When you want to churn out an impressive, completely made-from-scratch Sunday supper, look no further than Meat Cannelloni with Creamy Tomato Béchamel. It’s a labor of love, but 100% worth it. Homemade pasta is encased around a melt-in-your-mouth veal, pork, and chicken filling, covered in tomato sauce, and béchamel – comfort food at its finest.
Meat Cannelloni with Creamy Tomato Béchamel
Pictures don’t do this Meat Cannelloni with Creamy Tomato Béchamel justice. I don’t say this because the pictures aren’t completely mouth-watering, I mean, just look at them!
I say this because even though you can clearly see the creamy, cheesy béchamel-meets-tomato sauce, what you don’t see underneath is the other half of this dish that makes it so special.
You don’t see the homemade pasta that instantly melts in your mouth when you take a bite.
You don’t see the meat filling, so deliciously rich you’ll find yourself unconsciously snatching bites of it as you stuff and roll the cannelloni sheets. It’s SO good.
The culmination of all the components together makes this an Italian dinner, you’re not likely to forget anytime soon. And seeing as it makes enough to feed a crowd, I don’t suspect your guests are likely to forget either.
I do want to get something out in the open first. This dish is a labor of love. It’s definitely not one of my throw-everything-into-a-pot recipes, and it’s definitely not made in one pan. If you make the noodles from scratch, I estimate an average cook can get the entire dish done in two hours to two and half hours. If you skip the homemade pasta, you’re looking at a much more reasonable hour and half of preparation and cook time. Not particularly speedy, but it won’t eat up your entire afternoon either.
The idea for Meat Cannelloni is based off of a dish my Mom made for a dinner party of hers years ago. It was one of the first times she made homemade pasta and everyone RAVED about how it turned out. We can’t be totally sure, but we think the recipe came from an old Cooks Illustrated magazine, but who knows. I’ve taken what I remember of the dish and created my own version of it.
Here’s what’s happening:
- Homemade pasta sheets
- A ridiculously delicious veal, pork, and ground chicken filling
- Easy tomato sauce
- Creamy, nutmeg-laced bechamel
Meat cannelloni vs manicotti
I think there’s a lot of confusion out there over what the difference between cannelloni and manicotti is. A lot of people think they’re interchangeable, and they’re not. In Italy, if you were to call something manicotti, it would be traditionally made with crepes, not pasta. Here in the US, almost everyone uses dried, store-bought pasta shells. You cook them in boiling water, stuff them, and then bake them.
Another big characteristic of manicotti is it’s typically meat-free. Most versions you find are ricotta-based, but you do occasionally find them stuffed with a different array of fillings.
Cannelloni on the other hand, is quite literally, a stuffed pasta. It’s made with fresh pasta and rolled into a tube-like shape, similar to manicotti. In the US you can’t find dried cannelloni shells, so you’ll have to make your own pasta, or buy ready-made pasta sheets at your local grocery store.
I also find most versions of traditional cannelloni are meat-based, and don’t include any ricotta at all, unlike manicotti.
How to make homemade pasta
Here’s the thing. I love homemade pasta. Love eating it. Love making it. It’s not for everyone though. If the idea of making homemade pasta sends you cross-eyed, I give you permission to skip it. However, if you love the idea of making it completely from scratch, this is the recipe for you!
If you’re one of those people that don’t want to take on the task of making homemade pasta, you can find fresh pasta sheets at a lot of grocery stores, but I always have the most luck at Whole Foods or Sprouts. If you can’t find pasta sheets, you can also sub out cooked manicotti shells in a pinch.
Ingredients you’ll need for homemade pasta:
- Add the flour and salt to a food processor. Pulse a few times.
- Add the eggs and water to a liquid measuring cup. Whisk to combine.
- While pulsing the mixer, slowly drizzle in the eggs
- Let the mixer “knead” the dough for 2-3 minutes in the food processor.
- Take the dough out and knead for another 2-3 minutes.
- Form the dough into a ball and wrap with plastic wrap. Let the dough sit at room temperature for 30-45 minutes.
