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~ Jumbo Pasta Shells Stuffed w/Four Cheeses, then: Topped & Baked in Balsamella & Marinara Sauces ~

IMG_7359If you are Italian, or, you've ever been in an Italian family's home over the Christmas and New Years holidays, you know it is the ultimate carb-lover's experience.  I know.  I am a carb lover, and I married into an Italian family back in 1980.  Every Italian cook "turns up the heat" for his or her festive feast.  You can smell the sauce simmering on their stovetops from all of the street corners.  Women in each family gather around kitchen tables (weeks ahead of time) to make and freeze ravioli, assemble lasagna, and, oh yea, bake zillions of cookies.  The menu varies a bit from household to household.  The recipes, some of them kept top-secret and handed down from generation to generation, vary a bit from cook to cook.  The common denominator = pasta!

6a0120a8551282970b0162fff9e06b970d-800wiAlmost none of my Italian recipes were learned from Joe's family. When I moved to Happy Valley back in 1974, my first job was as a at a local bank.  On the same day I started, another gal started.  Her name was Eileen.  After our orientation meeting that first morning, we went out to lunch.  We found out we were a pair of married foodies (w/o children) and lived two blocks from each other!  

6a0120a8551282970b0162fffa07a9970d-800wiEileen's maiden name: Guadanola. Her parents were Italian-born Americans (living in Brooklyn) and knew a thing or two about cooking. The apple didn't fall far from the tree.  Eileen is a marvelous cook. For about ten years, she and I cooked together and shared each others cooking heritages.  You can find  ~ Making Manicotti Using Italian Crespelle (Crepes) ~, in Categories 3, 9, 12, 14 or 19!

My stuffed shell recipe is a spin-off of this manicotti recipe.  I use the same filling, but save myself a whole lot of time by stuffing it into cooked pasta shells instead of making crespelle.  As promised, it's festive, easy-to-prepare and budget-friendly too.  It can be assembled a day ahead of baking, and, it's perfect to serve at a holiday buffet, because it portions and serves so easily!

It's time to make the Balsamella and the Marinara!

IMG_7036When making stuffed shells, I make an easy, French white sauce, Bechamel (bay-shah-mehl) to use as second topping, to compliment to the red sauce.  In Italian it is referred to as "balsamella" and it is nothing more than a mix of butter, flour, mik and spices.  It only takes 15 minutes to make and you can make it a day ahead of time if you want to.  My recipe for ~ How to: Make a Classic Bechamel (White Sauce) ~ is in Categories 8 or 15! 

6a0120a8551282970b016760f3cddc970b-320wiYou'll only need 1 cup of the Balsamella, but I highly-recommend you make the full recipe (4 cups) and read my Cook's Note below!

You'll also need 1-quart of your favorite pasta sauce (your own recipe or store-bought) for this stuffed shell recipe.  My recipe for ~ Mel's Fresh & Spicy Tomato-basil Sauce (Marinara) ~ can be found in Categories 8, 12, or 22!

Note:  For best results, have both sauces prepared and at room temperature at assembly time!!!

It's time to cook the pasta shells!

IMG_6838 IMG_6825In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over high heat.  Gently add 1, 12-ounce box of jumbo shells, by hand, 5-6 at a time, and cook until slightly less than al dente, about 9-10 minutes. Do not overcook.  Shells will finish cooking when they bake.

IMG_6845Drain into a colander and immediately rinse with cold water, until shells are cold to the touch.

IMG_6853Line a baking pan with paper towels.  Pick out 32 of the prettiest ones (small cracks are ok but discard those w/large tears).  Place, opened side down, on pan.  Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to drain, about 15-30 minutes.  While shells drain:

It's time to prepare the ooey-gooey-cheesey filling!

