Celebration cannelloni

Michele Guinness introduces her special cannelloni, guaranteed to impress your guests

There’s a lovely Hebrew saying  -  “Sibah le'mesibah!” Basically, it means “Any reason for a party” - a birthday or simply that the sun is shining.
But catering for crowds doesn’t come cheap.  I had long been looking for a celebration meal that wouldn’t break the bank.  Mince is always an option when the pennies have to be counted, and mince in dinner-party disguise has to be pasta.  Lasagne, much as I love it, has rather been done to death.  But cannelloni - especially if it included spinach and ricotta - now that, I thought, could be the business. 
It was only when I stood in my kitchen with my key ingredients, that I realised I didn’t have a recipe, and when I looked, all I could find was either a vegetarian spinach version or a meat version, not one that combined the two.  But why not combine them, I thought.  And ended up making four separate sauces!  Not only that, but it then took me the entire afternoon play and a documentary on Radio 4 to stuff the cannelloni shells.

So let me say, this mega celebration cannelloni may well be fairly economical, but it isn’t quick.  I said to my guinea pigs, “I hope you don’t enjoy this because I’m never making it again”.  They all said it was better than anything they had eaten in an Italian restaurant. I succumbed to flattery - and have made it again and again and again - and it’s well worth the hard work.  Just ensure you’re ready for an afternoon with Radio 4.

The recipe

For a vegetarian option, simply omit the bolognaise sauce and double the amount of ricotta and spinach filling.

Serves 8

32 (2 boxes) no pre-cook cannelloni pasta shells (you can use fresh pasta lasagne sheets and roll them around the mixture. It is easier - but the pasta is much thicker).

For the tomato sauce:

Two onions chopped and fried until golden
Two large (420g/15oz) tins chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato puree
2 tsp soft brown sugar
salt, pepper, garlic and a good sprinkling of fresh or dried oregano to taste

Mix all the ingredients together.  You could, of course, cheat to save time and buy two jars of tomato ragu!

For the bolognaise sauce:

1k (2lbs 3oz) good quality minced beef
2 onions, chopped
salt, pepper, garlic to taste
1 egg
4 tsps green pesto

Fry the chopped onions, then add the beef until well browned.  Season and bind together with the egg and pesto.  Leave to cool.

For the ricotta and spinach sauce:

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 x 450g (1lb) tubs ricotta cheese
2 x 200g (7oz) bags of baby spinach leaves
Half a teaspoon of ground nutmeg, salt and black pepper

Heat the olive oil in the pan and add the spinach.  It will quickly dissolve into a much smaller amount than you thought you had.  Cook for 2 minutes, and then cool by placing pan base into a few inches of cold water.  Add the ricotta and seasoning and set aside.

For the bechamel sauce:

1 litre(2 pints) whole milk
2 tablespoons plain flour
2 tablespoons corn flour
100g (3.5 oz) butter
150g (5oz) grated Parmesan cheese
salt, pepper and a large pinch of nutmeg
4 tablespoons of low fat creme fraiche

Mix the flours and add enough milk to form a runny paste in a heavy, non-stick pan.  Keep adding the milk slowly, then put the butter, cheese and seasoning into the pan too.  Bring slowly to the boil, whisking all the time, until the mixture thickens substantially.  Then add the creme fraiche.

To put the entire meal together:

Fill half the cannelloni with the bolognaise sauce, half with the ricotta and spinach mixture.  You may have to use a small teaspoon, the handle of a wooden spoon or even your fingers. Cover the base of a large casserole with the tomato sauce.  Place a layer of bolognese–filled cannelloni onto the tomato sauce, and then a layer of the ricotta and spinach cannelloni on top.  Pour over the bechamel sauce.  Sprinkle some additional Parmesan cheese on top to cover, then bake on gas mark 4/180C for around 40 -45 minutes.  Serve when really golden on top with a crisp green salad, topped with chopped avocado slices and garlic bread.

NB Your cannelloni can be frozen.  The mixture of corn flour and plain flour in the bechamel sauce will mean that it doesn’t ‘crack’ when defrosted.  Simply assemble, then freeze, covered in cling film, before you bake it in the oven.  Allow to defrost fully before cooking.