Our Chicken Cannelloni may be a labor of love, but rest assured, this is one great love story. We stuff homemade pasta sheets with a creamy ricotta, shredded chicken, and spinach filling, cover in our favorite marinara sauce, and fresh mozzarella cheese, then bake until bubbly and the cheese has melted.
Coming home to the intoxicating smells of an oven baking a big batch of Chicken Cannelloni just may be the most welcoming thing to come home to, well ever. They say we eat with our eyes first, but in this case, you are hands-down going to be eating with your nose first.
Because while the creamy chicken, ricotta, and spinach filling stuffed inside homemade pasta sheets, drowned in marinara, and covered in fresh mozzarella cheese is bubbling away in the oven, your home will start to take on smells only replicated by an adorable Italian Grandma.
Unlike an Italian Grandmother, we take a few shortcuts from the store by purchasing our favorite marinara sauce and pulling chicken off of an already cooked rotisserie chicken. When we make our own pasta, we need to get a little help somewhere. If you are more ambitious than I am (I used to be before children), feel free to use your favorite homemade marinara or cook up your own chicken for the recipe.
If you don’t want to make your own pasta, no problem either, I’ve listed some alternative options below.
INGREDIENTS IN CHICKEN CANNELLONI
We don’t need to delve too deeply in to the ingredients for homemade pasta. All you need is all-purpose flour, large eggs, salt, and possibly a little bit of water.
Chicken. There is really no reason to cook up your own chicken. Save some time and pick up a store-bought rotisserie chicken. We don’t shy away from dark meat here, so be sure to use all of the breast, thighs and drumsticks for a rich chicken flavor.
Spinach. You could use frozen spinach here, but I always have fresh baby spinach on hand. I simply add it to a dry skillet and cook it over a medium heat until it’s wilted. If any liquid is released, I make sure to squeeze it out before adding it to the filling.
Ricotta. I have tried to use low-fat ricotta countless times for different recipes and it just doesn’t work. Be sure to buy whole-milk ricotta.
Parmesan. Grated parmesan cheese adds a little nuttiness to the chicken and spinach filling. We call for 1/4 cup, but you could easily add up to 1/2 cup.
Egg. We’ve tried this recipe with and without the egg, and I find the egg binds the filling together a little bit better.
Seasoning. We keep the spices simple. Just kosher salt, a little bit of freshly cracked black pepper, and ground nutmeg.
Marinara. Taking on the project of homemade pasta is time-consuming enough, so we take a little bit of help from the grocery store in the form of jarred marinara. If you happen to keep homemade marinara in the freezer, even better. Our favorite brand is something local, or we’ve always had good success with this brand that has a cult-following.
Mozzarella cheese. What makes the top layer of our chicken cannelloni just a little bit special is the use of fresh mozzarella instead of shredded block mozzarella. I find it melts a little bit better, and tastes better too. If you’re a traditionalist when it comes to mozzarella, feel free to stick with the block.
Parmesan cheese. I almost always finish off my baked pastas with a dusting of parmesan cheese. Pecorino or Romano cheese will also work great.
MAKING THE HOMEMADE PASTA SHEETS
Make the dough. We are big fans of making homemade pasta dough in the food processor. Not only does it incorporate all the ingredients effortlessly, it also give you a head start on the kneading process.
Add the flour and salt to the bottom of a food processor. Pulse it a few times. Whisk the eggs together. While the mixer is on, slowly add the egg mixture to the tube of the processor. The dough should form into a ball. If it doesn’t, add a little bit of water, a teaspoon at a time, until a ball of dough forms.
Knead the dough. I once heard you can never over-knead pasta dough, so I take that to heart. I aim to knead the dough for at least five minutes after the go in the food processor, but try to get to seven or eight minutes.
Let the dough rest. Like most dishes with gluten, pasta dough needs time to rest after you knead it. Wrap in plastic and let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Roll the dough out. Cut the dough into four pieces. Take one piece and lightly dust it in flour. Cover the rest of the dough in plastic wrap.
Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out so it’s thin enough to fit through the pasta maker. Roll the dough through the pasta maker set on its widest setting. Roll the pasta through the pasta maker again, this time at the next setting. Repeat until you get to the second smallest setting (it’s a two on my pasta maker).
Alternatively, you can also use a pasta attachment for the kitchen aid.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A FOOD PROCESSOR?
If you do not have a food processor, you can make it the old fashioned way!
- Add flour and salt to a large bowl. Whisk to combine.
- Make a well in the center.
- Whisk the eggs and 1 tablespoon of water together in another small bowl.
- Pour the egg in the well.
- Use a fork to slowly incorporate the egg into the flour. Once the egg is completely combined, dump the mixture on to a flat surface. With your hands, work to bring the dough together. If you need more water, add a teaspoon at a time until the dough comes together. The dough should stick to together, but should not be sticky at all.
- Continue on as instructed.
MAKE THE FILLING
Wilt the spinach. If you’re using fresh baby spinach, you’ll need to wilt it down. I add it to a medium skillet set over a medium heat and simply stir until it wilts. If there’s any excess moisture I gently squeeze it out.
Mix everything together. Add the shredded chicken, ricotta, parmesan, spinach, egg, salt, black pepper, and nutmeg to a bowl. Stir until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Assemble. Cover the bottom of casserole dish with marinara. Cut the pasta sheets into rectangles. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the filling on to the middle of each sheet. Roll up jelly-roll style. Place seam-side down in the prepared dish. Continue on with the rest of the chicken cannelloni.
