Cannelloni with aubergine and ricotta

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Fresh pasta is one of the easiest dish to prepare in the kitchen, yet too often dismissed as elaborate, time consuming, and messy. In reality, all you need is flour, eggs, and the will to prepare it. Fresh pasta opens really many options for food. You can prepare traditional basic dishes such as lasagne or tagliatelle, or you can venture out into more creative stuffed pasta types, such as ravioli, tortellini, caramelle (pasta candies), or baskets. I chose cannelloni for today’s meal because I had some aubergine to use and because I felt a bit nostalgic.

Cannelloni to me means tradition, home, simplicity. Close your eyes and think of a wooden table lightly covered by flour. Now, feel that coarse, grainy surface and look outside to see a warm, late morning. You are in my auntie’s kitchen, in Bologna; it is a small flat in the city, but the little garden in front of the building is enough to relieve you from any wish to be in the quiet countryside. She walks in, holding a bag of flour and a few eggs, makes a little white mound with a well in the middle–we call it fontana, fountain–and cracks two or three eggs in it. Then it’s like finger finesse: you see one hand first mixing the ingredients slowly and in no time both hands are working together with the mix ready to be kneaded.

Every time I sit there and watch, I start asking her silly questions, like a little kid wondering about the secret of a magic trick, but it’s all there in front of me. “Just work the dough for a ten minutes and then set it aside for half hour, well covered”, she says. The next step will be the rolling pin. In the meantime, you can choose what you want to eat and make the stuffing or the sauce ready.

Cannelloni are one of the simplest, yet most refined uses of fresh pasta. I genuinely love them. It is not my favourite meal, but I have a huge crush on them and there is nothing I can do about it, but eating them. If regularly, even better.

A similar addiction struck the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was indeed a modern gourmand ante litteram. In his energetic and passionate life made of military stiffness and hedonistic pliability, living his duality of aesthetics in a rigor of opulence, he literally depended on the caring attention of his home chef Albina Becevello, possibly the only woman he did not objectify in his life. And in his many written messages to Albina with specific culinary requests of all sorts, at any time of day and night, one can find a true praise for her cannelloni. No wonder. The dualistc pleasure of a fresh pasta roll and its filling, poor ingredients and rich finish, can conquer any human heart and stomach.

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Cannelloni with aubergine and ricotta (serves 3)

For the pasta
200 g ’00’ flour
2 eggs

For the filling
3 aubergines
250 g ricotta
100 g Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tbsp olive oil

For the Béchamel/white sauce
100 g butter
100 g flour
1 l milk
1 pinch of grated nutmeg
1 pinch of salt

For the finish
20 g Parmigiano-Reggiano

Start with the pasta mix: prepare the flour fontana, crack the eggs in it, slowly break the eggs into the flour well, and stat amalgamate the whole into a doughy ball. Knead it for at least ten minutes till it becomes smooth, cover in cling film, and let rest for at least 30-40 minutes.

Chop the aubergines, place them in a sieve and cover them with a weight to let them lose their water (you can salt them in the meantime, if you prefer); when drained, sauté them till golden in a frying pan with the oil. When almost entirely cooked, let them cool down, and then mix them with the ricotta and the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The Béchamel is ready in a few minutes as well. To help the preparation, leave the milk out of the fridge for a little while, to reach room temperature. Start from the roux, melting the butter and adding the flour–sift it if you can, it will make the sauce smoother. After a couple of minutes with the flour, the roux should turn light gold: slowly add the milk with the fire still on and whisk the mix. When it thickens, sprinkle with grated nutmeg and a pinch of salt.

Work the pasta dough with the rolling pin, till you can make rectangles about 15 x 10 cm, roughly 2 mm thick (I made 14 squares). If you want to make your life easier and the pasta a little bit better, dust the table with some flour and some semolina, but never the rolling pin! Boil the squares–ideally one or two at a time–and prepare the filling in a piping bag. Take one square, fill it with the aubergine and cheese mix, and roll into one cannellone. Prepare the oven tray with a base of Béchamel sauce and start lining the cannelloni while you make them.

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Once prepared the tray, cover the cannelloni with more Béchamel sauce and dust with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake in hot oven at 200ºC/180ºC fan/mark 6 for about 20-25 minutes, plus an additional 5 minutes to grill.

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by Max

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