We’ve come a long way since the Middle Ages yet pasta al forno or baked pasta is still a timeless and classic meal. Italians call it piatto unico meaning a complete dish. That’s probably because it perfectly holds the filling of your choice in a beautiful shell while the sauce and cheese cling to the ridges. Yes, I know, manicotti is also filled, but it’s not as cute! These stuffed shells are simple to make and truly un piatto unico.
Although there are a few steps in this recipe, they are easy to do and with each step, you’re adding layers of flavor. Butter an oven safe 9X13 glass dish, like Pyrex, and set aside. Fill a pot of water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Add a little oil and a generous pinch of kosher salt. While the water comes to a boil, grate half a large onion and two garlic cloves. Saute them in a skillet lightly coated with olive oil.
Tip: I like to grate the onion with a box grater and the garlic with a microplane because it helps them disappear in the sauce. This is a great way to get the kids to eat any vegetable since they can’t pick them out, but you can can certainly dice the onion and mince the garlic with a knife.
Add the marinara sauce and pour the wine in the empty marinara jar. Swirl it around to pick up the remaining marinara sauce and pour it into the skillet. Add the basil paste (or fresh chopped basil), the Italian seasoning (crush it between your palms as you add it to the skillet – it helps release the fragrance) and a pinch of sugar to counter the acidity of the marinara sauce. Stir well to combine and allow the flavors to marry as the sauce simmers over low-medium heat. Once the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 7-8 minutes. You want the shells cooked, but with some bite and not mushy. Remember to stir both occasionally.
While the pasta cooks and sauce simmers, combine all the ricotta cheese filling ingredients in a mixing bowl. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and remove the sauce from the heat. Create a station to stuff the shells – pasta, filling and sauce.
Ladle a generous amount of sauce at the bottom of your baking dish. Stuff each shell with the ricotta filling and place them seam side up so the filling doesn’t spill out during baking.
Tip: Stuffing shells can sometimes be tricky because of their shape and tendency to curl. An easy tip that works for me is to place a shell in the palm of my hand and slightly push the ends together to pop open the shell. I use a soup spoon to fill each shell. A soup spoon is wide and it fits well in the center of the shell. I can quickly insert the spoon with filling, turn the spoon along the wall of the shell and slide it up to remove the spoon. I release the edges and the shell envelops the filling perfectly. Works like a charm each time. Some like to use a piping or plastic bag, but a lot of filling can be lost using this method. Regardless of how you stuff the shell, make sure to use the same amount of filling per shell. This will help with uniform cooking.
When the shells are neatly placed in the baking dish, dollop each shell with a little marinara sauce and top with extra Parmesan cheese. Continue to stuff shells until you run out of filling. I always end up with a few extra shells (some broken) and that’s okay. I never get a full second layer, only about 9 extra shells so I place them on top of the first layer as best I can. It gets covered up in cheese and gobbled up fast! Top with an even layer of mozzarella cheese over the stuffed shells and dollop the basil drizzle throughout.
Bake at 350°F for 35-40 minutes or until the cheese is golden and the sauce bubbly. Remove from the oven and allow to rest 10 minutes before serving. You want the pasta and cheese to set. Garnish with fresh basil or parsley. This feeds 6 hungry people or 8 servings.
Want to add spinach to the filling? Wilt a handful of baby spinach in a skillet and allow to cool before adding to the ricotta mixture. Using frozen spinach? Allow to thaw completely and remove as much liquid as possible before adding to the ricotta filling. Try another delicious filling combination of your choice or creation – the options are endless. You can also make your own marinara sauce as I’ve done in the past (my recipe coming soon), use a cream sauce or a meat sauce for a heartier dish.
Make Now, Enjoy Later
You can prepare this recipe and refrigerate up to two days. Prepare and layer, but don’t add the mozzarella shredded cheese topping or drizzle. Wrap well with plastic wrap. Allow the dish to come to room temperature for even baking, about 20-30 minutes.
