Easy Pancake Cannelloni Filled with Spinach and Cream Cheese
Many years ago, when I worked in the kitchen of a busy restaurant, I learned to make a version of cannelloni that contained a filling of cream cheese and spinach; one of several vegetarian options that were on the menu. I tried making this for myself one night, and I found it to be quite tasty, so I’ll pass on the recipe.
What IS Cannelloni?
The Italian word cannelloni translates into English as ‘large reeds’. Cannelloni is a type of pasta in the shape of large tubes that are filled with meat or vegetables and then cooked in a sauce. This version of cannelloni uses thin pancakes instead of pasta, a technique that is actually as customary to South America as it is to Italy.
Many cannelloni recipes suggest laying the tubes in a tomato sauce base, and topping with béchamel or cheese sauce like a lasagne. In this version, I top the cannelloni with tomato sauce and cheese, as the creaminess of the filling would be lost within a creamy topping.
By the way...
If you find the pancake process too much of a faff, you can use the same filling with store-bought cannelloni tubes. You can also roll the filling in lasagne sheets that have been softened in boiling water and then drained, although I haven't tried this method personally.
First of all you need to make your pancakes, and there is an important point to bear in mind. Traditional pancake mix will produce thicker pancakes that will be less flexible when it comes to rolling up the cannelloni. I use the thinner batter of a crepe recipe to ensure more filling and less stodge. I get ten pancakes from approximately 400ml of batter, something like this:
150 grams plain flour
325 ml milk
Pinch of salt
Tip: You might want to mix the pancake batter in advance, and let it rest for a while.
Cook your pancakes in a small pan or skillet, about 7—8 inches across. When making pancakes, my golden rule is not to use too much oil. I use kitchen towel to spread a thin layer of oil on the base of a cast-iron pan. This works well, but I do have to be careful when re-oiling after several pancakes, as the pan becomes extremely hot. In these instances, I use a wooden spoon to wipe the oil on the pan. If you use this method, please be careful.
With your pancakes stacked on a plate, it’s time to move on to the the next stage.
1 tbsp oil
½ medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, grated
I can chopped spinach (or equivalent fresh or frozen)
150g cream cheese (half fat works fine)
2 tbsp sieved tomatoes (passata) taken from a 500ml carton
Gently fry the onion in the oil until it has softened. Add the carrot and stir until all the oil has been absorbed. Add the spinach and passata, and stir, adding salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Simmer gently for five minutes, stirring occasionally so that the ingredients are well mixed. Transfer the filling into a strainer, and put this over a bowl to drain off any excess liquid. The firmer the filling, the easier it will be to roll up the parcels. Put this to one side to cool a little.
While the filling is cooling, finely chop the other half of the onion, and gently fry in oil with one clove of garlic, minced. Add a pinch of oregano, and then pour in the remaining passata and season. Simmer gently for about five minutes to reduce the sauce. Remove from the heat, and put to one side.
Before filling the pancakes, you need to add the cream cheese to the spinach filling. Transfer the filling from the strainer to a bowl and add the cream cheese. Fold this in gently with a wooden spoon, but don't overdo it. You do not want a uniform, well stirred filling here, but rather a marbled effect where pockets of white remain throughout the green. It is for this reason that it is best to allow the filling to cool slightly.
With everything ready to go, you need to create a decent sized area in which to work. I set my workspace up, from left to right, the filling, pancakes, a board on which to roll up the parcels, and finally the dish I will use to cook the cannelloni.
Before I make the parcels, I trim the edges from the pancakes, so they will fit into the dish. I’ve made this enough times to roughly guess how much needs trimming off, but it’s a simple enough process. I don’t waste these trimmings – I put them in a microwavable bowl with a spoonful of water so the steam reheats them, then I drizzle on maple syrup and devour.
Putting It All Together
Place the first trimmed pancake on the board in front of you (portrait), and add a spoonful of the filling to the end nearest you, but not right at the edge; you should leave at least half an inch of bare pancake.
Using fingers and thumbs of both hands, pinch the edge of the pancake, and gently pull it over the filling. With middle fingers, keep the leading edge pressed down gently, and roll up the parcel with thumbs and index fingers. This is quite an intricate operation, but one that is easy to master, and in no time at all you'll be rolling those pancakes like a cowboy rolling cigarettes.
Gently transfer the stuffed pancake to the dish, and continue the process until all are present and correct. If you have any filling left over, spread it on top of the cannelloni to use it up.
Spoon the tomato sauce over the pancakes, spreading it out evenly into all the nooks and crannies. Finally, top with a good handful of grated cheese. I have tried many different cheeses in this dish, and all work fine, but a good mature cheddar works as well as anything.
The dish is already cooked, so it only needs heating up in a moderate oven for about twenty minutes. You can increase the flavour level by browning the cheese under a grill/broiler.
I usually have this cannelloni with sauteed new potatoes and salad, but it is such a filling dish it can be enjoyed on its own. It does take a little preparation, but when you tell guests that you made it with pancakes and not store-bought pasta tubes, they will be impressed.
(all photos are my own)