Make a classic cannelloni

The Christmas season was a little rushed at our house this year. Before the holiday, I needed to go to our daughter's home in Florida for a few weeks to help care for her nine- month-old baby while our daughter recuperated from unplanned surgery.

Since I didn't return home until the Sunday before Christmas, there were just so many hours to squeeze in wrapping, cleaning, decorating, and shopping.

When I was planning our holiday family meal, I decided to take some short cuts. Instead of making my traditional cheesecake, I bought one.

Instead of a tossed salad from scratch with a homemade dressing, I used bagged lettuce and a bottled dressing. Instead of a vegetable casserole, plain steamed veggies were on the menu.

I focused my cooking effort on the main course: my favorite Italian dish, cannelloni. It took some precious time from my preparations, but it was worth it.

The way I like to make cannelloni is to start with homemade crepes, which are like very thin pancakes.

The crepes are filled with a rich meat, cheese, and spinach filling, and the rolled up crepes are then topped with a Bechamel sauce (which is basically a white sauce) and a tomato sauce, all topped with more cheese and baked.

Another corner I could have cut would have been to buy manicotti shells, but I think the homemade crepes make the dish extra special.

That raises the question: What is the difference between manicotti and cannelloni? The main difference is that manicotti is usually filled with a cheese mixture and cannelloni are filled with a meat or vegetable mixture.

There are all kinds of possible fillings for the cannelloni: seafood, chicken, or, what I used at Christmas, beef.

When the family arrived for our Christmas celebration, one of the grandsons said, "Ooh! Something sure smells good. What is it?"

"It's cannelloni," I said. "It's kind of like lasagna."

"I thought cannelloni was a dessert," said the grandson.

Cannoli and cannelloni are often confused. Both are rolled up dough with a filling. But the dessert, cannoli, is filled with sweetened ricotta and then deep fried.

Cannelloni are filled with meat and cheese then baked.

Even though I educated everyone about these classic Italian dishes, I purposely didn't tell them about one secret ingredient in my filling: chicken livers.

I could just imagine the ugly faces and eye rolling if I had revealed that. Maybe someday I will.

Although the chicken livers aren't necessary, I recommend you include them. You won't really notice them (my grandsons didn't) and they add a nice richness to the filling.

In the meantime, I'll just relish the fact that these teenage boys (and their parents) loved the dish; all had second helpings.

I'm providing you with just the instructions for how to assemble the cannelloni and the ingredients for the filling today.

You can either use purchased manicotti tubes or make your own crepes. For the white sauce, you can make a standard white sauce from scratch or use jarred Alfredo sauce.

For the red sauce, use your favorite tomato sauce.

Cannelloni

Makes about 12 servings

24 manicotti tubes (or 24 crepes)

2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

4 tablespoons olive oil

cup finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

4 tablespoons butter

2 pounds ground chuck

6 chicken livers

cup grated Parmesan cheese

cup heavy cream

4 eggs, slightly beaten

1 teaspoon dried oregano

teaspoon dried basil

3 cups homemade white sauce or jarred Alfredo sauce

1 32-ounce jar of your favorite spaghetti sauce

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons grated

Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lightly grease or spray two 13 x 9 x 2 inch pans.

Heat oil in a large skillet and cook the onions and garlic over moderate heat until soft, not browned, about 7 or 8 minutes. Add the drained spinach and cook, stirring for 5 minutes.

When all the moisture is gone, transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Melt half the butter in the same pan and lightly brown the meat, stirring constantly to break up any clumps. Add to the bowl.

Melt the rest of the butter and cook the chicken livers until lightly browned and pink inside.

Chop the livers coarsely and add to the bowl. Add the Parmesan cheese, cream, egg, and spices. Stir all together until thoroughly blended.

Fill the crepes (or manicotti tubes) with about 2 tablespoons of the filling and place seam side down in the casseroles. Spoon the Bechamel (or white) sauce evenly over the filled crepes; then spoon the tomato sauce evenly over the white sauce.

Scatter extra Parmesan cheese over the casseroles and dot with butter.

Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes.

(Wolbert is a former corporate communicator and English teacher, now indulging in her two loves, writing and cooking. She can be reached at rdwolbert@gmail.com or at her Sprigs of Rosemary Facebook page.)

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