Cannelloni with Asparagus and Ham
No stuffed pasta could be more elegant, none tastier, none more simple to assemble than cannelloni. Yet there is none whose execution is customarily so dreary. The error that most cooks make with cannelloni is that they take the stuffing, shape it like a sausage, and wrap layers of pasta around it. Thus cannelloni turn out to be dull, thick casings for a clumsy lump trapped in their center. The correct method is not more difficult to carry out, but it yields incomparably finer results. The pasta is laid flat and the stuffing mixture, however it may be composed, is spread thinly over the entire surface. Then the pasta is rolled up loosely, like a jelly roll, so that each layer of pasta is filmily bound to the next by no more savory stuffing than is absolutely necessary. Of the many stuffings for cannelloni I have experimented with, this one with asparagus and ham has never failed to please.
Total Timeunder 2 hours
OccasionCasual Dinner Party
Recipe Coursemain course
Equipmentbaking/gratin dish, food processor
Taste and Texturecheesy, creamy, savory
Type of Dishstuffed pasta
- 2 pounds asparagus
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup water
- 6 ounces boiled unsmoked ham
- 3 cups milk
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 4½ tablespoons flour
- Pinch salt
- 1 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan)
- 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 2 large eggs
- About 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour
Trim 1 inch or more off the butt ends of the asparagus, leaving only the moist, tender part of the stalk. Pare away the tough green skin from the base of the spear to the end of the stalk. Remove any tiny leaves sprouting below the base of the tip. Cut the trimmed asparagus into 2-inch lengths and wash in cold water.
Choose a lidded, shallow pan large enough to accommodate all the asparagus. Put in 4 tablespoons of the butter, the water, a little salt, and the asparagus. Cover and turn on the heat to medium. Cook until the asparagus is tender, but firm. If, when the asparagus is done, there is still liquid in the pan, uncover, raise the heat to high, and boil away the liquid while browning the asparagus lightly.
Cut up the ham and chop it in a food processor, but take care not to chop it too fine. Add the asparagus to the processor bowl and run the processor very briefly once or twice. The asparagus should be cut up into small pieces, but not blended to a creamy consistency.
Make the béchamel: Heat the milk over low heat until it forms a ring of pearly bubbles, but do not let it break into a boil. While the milk is being heated, melt the butter in a separate pan over low heat. When the butter melts, add the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When the flour has been wholly amalgamated with the butter, but before it becomes colored, remove from the heat. Add 2 tablespoons of milk at a time to the flour and butter mixture, stirring steadily and thoroughly. Add 2 more tablespoons of milk when the first 2 have been incorporated smoothly and evenly into the butter and flour. Stir and repeat the operation until you have put in 8 tablespoons of milk. At this point you can add the milk ½ cup at a time, always stirring steadily to obtain a homogeneous mixture. When all the milk has been worked in, place the pan over low heat, add the pinch of salt, and stir without interruption until the béchamel is as dense as a thick cream.
Put the chopped asparagus and ham in a bowl, add half the béchamel, 2/3 cup of the grated cheese, and the nutmeg. Mix well.
Knead the dough for the pasta and thin it out, stopping at the next to last setting on the machine, as described below.
Cut the pasta strips into 5- to 6-inch-long rectangles, leaving them as wide as they come from the machine. Parboil them, rinse them, and spread on dry cloth towels.
Turn on the oven to 450°.
Choose a baking pan large enough (about to by 12 inches) to contain all the cannelloni snugly in a single layer. Smear the bottom generously with butter.
. Spread 1 tablespoon of béchamel on a plate. Place a rectangle of pasta over the béchamel, rotating it lightly so that its underside becomes coated. Over the pasta’s top side spread about 1½ tablespoons of the asparagus mixture, thinning it evenly, but stopping just short of the edge of the pasta.
. Roll up the pasta softly, jelly-roll fashion, to form a cannellone.
. Place the cannellone in the pan, with the overlapping edge facing down. Repeat the operation, laying the cannelloni snugly side to side, until all the cannelloni are done. From time to time, smear more béchamel over the bottom of the plate, as necessary, but take care not to use up all the béchamel.
. When all the cannelloni are in the pan, spread the remaining béchamel over them, forcing some of the sauce into the spaces between the cannelloni.
14. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/3 cup of grated cheese and dot with the leftover 2 tablespoons of butter. Place the pan in the uppermost level of the preheated oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until a golden brown crust forms on top. Allow to settle for 5 to 8 minutes before serving. To serve, do not cut into the cannelloni, but loosen them, one from the other, with a spatula.
Making Pasta at Home by Machine
As Elizabeth David has demonstrated magnificently, one can write a volume about varieties of flour. When we focus on Italian cooking, however, and specifically on pasta, we limit our field to two basic kinds: soft-wheat, unbleached, all-purpose flour and durum or hard-wheat flour, also known as semolina or, in Italian, semola. The first is white, the second pale yellow.
Each of the two varieties has its virtues and drawbacks. For the classic pasta of Bologna, stretched by hand with a rolling pin, only soft-wheat flour is used. It is lower in gluten than semolina, hence it is easier to hand stretch. Soft wheat has a gentler, warmer fragrance than that of semolina’s, which is faintly sharp. The sweet-smelling pasta it produces is plumper in body and of a fluffier consistency than any made with durum wheat flour. On the other hand, it requires utmost heedfulness in the cooking, because it can quickly pass that dangerous line from firm to overdone.
Semolina has so much tough gluten that it is next to impossible to stretch by hand in the Bolognese manner. It is more suitable for flat pasta compressed by a non-extruding home machine or for such industrially extruded shapes as spaghetti or fusilli. Pasta made with semolina flour is never as downy as the soft-wheat kind, but it makes up for it with a body tautly knit and admirably compact. It accepts an extraordinary variety of sauces and cooks to a perfect al dente, firm-to-the-bite consistency.
When buying semolina one must look out for flour that is ground too coarse. Unfortunately much of it is, including some brands that are sold as pasta flour. It should be talcum soft to the touch and impalpable, like other flour; otherwise it will be difficult to work with.
At home I use semolina when I want extra firmness, such as in tonnarelli. More frequently I use all-purpose, unbleached flour, which makes pasta closer to that made at home in Bologna. The choice, however, depends on one’s preferences. Both flours make equally valid pasta.
INGREDIENTS. The dough for homemade pasta consists of flour and eggs, nothing else. The only exception is when spinach or Swiss chard leaves are added to the basic egg and flour dough to make green pasta. Olive oil, salt, colorings, seasonings have no gastronomic reason for being in pasta. Some, such as olive oil that makes pasta slicker, are wholly undesirable and a detriment to good pasta. If one respects the freshness and immediacy of the Italian approach to cooking, one puts all flavors and seasonings in the sauce.
PROPORTIONS. Use 1 cup of flour with 2 large eggs to produce approximately ¾ pound of pasta. The exact ratio, however, will vary depending on the size of the eggs, their flour absorption capacity, even on the humidity of the environment.
COMBINING THE EGGS AND FLOUR. Since you can never tell in advance exactly how much flour you will need, do not mix the flour and eggs in a bowl. You may find you want to use less flour than you thought. Pour the flour onto a work surface, shape it into a mound, scooping out a deep hollow in its center. Break the eggs into the hollow.
Beat the eggs lightly with a fork as though you were making an omelet. Draw some of the flour over the eggs, mixing it, a little at a time, until the eggs are no longer runny. Draw the sides of the mound together, pushing to one side any flour you think you may not use. Work the mixture of flour and eggs with your fingers and the palms of your hands until it is well amalgamated. If it is still too moist, work in more flour as needed.
Put the egg and flour mass to one side and scrape the work surface clean of all loose or caked bits of flour and of any crumbs of dough. Wash your hands and dry them. You are now ready to knead.
MAKING SPINACH DOUGH. For approximately 1 pound of green pasta, use 2 large eggs, approximately 1½ cups flour, and either ½ pound fresh spinach or half a 10-ounce package frozen leaf spinach.
If using fresh spinach, trim away all the stems and wash the leaves in several changes of cold water to remove every trace of soil. Cook it in a covered pan over medium heat with only the water that clings to the leaves and with ¼ teaspoon of salt to keep its color bright. Cook until tender, 15 minutes or more, drain, and let cool.
If using frozen leaf spinach, cook it in a covered pan with ¼ teaspoon of salt until tender. Drain and let cool.
1986 Marcella Plini Hazan and Victor Hazan