Many people know cannelloni, as they are quite popular from several areas in Italy, and, therefore, with the Italian-American community as well. Catalan “canelons” are more or less the same thing, a pasta square rolled up and stuffed in a tube shape, which is then smothered in a sauce and baked. There are some differences, though, at least in the most common versions I have encountered. First, while the Italian (or at least Italian-American) versions that I have been served have fillings like ricotta cheese and spinach, and most often use tomato sauce, this most famous Catalan version has a meat filling and a bechamel sauce. Also, I’ve only ever seen Italian cannelloni baked in a single layer. Catalan canelons, at least by home cooks, are often placed two or three layers deep in a pan before baking. These days, of course, you can find just about any canelon filling and sauce combination you can imagine if you search Catalonia, but I want to focus on the really traditional recipe for Canelons de Sant Esteve for this post.
Canelons can be found throughout the year, but the name of this version, “Sant Esteve,” refers to Saint Steven’s day, the day after Christmas. People generally use the leftover meat from the Escudella i Carn d’Olla to make these, though you could certainly cook meat specifically for them. With the pandemic fueled travel bans this year, we were having a Catalan Christmas in California, and that included these leftover-filled canelons that Rosa has had almost every post-Christmas of her life. Because both the meat stuffing and the sauce are quite heavy, this is definitely not a light pasta dish. These are way more filling than the Italian-styled cannelloni that I grew up with.
You can use store-bought pasta to make the canelons or make your own. In Catalonia, the little dried pasta squares are fairly easy to find at the store. I never see them in the USA. This means that if you are using store bought pasta, buy fresh pasta sheets, and cut squares yourself. I always make the pasta myself, because I enjoy the meditation of making and rolling out the sheets of dough.
Always cook the pasta sheets in small batches. Cooking too many squares at once will make for a mess of sheets sticking together that becomes very difficult to deal with. If you use fresh pasta, it cooks in a minute, and you can lay the sheets out while the next batch is cooking. We lay out a clean sheet (you can use a large towel) on the kitchen table, and lay the cooked pasta sheets out on there for stuffing, as they come out of the boiling water. It’s a method we learned from Rosa’s mother that makes the pasta so much easier to work with.
Pasta Dough (you can use storebought pasta sheets – just cut them into squares)
2¼ cups all purpose flour
3 whole eggs
1 Tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
1. Make a wide mound of flour in the middle of a large cutting board or clean work surface. Sprinkle the salt into the flour. Use your hands or a fork to make a bowl-like depression in the middle of the mound. Add the 4 eggs and oil into the “bowl.”
2. Use a fork to beat the eggs in the “bowl,” and then, using the fork start pulling bits of flour from the inside edge, incorporating it into the flour. When you’ve incorporated enough flour to start making the mix thicken to a paste, coat your fingers in some of the flour and use it to pull all of the paste off of the fork.
3. Use your hands to work the rest of the flour into the paste, forming a dough. You want to incorporate all of the flour into the dough, which may require you to add a little bit of moisture to your dough ball. You can do this in one of two ways, either with a squirt bottle of cold water, or by putting an occasional small splash of water to dampen the palm of one hand while you knead. Knead the dough for about 7-10 minutes, until it becomes very smooth and homogeneous.
Note: The dough should be slightly moist, but not enough to be sticky. If it is too wet or sticky, you can work in a little extra flour to get to the right consistency. If it is too dry, add a very small amount of moisture using one of the two above methods.
4. Wrap the dough in plastic so it doesn’t dry out, then set aside to rest for at least 30 minutes. If you are resting it for more than an hour, rest it in the fridge, and pull out to warm up a little bit about 15 minutes before rolling.
5. Roll the dough into sheets to the second thinnest setting on your pasta machine and cut into squares the width of the sheet. Store the sheets in a way that they will not get stuck together before cooking. You can coat with semolina flour or place them in layers separated by a towel or parchment paper, or hang them on a drying rack.