Freeze Up To 3 Months
This recipe freezes well up to three months. You can either freeze as a prepared, unbaked dish (same as above) and wrap tightly in plastic wrap and foil to prevent freezer burn, or freeze the shells individually. To freeze individual shells, space them out on a cookie sheet and freeze for 30 minutes. Remove the shells and store them in freezer Ziploc bags. Assemble shells as needed with sauce and cheese. Remember to thaw frozen food overnight in the refrigerator. Finish assembly prior to baking.
This has been a family favorite for over 30 years and I hope your family enjoys it as much as mine.
Classic Stuffed Shells with Ricotta Cheese
Jumbo pasta shells stuffed with a creamy and cheesy Ricotta filling. Who can resist a classic and timeless dish? This pasta dish comes together quickly and it freezes well, making it a family favorite.
- 1 12 oz. package jumbo shells
- about 4 quarts of water to cook shells (enough water to cover)
- olive oil and a generous pinch of salt
- olive oil to coat the pan
- ½ large onion, grated or finely minced
- 2 large garlic cloves, grated or finely minced
- 1 32 oz. jar marinara sauce (your favorite store bought brand)
- ½ cup red wine
- 1 Tablespoon basil paste or fresh basil chopped
- ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning, crushed
- ¼-½ teaspoon sugar
Ricotta Cheese Filling
- 32 oz. ricotta cheese (whole milk)
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 2 Tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
- 1-1½ teaspoons garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning, crushed
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt (prefer Diamond brand)
- ¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Cheese Topping & Garnish
- 8 oz. bag shredded Mozzarella cheese
- a few fresh basil leaves, chiffonade (optional)
- 1 teaspoon Italian parsley, chopped (optional)
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon basil paste
- pinch of kosher salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9X13 oven safe dish and set aside.
Fill a stock pot with cold water and bring to a boil. Add olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Add the pasta, stir well and cook uncovered until pasta is al dente, about 7-8 minutes. Stir occasionally.
While the water comes to a boil, coat a wide skillet with olive oil and saute the onion and garlic for a few minutes over medium heat. Add the marinara sauce, wine, basil paste, Italian seasoning and pinch of sugar. Stir, reduce heat and simmer. Stir occasionally.
Note: Swirl the wine in the marinara jar to pick up the remaining sauce, then pour in the skillet. Crush the Italian seasoning between your palms over the skillet to release its fragrance. Taste the sauce first for acidity prior to adding sugar. You can always add more, but you can't take out.
As the pasta and sauce cook, make the ricotta filling. Mix together the ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, eggs, parsley, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, kosher salt, pepper and nutmeg in a mixing bowl until well combined. Set aside.
To make the basil drizzle, mix the olive oil, basil paste, salt and pepper in a Pyrex mixing cup and set aside.
When pasta is done, use a colander to drain the pasta water. Remove sauce from the heat and create an assembly station with the pasta, ricotta filling and sauce.
Ladle a generous amount of sauce at the bottom of your prepared baking dish.
Fill each shell with an equal amount of ricotta filling and place in the prepared baking dish seam side up, dollop a little marinara sauce over each shell and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Repeat process until the filling is gone.
Tip: Place a shell in the palm of your hand and slightly push the ends together to pop open the shell. Use a soup soon to ladle the filling.
Evenly distribute the mozzarella cheese over the dish and dollop the basil drizzle throughout.
Bake uncovered for 35-40 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly. Allow to rest for 10 minutes. Garnish with basil and parsley.
Make Now, Enjoy Later
You can prepare this recipe and refrigerate up to two days. Prepare and layer, but don’t add the mozzarella shredded cheese topping or drizzle. Wrap well with plastic wrap. Allow the dish to come to room temperature for even baking, about 20-30 minutes. Bake according to recipe instructions.
Freeze Up To 3 Months
This recipe freezes well up to three months. You can either freeze as a prepared, unbaked dish (same as above) and wrap tightly in plastic wrap and foil to prevent freezer burn, or freeze the shells individually. To freeze individual shells, space them out on a cookie sheet and freeze for 30 minutes. Remove the shells and store them in freezer Ziploc bags. Assemble shells as needed with sauce and cheese. Remember to thaw frozen food overnight in the refrigerator. Finish assembly prior to baking and bake according to recipe instructions.