I love baked pasta dishes, but I'm not a big fan of baked ziti. It's a little too plain for me - just pasta, sauce, and cheese. I love this baked manicotti dish, though, because it has a nice blend of cheese and spinach. (I would bet that most picky kids wouldn't mind the spinach in this dish, either!) Sometimes I like to throw some hot Italian sausage and crushed red peppers into the mix to kick it up a notch too.
It can be time consuming stuffing the manicotti, but you can have it done in no time if you use a ziploc bag with the corner cut out or pastry bag. I've used a fork in the past to to fill them too. If you use freshly ground black pepper in this recipe, another tip I learned (from Alton Brown) is that twelve turns of your average pepper grinder will yield 1/8 teaspoon.
It's great because as the name states, you can make this ahead of time and then just pop it into the oven to bake when you get home from work and have dinner on the table in less than an hour. If you don't have the time to refrigerate this overnight, no worries... I have baked it immediately after assembly as well and it was still just as good. If you try this, you have to serve it with some homemade roasted garlic bread.
I'm also submitting this to the weekly Presto Pasta Nights, hosted by Ruth over at Once Upon a Feast.
Make Ahead Manicotti
1 pint ricotta cheese (I used part skim ricotta)
1 (10 ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons white sugar (I omit this)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (24 turns of the pepper grinder)
1/2 pound hot Italian sausage, crumbled and browned (optional)
1/4-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (optional - if you're using the sausage)
12 manicotti shells
1 (32 ounce) jar spaghetti sauce (I use 2 jars)
In a medium bowl, mix together ricotta cheese and eggs until blended. Stir in spinach, mozzarella cheese, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese, sugar, salt and pepper (plus the sausage and crushed red pepper flakes if you are using them). Stuff mixture into uncooked pasta shells.
Spread 1/2 cup spaghetti sauce in the bottom of a medium baking dish (I use a 13 x 9-inch). Arrange stuffed pasta shells in a single layer over the sauce. Pour the remainder of the sauce over the shells (if you don't cover your pasta with enough sauce, it won't cook/soften properly in the oven), cover dish, and chill in the refrigerator for 8 hours, or overnight.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Bake covered for 40 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese, and bake for another 15 minutes.