1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter
4 oz all purpose flour
½ gallon whole milk, cold
¼ nutmeg, freshly grated (or about ½ tsp ground)
1. Make the roux: In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, on medium heat, melt the butter. When melted stir in the flour to form a paste. Cook, stirring regularly, for about 2 minutes.
2. While steadily whisking, slowly pour in about ¼ of the cold milk. This will very quickly combine with the roux and thicken a whole lot. When it is extremely smooth and well combined, whisk in another ¼ of the milk. Whisk constantly until very well mixed with no lumps. At this point, slowly pour in the rest of the milk, again whisking constantly. Leave the heat on medium to medium-low setting, and whisk regularly, making sure the sauce doesn’t burn to the bottom of the pan. Season with salt, and add the nutmeg as it heats up. Continue whisking regularly while it comes to a simmer, and allow to simmer gently for at least 5 minutes to get rid of any raw flour taste.
At this point, you can remove from the heat and let sit until needed. The bechamel will not thicken completely until it reaches a simmer. If it rests for a while without whisking, a skin may form on the surface. You can scoop off and discard this skin. Bechamel gets a lot thicker when it begins to cool down. It’s much easier to work with if you heat it up. If the bechamel thickens too much while sitting, you can thin it out by whisking in a few tablespoons of milk or hot water.
One large onion
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 Tbsp chopped parsley.
½ cup dry sherry or brandy
Oil for cooking
Salt and Freshly ground black pepper TT
Bechamel Sauce (see recipe above)
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
4 oz grated Emmentaler (or substitute Swiss) cheese
1. Make the filling: Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pan on a medium-low flame, then add oil and the onion. Cook the onion, stirring regularly, until soft and translucent. Add the meat, and break it up while it cooks. Sauté until most of the meat is browned, breaking it up into small, almost shredded pieces while it cooks. If necessary, you can add more oil to make it easier to cook. Clear out a space in the middle of the pan, and then add the garlic and parsley. Cook for a few seconds, and then mix it into the meat mixture. Sauté just long enough for the garlic and parsley to be cooked, but not browned, then add the sherry or brandy. Scrape the pan with a spoon to get up the browned-on bits. When the alcohol has reduced away, remove from the heat. Season the mix well with black pepper, and add salt, if needed. Stir in 1 large ladleful of bechamel to help bind the filling.
Let the filling cool down a bit while you prepare the pasta in step 2.
2. Cook the pasta: Get a large pot of water boiling on high heat and season with salt. Spread a clean sheet or large towel out on your table or workspace. Cook pasta in batches of 3 to 5 pasta squares at a time. Boil the cut pasta squares until cooked (for fresh made pasta dough this only takes about 1 minute, for store-bought pasta, follow the package directions). As you remove the pasta squares from the boiling water, drain well, then toss with a few drops of the olive oil. Then, while still hot, lay out the squares on the sheet (or towel). When you have a lot of cooked squares ready, move to the next step
3. Assemble the Canelons: Spread a thin layer of bechamel on the bottom of a large rectangular baking dish or casserole. Place a generous scoop of filling at the center of each pasta square, forming the filling into a cylinder shape with your hands. Roll the pasta around the filling and place the tube seam-side down in the bechamel-lined baking dish. Line the canelons up until they fill out the bottom of the pan. Put another thin layer of bechamel over the top of the canelones. Continue with this process until all of the filling and pasta are used up. Home cooks will often assemble a second (and sometimes even a third) layer of canelons on top of the first, with another layer of bechamel on top of each layer. If you prefer, you can use additional baking dishes or casseroles to keep it to one layer.
For a fancier presentation, you can assemble single serving portions of 2-4 canelons in a small oven save dish. This is how you will often see it done at restaurants, and it makes for a really nice course for a more formal dinner at home.
4. Bake the canelons: Arrange the shredded cheese on top of the top bechamel layer and bake the canelons in a preheated 325F oven for 20 minutes to warm everything through. Turn the oven up to broil and cook for a few minutes (watching very closely) just long enough to brown the cheese on top. Carefully remove from the oven and serve immediately.