Here is a variation of THE recipe I won finalist on the Food Network's Ultimate Recipe Showdown on season 1. This recipe adds baby spinach to the ricotta filling. The highlight of my life was to have been chosen to compete in California for the top prize in the PASTA category. I did not win the $25,000 but did come away with an experience I will cherish. Being in a TV studio and making a TV show for the Food Network was a tingling experience for me. The judges thought this recipe was "too cheesy". Now what's in Manicotti?...cheese. None of the judges were Italian! This recipe is my family's old Italian standard with homemade crespelle as the pasta and a quick marinara sauce topping just enough to cover....not too much! As you can see the topping is not overpowered with mozzarella and sauce. The delicacy of the crespelle show through to make a melt-in-your mouth kinda dish to serve for a crowd. I like to bake the Manicotti in individual baking dishes but for a crowd use the biggest baking dish you have. Mangia! —Lorraine Fina Stevenski
MAKE THE CREPES (CRESPELLE): In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and melted butter. Gradually whisk in the flour and salt until the mixture is smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 1 hour until slightly thickened. Bring to room temperature before making the crepes. If the room is cool, cover with plastic wrap and store at room temperature to thicken for about 1 hour. Spray an 10" non-stick skillet with cooking spray. Place the pan over medium heat. With a small ladle, pour about 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) of the batter into the pan. Turn the pan at a 45 degree angle to coat the pan evenly so the batter forms a perfect circle. Cook the crepe only until set; do not brown, about 30 seconds or until the top is set. Slide the crepe onto a 12- inch flat plate and continue the process with the remaining batter. Spray the pan with cooking spray when making each crepe. Stack the crepes between waxed paper so they don't stick. You can prepare these crepes a day in advance covered in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. No need to reheat the crepes before filling and baking. You can also use an electric crepe maker.
MAKE THE RICOTTA FILLING: In a large bowl, add all the ingredients for the ricotta filling. With a large wooden spoon or spatula, stir all the ingredients until well blended. Store covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator until ready to stuff the manicotti. You can make this filling the day before.
FRESH MARINARA SAUCE
MAKE THE MARINARA SAUCE:
In a large heavy non-reactive saucepan with a lid, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic and cook until fragrant but NOT browned. Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan, use a potato masher if there are any tomato chunks. Add 1/2 the basil leaves and parsley. Simmer 30 minutes, slightly covered, on medium-low heat, stirring every so often as not to burn the bottom of the pan. Add the remainder of the basil leaves and salt and pepper to taste; simmer for another 10 minutes until the sauce is slightly reduced. Taste and reseason as necessary. You can make this sauce the day before; store in a plastic container in the refrigerator. No need to reheat when assembling the dish.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (350 degrees convection). Evenly coat the bottom of a 13 X 9 glass or ceramic baking dish with 2 cups of the prepared marinara sauce. Spoon 4 tablespoons of the prepared ricotta filling 1 inch from the edge of each crepe. Roll evenly into a log, keeping the filling even as you roll. Repeat with the remaining crepes. Trim each end of the manicotti about 1/2" so they fit in the pan neatly and don't overlap. Place manicotti seam side down. Spoon 2 cups of sauce over the middle of the manicotti. Sprinkle with grated Grana Padano cheese. Top each manicotti with a whole basil leaf. Spray the top with cooking spray. Cut a 13x9 piece of foil or parchment and coat one side with cooking spray. Cover the baking dish loosely with the sprayed side down. Bake about 20 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15- 20 minutes until the topping is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling on the sides. Let rest about 15 minutes before serving to firm up the manicotti filling.