6a0120a8551282970b016760ed8f27970b-320wi2  pounds whole-milk ricotta

4  ounces each:  grated mozzarella and provolone cheese

1  cup coarsely grated Parmgiano-Reggiano cheese

3  jumbo eggs, at room temperature

1/2  teaspoon each:  nutmeg, salt and coarsely-ground black pepper

6a0120a8551282970b0162fff926d1970d-320wi1  10-ounce box frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed completely dry (optional) 

In a large bowl, using a large rubber spatula, combine the ricotta, mozzarella, provolone and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Add the spinach.  Whisk together the eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add the egg mixture to the cheese mixture.  Using the spatula, fold until thoroughly combined.

IMG_7238It's time to stuff the shells!

IMG_7247 IMG_7241Spray a 13" x 9" x 2" casserole with no-stick cooking spray.

Generously spoon the cheese mixture into the cooled and drained shells, about 2 tablespoons in each. Place shells, face up, in prepared casserole, forming four rows of eight stuffed shells in each row.

IMG_7262 IMG_7258Drizzle or ladle the room temperature sauce, over the shells, about 1 cup over the center of each row.

Note:  Do what is easiest for you, but I like to use a small ladle, because it makes for a much prettier presentation after the shells have baked!

IMG_7275 IMG_7268Using an ordinary teaspoon, evenly distribute all of the Balsamella over the top by placing a dollop on the top center of each stuffed shell.

The following toppings are my favorites.  Feel free to substitute Pecorino Romano, and/or  dried basil, oregano or Italian seasoning!

IMG_7286 IMG_7283Over top of casserole, evenly sprinkle:

1  cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1-2  teaspoons red pepper flakes


Bake, uncovered on center rack of 350 degree oven, 30-40 minutes. The edges of the shells will be lightly browned and the cheese centers will be puffy.  Remove from oven and allow to rest 10-15 minutes prior to serving.  Using a ordinary tablespoon, carefully separate the shells, lift and portion them onto warmed serving dishes.  

Note:  Thanks to my little dollops of basamella across the top, when my shells come out of the oven, they still look like shells!

IMG_7381Jumbo Pasta Shells Stuffed w/Four Cheeses, then:  Topped & Baked in Balsamella & Marinara Sauces:  Recipe yields 8 servings of 4 stuffed shells each.

Special Equipment List:  8-quart stockpot; colander; 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" baking pan; paper towels; plastic wrap; large rubber spatula; 1-cup measuring container; fork or small whisk; 13" x 9" x 2" casserole dish; tablespoon

IMG_7207Cook's Note:  For another outrageously delicious, easy-to-make, budget-friendly holiday meal, try my ~ Festive Seafood Gratinee (Gratin de Fruit de Mer) ~.  It makes use of the remaining 3 cups of Balsamella (Bechamel), and, you can find it in Categories 3, 11, 14, 19 or 20!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)


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Greetings Marilyn! Yes you can! Prepare the filling, stuff the shells and place them in that Lenox casserole dish, but do not sauce them. Refrigerate overnight (two nights is a compromise in quality). A couple of hours before "showtime" bring the shells to room temperature. Sauce them with slightly warm red sauce and bechamel (both sauces reheat perfectly in the microwave). Bake as directed!

Hugs to you and yours for a WONDERFUL holiday!

Good Afternoon Mel! Do you think I could make this dish a day ahead of time? I suppose it should be at room temp before I bake it. I'm trying to get ahead of things for the arrival of family this weekend. I have five of our six grandchildren coming and I think this dish is perfect for little hands and mouths! Big ones as well ...
Hope your holiday is going well!

Marilyn! So, we two Lenox Queens are going to be serving our holiday meals on the same set of china? How cool is that! I just LOVE my Lenox -- it's all I use in my dining room!!! ~ Mel

PS... YES! E-mail me a picture!!!

Mel, I am not only going to make your stuffed shells because I know it will be delish,
BUT because I have the very same Lenox dishes and specifically the 9x13 pan!
It is probably the only thing I have like yours! Oh, wait, I NOW have the "Atlas" pasta machine! I might even be so bold as to send you a pick when I make it, if you promise not to be too critical of my presentation! I do try!

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