Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni is one of the traditional baked pasta recipes in Italian cuisine.
In Italy, we make this dish for special occasions, such as Sunday dinner with the family or Christmas and Easter lunches.
Cannelloni are tubes of pasta about 10 cm (4 inches) long that are stuffed with some ingredients, seasoned, and then baked. Along with lasagna Bolognese, cannelloni is one of the most popular and beloved traditional baked pasta dishes.
This is the traditional vegetarian cannelloni recipe, which in Italy we call “Cannelloni di Magro”, that is, without meat, to distinguish it from beef cannelloni (“Cannelloni di Carne”).
Spinach and ricotta cannelloni are either “white”, with only béchamel sauce, or “red”, with the addition of a little tomato sauce for an extra dash of color and flavor.
Spinach and ricotta are a classic combination in many traditional Italian recipes. For example, we use them to make spinach lasagna, gnudi (a type of Tuscan gnocchi made with spinach and ricotta), spinach and ricotta ravioli (“ravioli di magro”) or for many pies, including our Italian Easter pie: Torta Pasqualina.
The quality and freshness of the ingredients are the key to its success. Freshly prepared homemade béchamel and pasta, a rich tomato sauce and fresh ricotta cheese. Once you have all the preparations ready, all you have to do is assemble the dish and put it in the oven, where it will form a delicious golden crust.
Crispy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni is a great Italian pasta recipe. Try it!
PLEASE NOTE: The preparation times include the time for making the fresh homemade pasta, the homemade besciamella, the cannelloni filling and the tomato sauce. You can of course prepare them ahead of time and on different days.
- Prep Time: 1 H 20 Min
- Cook Time: 40 Min
- Servings: 6
Ingredients for about 18 cannelloni (3 cannelloni per serving)
For Cannelloni Pasta
- you can make cannelloni following our recipe “How to make homemade pasta“
- or you can buy 18 dried cannelloni tubes (250 g pack)
For Bechamel Sauce
- 500 ml (~2 cups) of fresh whole milk
- 50 g (1.8 oz – ~1/2 stick) of unsalted butter
- 50 g (1.8 oz – 1/3 cup) of all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon of fine salt
- freshly grated nutmeg
Spinach and Ricotta Filling
- 300 g (11 oz) of fresh spinach
- 250 g (8,8 oz ) of ricotta
- 100 g (1 cup) of grated Parmigiano cheese
- 1 egg
- freshly grated nutmeg
- fine salt
- freshly ground black pepper
For Tomato Sauce
PLEASE NOTE: Tomato sauce is optional. You need it if you want to make “red” spinach and ricotta cannelloni, that is, with a little tomato. If, on the other hand, you prefer “white” cannelloni, i.e. topped only with béchamel and Parmigiano, leave it out.
Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni Recipe: Instructions
The Tomato Sauce
First make the tomato sauce. You can make it 1 or 2 days in advance and store it in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it. Skip this step if you want to make the cannelloni “in bianco”, without tomatoes (see the paragraph below).
Finely chop the onion. Sauté in oil for a few minutes in a saucepan. Add the tomato passata and a pinch of salt. Stir, cover and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. When ready, set aside.
The Bechamel Sauce
You can also find ready made béchamel sauce at the grocery store. But believe us when we tell you that the homemade béchamel sauce recipe is super easy to make and delicious. Much better than the one you buy already made. So let’s see how to make it.
Step 1) – In a pan, prepare the “roux” by melting the butter and adding the flour. Stir with a hand whisk to remove any lumps.
Step 2) – Pour the milk into a saucepan and heat it slightly. Turn off the heat and pour the warm milk into the roux, stirring quickly with a hand whisk.
Return to the heat. Season with salt and a little nutmeg. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the béchamel has reached the desired consistency.
Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. You can also store it in the refrigerator for a couple of days. However, the plastic wrap must be in contact with the béchamel. This is the only way to prevent that unpleasant film from forming on the surface.
For more informations and insights see our recipe: how to make Béchamel sauce (Besciamella)
Step 1) – To prepare the filling, first remove the leathery part of the stem from the spinach and wash them (if using fresh spinach).
