For many years, my father and my sister used to come to spend Christmas with us and they’d partake on my multi-course meals. Once my sister got married, however, she started spending Christmas with her in-laws, but still missed my cooking. So for the last few years we’ve been going down south after Christmas and I’d end up making a New Year’s Eve dinner for the whole family. This got disrupted in 2019 when we went abroad that holiday season, and while we had a belated dinner in February 2020 – the last one with my father – I didn’t record it. Then the pandemic came and we stayed home in 2020 but armed with vaccines and home tests, we decided to give it a new try in 2021. Alas, my sister had a trip planned for New Years, so we had our family Christmas dinner early in December. Unlike my disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, this was an overall success.
It wasn’t easy to come up with a menu. My mother has never eaten poultry and is now disgusted by beef. She also says that vegetables make her feel bad – so she mostly just eats pasta. Now, I love pasta as much as the next person, but there is nothing particularly “special” about pasta. Unless, of course, it’s the sort of pasta you never make because it’s too much work. Enter, cannelloni.
I loved cannelloni – canelones, in Spanish – as a child. It was one of the dishes I most often ordered at restaurants. I preferred beef cannelloni, but would accept spinach and cheese cannelloni as well, even though I otherwise would not eat any vegetables. I didn’t even realize there were other types of cannelloni until one meal during a trip to Brazil and Paraguay, back in ’80, when I was 11. For some reason we were having lunch at the restaurant of the Stroessner airport in, I’m assuming, Asunción. Ours was a road trip, so I’m not sure why we ended up in that airport, but we did. I ordered cannelloni, they were ham and cheese. I hated ham – and most other foods, apparently – so I threw a tantrum (maybe a quiet one, I was too shy to make a scene back then) and didn’t eat them. I’m not sure if anyone did. But I did pose pretending them to eat them for the picture. Who knows? Without the picture I might now have remembered the incident – though what made that meal also memorable is that the then-President of Paraguay, the same Alfredo Stroessner for whom the airport had been named, was also having dinner at the restaurant, just a couple of tables over. I knew nothing of politics or the brutality of dictatorships at the time, which is probably a good thing.
As much as I loved cannelloni as a child, I’d only once tried to make them as an adult, over two decades ago. The problem, of course, was the dough. Cannelloni are stuffed pasta rolls which really require fresh pasta. I’ve never made pasta in my life, and I really don’t mind if I die without making it. My memories of making ravioli with my grandmother Zuni are all I need as far as pasta making goes. During my first attempt at making cannelloni, I used lasagna sheets. But these proved too short, and the frilly ending made the cannelloni visually unappealing. It’s a hack, but one that I didn’t thing was worth making.
My idea this time was to actually make them with crepes, another common hack. However my oldest daughter wasn’t keen on the idea. She didn’t think they would be actual cannelloni, and I thought she had a point. That’s when I thought of the Pasta Shop. I had seen their fresh pasta at the Market Hall in Oakland for years and years, and it occurred to me that they might sell pasta sheets as well. A quick online search proved that they did! Indeed, they listed pasta in a huge variety of flavors – when I finally went to buy it they only had egg pasta and spinach, which was fine – I don’t think you can actually taste the pasta when you have both fillings and sauce.
It was particularly difficult figuring out how many canelones I needed to make for my whole family, and how many I could get from a sheet. It turned out that a 6″ x 13″ sheet could be easily cut in 4. The sheets pretty much doubled in size when cooked (boil for 4 minutes for the perfect texture), but the size was good to roll them about 2-3 times over the filling.
Calculate between 2 and 6 cannelloni per person. People who ate soup and appetizer ended up eating 2 or 3, a couple of the guys who skipped everything else ended up eating 5-6. Next time around, I’ll probably just make 4 per person and then add another few just in case.
Note that making cannelloni is a slow process. When I tried to hurry and boil more than 5-6 cut cannelloni sheet at the time, or left them to rest together for too long, they stuck to each other and were ruined when I tried to separate them. The best process is to first cut all the sheets into fourths, and then drop 5-6 sheets into a pot of boiling water one at the time. Boil them for 4 minutes and then transfer them into a bowl of cold water, so they stop cooking. Again, do this one at the time so they don’t stick to each other. Transfer them from this bowl to kitchen towels to dry. You can make each batch one after the other, but make sure you have lots of towels to keep them separate.
At first, I was very ambitious and I thought I’d make a bunch of different fillings and sauces to go with them, but soon after I was daunted by the task and briefly considered just buying ravioli – but given how non-special that would be, I settled back on more streamlined cannelloni. The fillings I ended up making were my traditional ground beef/picadillo filling (the same one I use in empanadas or, with more pasta sauce, as a beef pasta sauce), ham & cheese (a slice of ham and some chunks of fresh mozarella) and spinach & cheese (fresh baby spinach leaves, fresh mozarella or goat cheese and chopped almonds). I made some with just Monterey Jack cheese, as i had some cannelloni sheets left over, but these were not as popular. The other ones were well received, though everyone had different preferences. My brother, for example, loved the ham & cheese ones, and my daughter was not at all fond of the goat cheese ones.
I made some with regular pasta sauce (from a jar) and others with a cheese sauce (bechamel sauce mixed to saturation with grated Parmesan cheese) and, of course, sprinkled parmesan before baking (20 minutes at 400F).
Now that I’ve made them once and I know how well the pasta sheets work, I’m tempted to make them again in the future, probably for a special family meal. Unlike other types of pasta, cannellonis are heavier on filling than pasta, which makes them more acceptable for the diabetics among us.
Anyway, my final menu consisted of:
– Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
I actually was too tired to prepare this, so my sister in law took over and added some twists of her own.
A favorite frequently included in our holiday menus, a special request from my sister.
Another request from my sister which everyone loved, though my oldest daughter would prefer it with a different cheese. I may try it with fresh mozzarella for her next time around.
I followed the NYT recipe, which was simple enough but does call for uncooked eggs. I used Argentine ladyfingers, called vainillas, which are easily available at Argentinian and Latin market in LA, but harder to find elsewhere. They were the perfect texture. This was probably the best tiramisu I had in my life, I’m guessing because I was able to control the amount of coffee I used (I used regular coffee, not espresso).
See also: Party & Holiday Recipes