Stuffed shells have always been a cherished food in my household. If there was a desire for an Italian or Italian-American component at Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year's in addition to turkey, ham or another centerpiece, stuffed shells were usually my dad's top request.
For our family, it became an annual occurrence: the mixing of the ricotta, the boiling of the shells, the sneaking off and eating the broken shells as they sat forlornly in the colander while Christmas music filled the air. When my brother and I were little, we'd help my mom stuff the shells; and by that I mean we'd give our best effort but probably not actually do anything productive. Either way, I think she was appreciative.
There's something deeply comforting and reassuring about stuffed shells: perfectly cooked, pliable pasta shells filled to the brim with the creamiest ricotta mixture imaginable, doused in sauce and cheese galore and baked until perfectly golden. It doesn't get much better than that, especially on a holiday.
It should be noted, though, that stuffed shells are just as good on a random Sunday, or perhaps even a harried Tuesday evening. They're not especially challenging, but they do require a little bit of labor, especially when it comes to stuffing them, which can also be a slightly irritating job. Using a pastry bag (or a Ziploc with a little corner snipped off) is certainly the easiest way, but even that can get tiring, particularly if you're working through a considerable mound of cooked shells. Tired forearms and ricotta-covered fingers aside, though, this is a reliable, spectacular dish that will always have a place on my table, whether it's a special holiday meal or a weeknight dinner.
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Our standard stuffed shells were shells + ricotta/egg + my mom's sauce + maybe a touch of mozzarella, but I'm tweaking that a bit with some autumnal additions: a sauce swap, a textural component . . . and a lot more cheese.
This recipe is layered, to put it lightly, so there are quite a few steps. Thus, it isn't something that comes together in no time. Set aside an afternoon or so to relax and work through the steps in an unhurried manner. Then have a celebratory, filling meal that will be deeply satisfying.
- 1 pound jumbo shells (See Chef's Notes)
- Kosher salt
- 1 28-to-32 ounce container ricotta (See Chef's Notes)
- 3 cups shredded mozzarella, divided
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cups grated Parmesan, divided
- 1/4 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
- 1/2 cup grated or shredded Asiago
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled and diced into large cubes
- 1/2 cup stock of your choosing
- 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 cup pesto of your choosing (homemade, store-bought or specialty: See Chef's Notes)
- 1/2 cup pepitas (shelled or hulled pumpkin seeds)
- 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
- Set a (very) large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Season with salt, add the shells and cook until tender but not overly mushy. Aim for the firmer side of al dente, as the pasta will continue to cook in the oven. (Note: Use your largest pot here; the shells expand as they cook and take up a ton of room.)
- Drain the pasta and let the shells cool slightly in a colander set in the sink. Do not rinse.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the butternut cubes and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they're browned and starting to become tender. Add stock and cook down entirely, until the squash is tender, about 5 to 7 more minutes.
- In a small pan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Gently, swirl the pan or stir throughout, letting the melted butter begin to take on a darker color and smell very fragrant. Remove from the heat and let it settle, then drizzle over the butternut squash. Transfer the butternut-brown butter mixture to a VitaMix or high-powdered blender and blend until thick, smooth and velvety. Add cream or stock if it's too thick. Season with salt.
- In a large bowl, combine the butternut-brown butter mixture, ricotta, 1/2 cup mozzarella, the eggs, 1/2 cup Parmesan, parsley, Asiago and 1/4 cup heavy cream. Stir well, until just combined. Season with salt and pepper; go slightly lighter on the salt than usual, as the cheeses are pretty salt-forward already.
- In another pot over low heat, combine the pesto and remaining cream, just until warmed throughout and homogenous.
- Stuff a food storage bag full of the ricotta-butternut mixture, seal tightly, snip off a corner and use this to pipe the filling mixture into the shells. Continue to do so until all of the shells have been filled (and feel free to reward yourself for all of your hard work by nibbling on any broken shells).
- In the bottom of a 9x13 baking or casserole dish, spread a layer of the pesto cream. Top with a layer of the shells, packed closely together, then another layer of pesto cream. Repeat until all of the shells have been added to the dish. Drizzle remaining pesto cream over the top, along with all of the remaining cheese.
- Transfer to the oven and bake for a half hour. Turn to broil and broil for approximately 3 minutes, or until the top of the shells are super golden and crisp. (Be careful here: Broilers differ exponentially from house to house and can take a dish from perfectly crisp to inedibly burnt in seconds).
- As the shells cook, add the remaining butter to a small pan over medium-low heat. Add the pumpkin seeds and cook for no more than 5 minutes, until fragrant and toasted. Season with salt and rosemary.
- Remove from the oven, top with the toasted rosemary seeds and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
When picking out pasta shells, do not reach for orecchiette or Velveeta-type shells, as stuffing them with ricotta would require a Herculean effort.
When it comes to ricotta, I'm especially partial to those white tins wrapped in cellophane with a heaping mound of ricotta peeking out of the top, such as this brand.
Customizations are certainly doable, but I truly can't speak for them. Because this is the kind of meal I wouldn't skimp on, I've only tried it with full-fat, whole-milk ricotta, standard shells and typical cheeses. I'm sure alternates would be stellar, though.
For this dish, I made a pesto of spinach, hazelnuts, Parmesan, olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. I put hazelnuts in my pesto and opted for pumpkin seeds for the finishing garnish, but you can use the same nut or seed for both.
If you're not really a pesto person, I'd aim for a simple bechamel (or even mornay sauce) with a touch of nutmeg. This creamy, enriching sauce would be the perfect match for these shells.
Feel free to omit the rosemary if it isn't your favorite herb.
My dad was never fond of the extra cheese on top that got browned and melted under the broiler. If you'd prefer to keep the cheese entirely in the shells themselves, don't add the additional heaps of cheese at the end.
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