Meet In Your Kitchen | Maria’s Cannelloni al Ragù

by meike peters

This post is part of my Meet in My Kitchen podcast series:

How did we get to where we are in life and what does food have to do with it.

“I think it’s amazing that we need to eat to survive but the way to survive is to do something that is amazing to do, that you can enjoy, that you have the privilege, the luxury, three, four times a day to do something out of necessity that you can enjoy as one of the I would say best things there is in life.” – Maria Gerace

The first time I met Maria Gerace she came to a Saturday lunch at my apartment, we started at noon and parted at 4 in the morning. Mussels, crêpes, late night pasta, and many bottles of vino – that was the perfect start of a friendship that would always circle around food, wine, and long conversations. When I go to Maria’s kitchen she makes cannelloni for me – not a couple but 20 (you can find the recipe below, Maria uses crespelle/ crêpes for the cannelloni instead of cannelloni pasta). In her kitchen, she’s my Italian mamma who always takes care that my plate (and glass) is never empty!

Maria grew up in a small town in Calabria, close to the sea, right at the tip of Italy’s boot and far away from the life she was longing for. She was raised by her grandmother who planted the seed in the young girl’s soul that a good life is always connected to good food and to people to share it with.

At a young age Maria was already used to patiently peeling pounds of fava beans in the evening in front of the TV; to making passata in the garage once a year with the entire family, each member having at strict role in the procedure – a hierarchy that only slowly alters with age. Food was never just prepared for oneself, but always shared with the whole family. The famous Sunday tomato sauce enriched with polpettine, a weekly ritual, which smell and taste is so deeply woven into her memory, was a frugal feast in her granny’s kitchen that no family member dared to miss. The young ones brought their boyfriends and girlfriends, the aunts and uncles sharing laughs and stories, a constant flow of people pulled to the kitchen of a woman who held everything and everybody together like a magnet.

Once a year the family would gather and go on a ‘pilgrimage’ to slaughter a pig at a small village close by. The blood would be collected immediately to make sanguinaccio, cooked with cocoa, sugar, and spices it was turned into a rich chocolate sauce that the kids loved. Even for the young ones it was normal that every part of an animal was used, that the whole family would always be involved in every food endeavor, and that there were recurring culinary rituals that marked the flow of the year and made it special. Traditions that everyone was longing for.

Although her curiosity and hunger for life made her leave the south of Italy to study industrial design in Milan, to travel and experience the world and widen her view, to then settle in Berlin with her husband Jan and work as an eyewear designer, Maria’s voice always mellows when she talks about her granny, about Italian food, and the sea.

The podcast episode with Maria Gerace is in English. You can listen to the Meet in My Kitchen podcast on all common podcast platforms (click here for the links); there are English and German episodes. You can find all the blog posts about these podcast episodes including my guests’ recipes here on the blog under Meet in Your Kitchen.

Listen to the podcast episode with Maria on:

Spotify / Apple / DeezerGoogle / Amazon / Podimo

On Instagram you can follow the podcast @meetinmykitchenpodcast!

Cannelloni al Ragù

by Maria Gerace

There are many steps involved in the preparation of this dish, so it makes sense to cook it in larger quantities. Cannelloni freeze very well. Follow this recipe and freeze them (in the baking dish) before (!) baking the crespelle in the oven. After defrosting them you can bake them following this recipe again. You can also prepare the ragù and the tomato sauce a day ahead. The crêpes and béchamel sauce (in case you don’t use store bought sauce) should be made the day you finish the preparation and then either bake or freeze the cannelloni.

Makes about 20 crespelle / Serves 7-10 

For the ragù (you can prepare the ragù a day ahead)

  • 100 ml / 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons dry white wine
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 stalk of celery, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 500g / 17 2/3 ounces ground beef (or mixed beef/ pork)
  • 1kg / 2 1/4 pounds canned whole peeled tomatoes, crushed (or canned crushed tomatoes)
  • Fine sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Nutmeg, preferably freshly grated

For the crêpes 

  • 600ml / 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 large eggs
  • 225g / 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • Nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
  • Fine sea salt
  • Unsalted butter, to cook the crêpes

For the tomato sauce (you can prepare the tomato sauce a day ahead)

  • Extra-virgin olive oil to taste
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 500g / 17 1/2 ounces tomato passata
  • Fine sea salt

To finish the cannelloni

  • 1 liter / 4 1/4 cups thick béchamel sauce*
  • Parmesan, freshly grated
  • Nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
  • 500g / 17 2/3 ounces Provola cheese, cut into cubes

* Here is my recipe for béchamel sauce from my book ‘365

  • 1 liter / 4 1/4 cups whole milk 
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • Nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
  • Fine sea salt
  • Finely ground pepper
  • 45g / 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 
  • 45g / 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

For the ragù, simmer the white wine in a medium saucepan for 5 minutes to boil off the alcohol and reduce acidity. In a large pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium-high heat, add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté, stirring occasionally, for about 4 minutes. Add the ground beef and a little olive oil and cook over high heat, stirring to break up the meat, for a few minutes or until the meat is browned. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, using a spatula to scrape any bits and pieces off the bottom, then add the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg and gently simmer over medium-low heat for 1-2 hours; the ragù should be thick. Place a large colander in a deep sheet pan then pour the ragù into the colander to drain any excess liquid; for the filling, the ragù needs to be very thick and not runny. Set the sauce collected in the sheet pan aside. Let the ragù cool completely.

For the crêpes, whisk together the milk, olive oil, and eggs then add the flour and a pinch of nutmeg and salt and whisk, using a stand mixer or a whisk, until smooth and well combined. Let the batter sit for about 30 minutes.

For the tomato sauce, heat a splash of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for a few minutes then add the passata, season with a pinch of salt, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the garlic then let the sauce cool for at least 15 minutes.

For the béchamel sauce, combine the milk, bay leaf, 1/4 teaspoon of ground or freshly grated nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of pepper in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Immediately take the pan off the heat, remove and discard the bay leaf, and set aside. To make the roux for the béchamel, melt the butter in a separate medium saucepan over medium-high heat and as soon as it’s sizzling hot, whisk in the flour. Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the roux and whisk until smooth. Simmer on low, whisking occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until the sauce starts to thicken. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and pepper and set aside.

To cook the crêpes, spread out 4-6 kitchen towels on a work surface. In a 20 cm / 8“-non-stick pan or cast iron skillet heat 1/2 teaspoon of butter over medium-high heat. Pour in a ladle of the batter, tilting and turning the pan so that the batter spreads evenly and very thinly. Cook the crêpe, flipping once, for about 30-60 seconds per side or until golden. Spread the crêpe on the prepared kitchen towels and continue cooking about 19 more crêpes with the remaining batter, adding a little butter to the pan and adjusting the heat as necessary.

Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F.

To finish the cannelloni, spread a little tomato sauce on the bottom of 2 large baking dishes, drizzle with a little béchamel sauce, and sprinkle with a little Parmesan. Season each crêpe with a little nutmeg and sprinkle with a little Parmesan. Place a generous spoonful of the ragù in the middle of each crêpe and top with Provola and a spoonful of béchamel sauce. Gently roll each crêpe into a tight wrap and arrange them tightly, side by side, in the prepared baking dishes. Cover the crêpes with the remaining tomato sauce, the sauce collected from the ragù, and the béchamel sauce, sprinkle with a little Parmesan, and bake for 30-40 minutes or until it’s bubbling and the top is golden brown. Let the crespelle sit for a few minutes before serving.