Spinach & Ricotta Canneloni

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I learnt to make these with my brother and sister-in-law, Luca and Luisa. They really are amazing proper Italian cooks, who put this together effortlessly, as though they were just ironing a shirt. Sometimes they use fresh egg pasta squares instead of the crepes, boiling them first to soften and laying them out on clean kitchen towels to dry. Although this might seem a bit fiddly, it’s worth it in the end because you can just take this one lovely dish to the table. If you want to break up the work load a bit, fry the crepes and make the tomato sauce and spinach mix in advance, keeping them covered until you are ready to use them. Then, at the last moment, you can heat up your oven, make the béchamel, fill and roll the crepes, dot the béchamel and tomatoes over the top, and bake. Your oven dish needs to be about 20 × 30 cm (8 × 12 inches) so that you can fit 12 rolled crepes in two rows. If the rolled crepes won’t quite fit your dish, you can trim off their ends — it is a little fiddly, but they do look very smart that way.

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Ingredients

Crepes

  • 3 eggs
  • 150 g( oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 50 g( oz) butter, melted, plus extra butter, for frying
  • 250 ml(9 fl oz/1 cup) milk

Tomato Sauce

  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and squashed a bit
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 400 g(14 oz) tinned diced tomatoes
  • about 4 basil leaves

Filling

  • 300 g(10½ oz) english spinach leaves, roughly chopped
  • 500 g(1 lb2 oz) fresh ricotta
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 80 g( oz) grated parmesan cheese
  • freshly grated nutmeg

Béchamel Sauce

  • 60 g( oz) butter
  • 40 g( oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 550 ml(19 fl oz) milk, warmed
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • 50 g( oz) grated parmesan cheese

Method

For the crepes, whisk the eggs in a bowl and then whisk in the flour and a couple of pinches of salt. Add the butter, still whisking, and then slowly incorporate the milk to make a smooth batter. Leave it to stand for 20 minutes or so.

Heat a little butter in a 15 cm (6 inch) non-stick frying pan. Add half a ladleful of batter and quickly swirl the pan around so the batter covers it as evenly as possible. Cook until the underneath is golden, then flip the crepe over with a spatula and cook the other side. Move to a plate with the spatula and cook the rest of the batter. You will need 12 crepes and you should have enough mixture to allow for a couple of disasters.

For the tomato sauce, heat the garlic with the oil in a saucepan and, when you begin to smell the garlic, add the tomatoes. Season with salt, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes until the tomatoes have melted. Add the basil and 125 ml(4 fl oz/½ cup) of water towards the end of this time. Purée to a smooth sauce.

For the filling, rinse the spinach under cold water, shake off the excess and then put in a saucepan with just the water clinging to the leaves. Cook over medium–low heat, turning with a wooden spoon, until the leaves have wilted. Cool a little and then squeeze out as much water as you can and chop the spinach. Put the spinach in a bowl with the ricotta, egg, parmesan, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, then begin adding the warm milk. It will be immediately absorbed, so work quickly, whisking with one hand while adding ladlefuls of milk with the other. When the sauce seems to be smooth and not too stiff, add salt, pepper and a grating of nutmeg and continue cooking, even after it comes to the boil, for 5 minutes or so, mixing all the time. It should be a very thick and smooth sauce.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4) and grease a 20 × 30 cm(8 × 12 inch) baking dish.

To put together, dollop some béchamel in the bottom of the dish and rock it from side to side so that the béchamel thinly covers the bottom. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of filling along one side of a crepe and then roll it up tightly. Repeat with all the crepes and lay them on the béchamel like soldiers in two rows of six. Pour the rest of the béchamel over the top, then dot generously with the tomato sauce. Sprinkle with the parmesan and bake for about 40 minutes, until golden and bubbling nicely. Let it cool a dash before serving, then check carefully where each crepe begins and ends and lift them out with an egg flip.