This is a vegetarian pasta recipe that the family is going to ask for over, and over, and over again.
I’ll admit, it is a little more labor intensive than our baked ziti with herby ricotta, but filling the manicotti shells is totally worth the few minutes of added effort. And we’re using high-quality store-bought pasta sauce as a shortcut to balance out the time. It’s a special dinner, like a fancy Italian date night at home.
Manicotti vs. Cannelloni
Similar to the meaning of bruschetta morphing into an American version, so has manicotti from cannelloni. They are both cheesy stuffed tubular pasta. However, Delallo explains that this stuffed pasta dish is known as manicotti in America, and in Italy, it is called cannelloni, which translates to “a big pipe”. Manicottio on the other hand, loosely translates to “big sleeve”, as its rectangles of fresh pasta sheets rolled around a cheesy filling.
However, dried pasta is a quicker and more efficient way to make this dish. You can find both dried cannelloni and manicotti shells in grocery stores across the United States. Dried cannelloni shells are smooth and slightly smaller than the ribbed manicotti tubes that have angled ends.
These are the main ingredients – or the stars of the show as you will. Please be sure to scroll down to the recipe card for the full ingredient list and instructions.
- Dried Manicotti Shells – find them in the dried pasta section of the grocery store. As mentioned above, you can also use cannelloni shells. If you can’t find either, grab a box of jumbo shells.
- Ricotta, Cream Cheese, and Mozzarella – create the creamy, cheesy filling base. If you want, throw some parmesan cheese in there too for good measure. I recommend whole milk ricotta for the best texture and flavor, as well as a low-moisture mozzarella.
- Kale – wilts into the filling with shallot and garlic for a flavorful addition, similar to the in our vegetarian lasagna. Spinach is a great substitute, too.
- Fresh Parsley and Basil – bring a lot of flavor to the filling. I highly recommend sticking to fresh herbs for this recipe.
- Pasta Sauce – a little shortcut for this recipe is using a high-quality store-bought sauce. I like using vodka sauce for a twist, but you can stick with a more traditional marinara. Have the time? Make a homemade tomato pasta sauce!
How to Make Vegetarian Manicotti
All-in-all, this recipe is quite easy, you’ll just need a few steps and a little time for it to all come together.
Par-Boil Manicotti Shells
Because we’re using dried pasta, it first needs to be parboiled. This means it will get partially cooked, until just under al dente. This way, once the entire dish is done baking, it’s the perfect texture.
Boil the shells in salted pasta water for about 2-3 minutes less than the package cooking time. Drain and let the shells cool enough to handle. Spreading them on a clean kitchen towel helps the excess water get absorbed, and cools them off quickly.
TIP: Boil a few extra shells in case any break; it’s always better to have a few extra!
Saute the Veggies
While the pasta cooks, give the aromatics and kale a quick saute. This both helps develop flavor and wilts down the kale so it blends in well to the filling.
Start with finely chopped shallot and allow it to soften slightly, along with a pinch of salt. In goes minced garlic and the kale, until fragrant and the kale is soft and wilted. Remove from heat and let cool slightly; you don’t want the hot mixture to cook the egg in the next step.
Mix the Cheese Filling
Now, for the filling! Begin by mixing together the ricotta and softened cream cheese. It’s helpful to cut the room temperature cream cheese into small cubes to help it incorporate into the ricotta. Use a silicone spatula to press it if needed.
Then, stir in the fresh herbs, mozzarella, veggie mixture, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Once combined, taste test. It’s important to try the filling now, because once the egg is added you will want to avoid eating the raw filling.
When taste testing, make sure the filling has the right amount of salt.
Fill the Shells
The easiest way to fill the manicotti shells with the cheese mixture is to use a piping bag, or a plastic baggie with the corner cut off. Don’t use a piping tip, because the bigger the hole, the easier the veggies and shredded cheese will get through.
Once a shell is filled, place it in a 9×13 pan that has one cup of sauce spread in the bottom of it. You can also use a 9×9 pan with some different variations for getting the shells to fit. In a 9×13 pan, it’s easier to just make a single row of shells.
Finishing Touches & Bake
Once all the shells are filled, top with the remaining sauce, spreading it around to coat each manicotti. Sprinkle on a final layer of mozzarella cheese for good measure.
Pop it in the oven at 375°F for about 20 minutes until bubbly and the cheese is melted and slightly golden brown. If you prefer a darker golden or crisp cheese topping, turn on the broiler for 2-3 minutes, watching carefully.
A garnish of fresh herbs like additional parsley or basil goes a long way, and who can argue with some fresh parmesan cheese?!
And to feel like you’re at an Italian restaurant? Start with an order of herby olive oil dip paired with some crusty bread. Or you know, go all in with the garlic bread. The perfect combination…just don’t forget a glass of red wine, too!
Make Ahead & Storage Tips
If you’re hosting guests or want an easy dinner you can just throw in the oven, prepare three cheese manicotti ahead of time! Of course, you can bake it and reheat it throughout the week as needed. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days. Reheat in the microwave until hot.
Otherwise, to make ahead for hosting, prepare just until the point of baking. Then cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.
Remove from the fridge while the oven preheats, so it has time to come to room temperature. Don’t put a cold pan in a hot oven! Then, bake until golden brown and bubbly to enjoy!
Leftovers freeze well, too. Place them in individual serving-size SouperCubes to make life easy. Then, you can pop out the perfect amount to enjoy. Talk about the best kind of freezer meal!
Did you make this recipe? Please leave a star rating and review in the form below. I appreciate your feedback, and it helps others, too!
Get the Recipe Baked Three Cheese Manicotti with Kale
- 10 manicotti shells*
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ⅔ cup shallot, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups kale, or spinach, finely chopped
- 15 ounces whole milk ricotta
- 4 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
- 1/3 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 1 ½ cups low-moisture shredded mozzarella, divided
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 egg, lightly whisked
- 24 ounces vodka sauce, I use Rao's
- Preheat oven to 375°F and lightly grease a 9×13 pan. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the manicotti shells for 2-3 minutes under the package instructions. Drain and let cool.10 manicotti shells*
- In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add shallot and cook for 3-4 minutes until softened. Add garlic and kale, cooking for an additional 2-3 minutes until kale is wilted. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, ⅔ cup shallot, 4 cloves garlic, 2 cups kale
- Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta and softened cream cheese. I recommend cubing the cream cheese to make it easier to incorporate.15 ounces whole milk ricotta, 4 ounces cream cheese
- Stir in the fresh parsley, basil, 1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Once it's slightly cooled, stir the kale mixture into the cheeses, too. Taste test and adjust salt or spice levels as needed. Then, stir in the whisked egg until incorporated.1/3 cup fresh parsley, 1/3 cup fresh basil, 1 ½ cups low-moisture shredded mozzarella, ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, 1 egg
- Optional: transfer cheese filling to a piping bag without a tip to easily fill the shells.
- Spread 1 cup of the pasta sauce along the bottom of the prepared 9×13 pan. Take a manicotti shell and fill with the cheese filling. Place the filled shell in the pan and continue filling all 10 shells.24 ounces vodka sauce
- Spread the remaining sauce on top of the manicotti shells. Top with the remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, and bake for about 20 minutes until bubbly and the cheese is slightly golden brown and melted.
- Serve with additional herbs or parmesan cheese as a garnish, and enjoy!
- *Shells: Boil a few extra manicotti shells in case some break; it’s better to have more if you end up with extra filling too.