Kitchn Love Letters

The Best Thing About Sheltering in New Jersey Is My In-Laws’ Manicotti

published Apr 17, 2020
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Credit: Sheela Prakash

In our own different ways, we’re all displaced right now. This is what my displacement currently looks like: My husband accepted a job in New York City at the end of February, a place we were excited to call home again. We found a great apartment and began to pack up our life in Charlotte just days before Covid-19 completely changed everything. As you might imagine, our move didn’t go according to plan. The moving boxes made it to Brooklyn but they’re still taped up. And instead of my husband starting his new job in a cubicle in a Manhattan high-rise, he started it on a couch at his parents’ house in New Jersey.

That’s where we are, indefinitely, right now — New Jersey. While this isn’t where we imagined we’d be right now, we’re incredibly grateful to be somewhere that’s comfortable and relatively safe. I’ve been doing my very best to see the silver lining during these trying days. Luckily, there’s been an easy thing to pick out: my mother-in-law’s manicotti.

Credit: Lauren Volo

I’ve always loved the fact that I married into an Italian-American family. They’re as boisterous as you’d expect, and of course they’re passionate about red sauce. Coming from a small family, it’s been fun to be indoctrinated into the culture. In the few weeks we’ve been living with my husband’s parents, we’ve had more meatballs than I’ve had in the past year — and I’m not complaining. Italian-American food is about as comforting as it gets, which is extra-necessary these days.

So when my mother-in-law suggested she make homemade manicotti (or should I say, manigot) last week, I immediately jumped at the thought. The stuffed pasta is a family favorite, passed down from generation to generation. My father-in-law would request it for his birthday dinner every year growing up and when my mother-in-law married him, it’s one of the first things his mother taught her how to make.

As it usually only makes an appearance on special occasions, I’ve only gotten to taste it once or twice previously. But each time the dish made an appearance on the table, it sparked conversation of my husband’s family history. A serving of manicotti always comes with stories about their ancestors and the life they built for themselves in New Jersey, and stories about my husband’s parents and how they created one, too. In this unsettling time, it seemed more important now than ever to learn how to make this family recipe, so my husband and I can carry it along with our stories, too.

What makes my mother-in-law’s manicotti special is that instead of using packaged pasta shells, she makes the pasta from scratch. This is actually common practice among many Italian-American families, but it was completely life-changing the first time I had it. Instead of par-boiling dried pasta tubes, she makes small pasta-like crêpes that she then fills with a ricotta mixture and rolls up.

I wish I could give you the exact recipe, but there isn’t really one, just rough guidelines that she got from her mother-in-law and has tinkered with and tailored over the years: First, she whisks together a batter of eggs, water, and flour. Then she cooks ladlefuls of it in a 6-inch nonstick skillet to make thin crêpes. After she’s worked her way through the batter she mixes together ricotta, grated Parmesan, eggs, and chopped parsley for the filling. She drops a generous dollop in the center of each pasta-like crêpe, rolls them up, nestles them in a baking dish, and spoons her homemade tomato sauce over the top. They’re baked until they’re warm and bubbling.

They’re so much lighter and more delicate than the manicotti I grew up knowing and they deserve every ounce of praise. Learning the recipe while I’ve been quarantined feels like a small thing during these long, difficult days, but I know it’s something I’ll be grateful for in the years and generations to come.

Try making a similar recipe: Manicotti from Epicurious

This story is part of our Staying Home series, in which Kitchn editors and contributors share the recipes, tools, and habits that are helping them through the pandemic. As we work to flatten the curve, we’re cooking more, shopping less frequently, and looking for the good and the bright as much as we can. In this very disorienting time, here’s what’s keeping us going.