Pour more marinara sauce on top, cover with foil and bake until bubbly and the pasta is cooked through, about 35-40 minutes.
Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese on top as well as the parmesan and pop back into the oven until the cheese melts.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MANICOTTI AND CANNELLONI?
Manicotti is typically only filled with cheese, and uses dried pasta shells. Cannelloni actually is often made with crepes instead of pasta and is generally meat-heavy. I prefer the texture of homemade pasta over crepes, but both methods work.
CAN I MAKE CHICKEN CANNELLONI AHEAD OF TIME?
Yes! You can assemble everything, minus adding the cheese up to 24 hours in advance. Cover the prepped dish with foil and store in the fridge. When you’re ready to cook, pull it out and let the cannelloni sit at room temperature while the oven preheats.
Bake as instructed. You may need to add 10-15 minute extra if the cannelloni is still cold.
SUBSTITUTIONS AND TIPS AND TRICKS FOR RECIPE SUCCESS
- Do not add too much liquid to the pasta dough. If the dough isn’t coming together after adding all of the eggs, add water ONE TEASPOON at a time until the dough comes together.
- Don’t forget to knead your pasta dough! This is a very important step in yielding a tender, but toothsome dough in the end.
- Make sure to cover the chicken cannelloni with foil while baking. You want the cannelloni to steam as it cooks.
- If you like a crispy bubbly crust, when you remove the foil, turn the heat on the oven to broil and brown the cheese instead of simply melting it. If you do choose this method, be sure to watch the cannelloni carefully.
- Swap out the parmesan for pecorino, Romano, or asiago cheese.
- If you don’t want to use fresh mozzarella, block low-moisture mozzarella is fine as well.
- If you do not want to make your own pasta, you can make homemade crepes, or you can boil dried manicotti pasta shells.For the crepes: You can go ahead and sprinkle the mozzarella on top after assembling. Do not cover with foil and bake until bubbly and the cheese has melted, about 25 minutes. For the manicotti shells: Make sure to only cook the shells until just under aldente as they will continue to cook in the baking process. As assembly, sprinkle with mozzarella, do not cover with foil and bake until bubbly and the cheese has melted, about 30-35 minutes.
IF YOU LOVE CHICKEN CANNELLONI, YOU’LL LOVE THESE OTHER COZY BAKE PASTA DISHES
- Just as lasagna and cannelloni are the quintessential Italian dishes, Pastitsio is the quintessential Greek dish. Layers of creamy béchamel are laced with nutmeg-infused tomato ground beef and aldente noodles.
- Our Stuffed Pasta Shells with Ground Beef have a lot of the same flavors as our Meat Cannelloni but in shell form. And they’re adorable.
- This Healthier Chicken Spaghetti is a family favorite, and lightened up from the more calorie-ridden original.
PRETTY THINGS/TOOLS USED IN TODAY’S POST
- 2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tbsp water (if needed)
- 5 oz baby spinach
- 2 1/2 cups shredded chicken breast (we used rostisserie)
- 1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 large egg
- 24 oz favorite marinara
- 8 oz fresh mozzarella cut into small pieces
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- pasta maker
- Mixing bowl
- casserole dish
- Add 2 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a food processor. Pulse a few times. Add eggs to a liquid measuring cup. Whisk to combine. While pulsing the flour, slowly add the egg mixture through the feeding tube. Continue to pulse until the dough forms into a ball. If the dough does not form a ball, add water a teaspoon at a time until it does.
- Leave the mixer on for 2-3 minutes with the dough in it. This will help knead it. Remove the ball, lightly dust with flour and knead for another 3-4 minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temeparature.
- While the dough rests, make the filling. Add spinach to a medium skillet. Heat over a medium flame, stir until spinach wilts. Cool completely. If there is any excess moisture, drain or gently squeeze out of the spinach. Add chicken, ricotta, 1/4 cup parmesan, 1/2 tsp salt, nutmeg, egg, pepper, and cooled spinach to a large bowl. Mix to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Once the dough has rested, cut it into four different pieces. Take one piece and lightly dust it in flour. Cover the rest of the dough in plastic wrap. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out so it’s thin enough to fit through the pasta maker. Roll the dough through the pasta maker set on its widest setting. Roll the pasta through the pasta maker again, this time at the next setting. Repeat until you get to the second smallest setting (it’s a two on my pasta maker). Repeat with remaining dough.
- Store the pasta sheets on a baking sheet dusted lightly with flour. Cut the pasta into 12, 4 1/2 x 5 1/2-inch rectangles. It's okay if they aren't exact.
- Grease a 9x12 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Pour enough marinara in the bottom of the pan to generously coat it. Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup to measure out a about 1/4 cup of the filling on to the top of each pasta sheet, horizontally. Roll the pasta up jelly-roll style and place in the prepared pan, seam-side down. Repeat for all 12 sheets. Pour remaining sauce on top. Cover with foil and bake in the oven until the pasta is cooked through, about 40 minutes.
- Remove the foil from the cannelloni, and sprinkle with mozzarella and remaining parmesan cheese. Place back in the oven and bake until cheese has melted. Garnish with fresh parsley.