Boil the spinach leaves for 3-4 minutes in a pot with a little water and a pinch of salt.
Step 2) – Drain, allow to cool and squeeze well. Then chop them with a knife. We do NOT recommend using an electric blender as it will reduce the spinach to mush.
Step 3) – Place the spinach in a bowl. Then add the ricotta (well drained of its water), the egg and the grated Parmigiano cheese.
Finally, add the grated nutmeg and a little black pepper. Season with salt and mix well until smooth. Set aside.
BEFORE YOU START: I used fresh pasta. If you have got already the cannelloni tubes, skip these steps.
Now that we have all our preparations ready, we can put them together to make Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni. Let’s see how to do it.
Step 1) – Quickly blanch the pasta sheets in boiling salted water.
Take a fairly large pot. Fill it with water, add a little salt and bring to a boil. When it boils, add a tablespoon of oil. Now dip the sheets of dough one by one. It only takes a few seconds. Drain them well.
Step 2) – Once removed, place them on clean dish towels.
Note: This step is not always necessary, but we recommend it if the dough is not very thin.
Step 3) – Now place about two tablespoons of the filling on one side of the dough rectangle (not in the center).
Roll the dough on itself around the filling to form cylinders (cannelloni).
Step 4) – Spread two tablespoons of the béchamel sauce and one tablespoon of the tomato sauce in the bottom of a baking dish. Then arrange the cannelloni inside the casserole.
Step 5) – Top with plenty of béchamel sauce and grated Parmigiano cheese.
Step 6) – Add 2-3 tablespoons of tomato sauce. This should not be too much. The béchamel remains the main sauce in this recipe.
Place the baking dish in a hot oven at 200°C (390°F) and bake for 15 minutes. To get a nice crispy crust on top, you can turn on the grill for the last 2-3 minutes.
When cooked, remove from the oven and let the ricotta and spinach cannelloni rest at room temperature for 5 minutes. Serve hot.
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- Easy Gluten-free Leek Cannelloni Recipe
Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni “in Bianco” (Without Tomato Sauce)
As already mentioned, it’s also possible to make the cannelloni with spinach and ricotta completely “in bianco”, without adding tomato sauce.
The recipe does not change, just leave out the tomato sauce.
Sprinkle the bottom of the baking dish with béchamel sauce only, and top the cannelloni with plenty of béchamel sauce and grated Parmigiano cheese.
Both versions are equally popular in Italy and we consider them to be classic and traditional recipes.
The red version is more flavorful, while the white version is more delicate.
How to Store Cannelloni
You can store spinach and ricotta cannelloni in the refrigerator for 2-3 days in an airtight container or in a dish covered with plastic wrap.
You can also freeze the cannelloni uncooked or already cooked.
Uncooked frozen cannelloni can be heated in the oven while still frozen. Add 10 minutes to the cooking time.
Cooked frozen cannelloni should be thawed at room temperature. Heat in the oven at 390°F (200°C) for 10 minutes.
Should I Drain the Ricotta Before Using it?
As for the ricotta, of course it must be very fresh and of excellent quality.
In northern Italy, They use mostly cow’s milk ricotta. In central and southern Italy, however, it is mainly sheep’s milk ricotta that people prefer.
If you like strong flavors, one suggestion is to use a very intense and creamy buffalo ricotta, which can give the dish an extra kick.
Whatever type of ricotta you choose, it’s important that it’s dry.
If the ricotta you have on hand is very soft and watery, we recommend draining the excess liquid even a few hours before using it.
Can I use Frozen Spinach?
Traditionally, we use spinach in combination with ricotta. Of course, in season it is preferable to use fresh spinach, which is tender and rich in flavor.
However, you can also use frozen spinach in this recipe.
As with ricotta, it’s necessary to squeeze the spinach well to remove as much excess water as possible. It’s very important that the filling is dry and firm.
What Other Vegetables can I Substitute for Spinach?
Chard is often used instead of spinach, especially in central Italy.
In Romagna and northern Marche, they use fresh parsley and lemon zest along with ricotta. This is a variation, both red and white, that is really good, fresh and aromatic.