I had no clue what to do with some of those other grains… So, I started using some of the prepared gluten-free dishes. Before long, I was eating out of cans and boxes again… doing not much more than heating food.

Wait. Really? I knew better than this. I knew food could taste good.

Yes. Yes, it can. And, gluten-free does not mean taste-free. It does not mean eating out of cans and boxes that have the magic “gluten-free” labeling. It does mean re-learning how to make homemade food. I had already done it once… and I was determined to do it again.

Fast forward another 8 years…

Gluten-Free Cannelloni

I had tried to make this once using gluten-free products such as boxed pasta, jarred tomato sauce, etc… It was okay. But, it wasn’t the amazing food experience that I had before when I made this from fresh ingredients in my pre-Gluten-Free days. I figured I could make the tomato sauce, filling, and Besciamella relatively easily. It was the pasta.

Last week, my son asked me if I would make him Cannelloni. I answered Yes. Yes, I will. The pasta was the only thing left to challenge me. I scoured blogs reading through how others had figured taken on the Gluten-Free Fresh Pasta. And, then… I started throwing ingredients in a bowl… a kind of a compilation of what others had learned and what made sense to me, based on the base recipe for Pasta dough in the Time Life book. That night, we had Cannelloni.

Cannelloni: Pasta Tubes filled with Meat and Baked in Tomato and Cream Sauce

And, it only took me about four hours!

Would you like to make this too? Here are the four recipes you need to make Cannelloni and the instructions for putting it together.

Gluten-Free Pasta Dough – I used this recipe on the Better Batter website and I highly recommend it. (I am currently searching for an egg-free version to accomodate our new allergy list!)

After preparing the pasta dough, cut it into rectangles that are about 2 x 3 inches. Boil the pasta in salted water gently for about 5 minutes. The pasta should be tender, but not too soft. You’ll want to prepare the pasta and then set aside, covered to keep moist until the remaining components are ready. It is easier to boil the pasta before hand so it has time to cool before filling and rolling.

Meat Filling – This recipe is straight from Time Life Foods of the World: The Cooking of Italy.

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1/4 C finely chopped onion
  • 1 tsp finely chopped garlic
  • 3/4 lb spinach – cooked, drained, squeezed and finely chopped (you can use a 10-oz package of frozen spinach – defrost, dry, and chop).
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 pound beef round steak, ground twice
  • 2 chicken livers
  • 5 T freshly grated imported Parmesan cheese
  • 2 T heavy cream
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

My preparation directions:

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions and garlic. Once the onions and garlic are soft, stir in the spinach until the spinach starts to dry and stick to the pan. Put the onions, garlic, and spinach in a mixing bowl.

Melt 1 T butter in the skillet and add the ground beef. Once the beef no longer shows any pink, add it to the spinach mixture.

Melt another 1T butter in the skillet and add the chicken livers. These are done when they are firm and light brown. They will still have some pink on the inside when you chop them. Remove from the skillet and let cool slightly before chopping and adding to the spinach and beef.

To the spinach and meat mixture, add Parmesan, cream, eggs, and oregano. Mix everything together and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside until you are ready to assemble the Cannelloni.

NOTE: The eggs in this recipe are acting as a binder. To make this egg-free, I might try a commercial egg replacement product, but another option might be using more of the Parmesan or adding Tomato Paste or even a bit of Arrowroot Powder in place of the eggs.

Besciamella – This is a delicious sauce that made me finally understand what “salt to taste” means! This recipe is from Time Life Foods of the World: Cooking of Italy. My only change to the recipe was to substitute Better Batter flour for typical flour.

  • 6 T butter
  • 6 T Better Batter flour
  • 1 C milk
  • 1 C heavy cream
  • 1 tsp salt – or to taste
  • 1/8 tsp white pepper

My preparation directions:

In a saucepan, melt the butter and then stir in the flour. Pour in the cream and milk all at once and whisk until the sauce comes to a boil. Then, reduce the heat and continue to stir for a few minutes longer. The sauce is ready when it leaves a heavy coat on the wires of the whisk. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Tomato Sauce – I do love this tomato sauce. It is so simple to make and is amazing in this Cannelloni. Jarred tomato sauce just doesn’t lend the same brightness. This recipe is also from the Time Life Series.

  • 4 T olive oil
  • 1 Cup finely chopped onions
  • 4 Cups Tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 6 T tomato paste
  • 2 T fresh basil (or 2 tsp dried)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pepper to taste

My preparation directions:

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and then add the onions and cook until soft. Add the remaining ingredients and then reduce the heat to allow sauce to simmer for 40 minutes to an hour. Stir occasionally.

The original instructions include pressing the sauce through a sieve or food mill. I chose instead to use my hand blender to make sure any large chunks of tomato or onion were thoroughly incorporated. Taste for seasoning and then set aside until ready to assemble the cannelloni.

To Assemble the Cannelloni – Easy enough once all the components are ready! Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

Put a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of a large baking dish. Place a spoonful of meat filling in each rectangle of pasta and roll them up into tubes. Lay each tube seam side down in a single layer in the baking dish.

Pour the besciamella over the pasta tubes and then spoon the rest of the tomato sauce over that. Top with parmesan cheese and dot with butter if desired.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling. If desired, broil for a minute to brown the top. Serve cannelloni directly from baking dish and Enjoy!

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