- 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 to smallest setting (it’s a two on my pasta maker).
- Store the pasta sheets on a baking sheet dusted lightly with flour.
How to make Meat Cannelloni with Creamy Tomato Béchamel
The star of this recipe is 100% the super rich meat filling. It’s a combination of pork, veal, and chicken thighs, which I think makes the best flavor combo, plus it’s SO DARN tender.
I treat it almost as a bolognese sauce with the addition of a little bit of carrot and celery. Of course, there’s also plenty of onion and garlic – a must when it comes to Italian food.
There’s really not much to it:
- Sweat the veggies in a little bit of butter.
- Add veal, pork, ground chicken, and salt. Cook on medium heat until all of the meat is cooked through. Use a spatula to break it up a bit.
- Add in tomato paste and nutmeg. Continue to cook for a little bit longer.
- This part is a must! Transfer the mixture to the food processor. Pulse until the meat is VERY finely ground. You don’t want it to be a paste, but you want the meat to be almost as small as sand, if that make sense. (See picture.)
- Toss with a little bit of the béchamel. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
The Béchamel and Tomato Sauce
The sauce is more like a béchamel AND a tomato sauce. Because I have to open a can of tomato paste anyways for the meat filling, it just makes sense to use it to make a quick tomato sauce. However, if it’s just too much to make the filling, the béchamel, AND homemade pasta, then by all means, use your favorite jarred marinara sauce.
The marinara is very similar to my pizza sauce. It’s simply tomato paste, water, sugar, garlic powder, dried basil or oregano, and a little bit of salt. Everything simmers together for a short five minutes and it’s ready to go.
The béchamel is your standard butter + flour + milk. It starts with a roux which is just a butter and flour mixture. It’s seasoned every-so-lightly with salt, nutmeg, and of course, a little bit of grated parmesan cheese.
How to make Meat Cannelloni quickly
- Buy store-bought FRESH lasagna sheets instead of making your own pasta
- Use a jar of store-bought marinara instead of making your own.
- You can also use cooked manicotti shells. Just be sure to cook them slightly under aldente since they will also cook in the oven.
Can you prepare Meat Cannelloni in advance?
YES! Prepare everything early in the day, or the day before. Do not bake. Cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to bake, pull it out and let it sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Cover with foil and bake as instructed.
Substitutions and Tips and Tricks for Recipe Success
- Make sure to grease the bottom of the pan VERY well. Fresh pasta has a tendency to stick.
- Don’t let the meat brown, you just want it to cook evenly.
- Season EVERY step with salt and pepper. These types of dishes are all about layers of flavor. Every single component has to be well seasoned. So season the veggies when they sweat, then season the meat to taste. Same with the béchamel and tomato sauce, always taste for salt and pepper in the end.
- If you can’t find ground veal, you can use ground beef or an even mixture of pork and chicken.
- If you can’t find ground chicken thighs, you can buy 1/2 lb of boneless skinless chicken thighs and grind them in a food processor.
What to serve with Beef Cannelloni
We love this Everyday Kale and Brussels Sprout Salad. It’s nice and light and goes with everything! Of course you’re going to want a good glass of wine, and honestly anything will go this! We also love to serve our pasta dishes with this cheesy garlic bread.
If this Beef Cannelloni is up your alley, you will also LOVE our go-to spaghetti and meatballs. It has the BEST meatballs in the world paired with a really easy, flavorful tomato sauce. Another great Sunday all-day kind of recipe, is this Short Rib Bolognese. The cook time is quite long – about four hours – but it’s almost all hands-off.
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, divided
- 1/2 cup diced onion
- 1/2 cup diced carrot
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup diced celery
- 2 1/4 tsp kosher salt, divided
- 3/4 lb ground veal
- 1/2 lb ground pork
- 1/2 lb ground chicken thigh
- 4 oz tomato paste, divided
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, divided
- 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups warm whole milk
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
- 1 cup + 2 tbsp water
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 2 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tbsp water
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- Sauce pan
- 9x12 baking dish
- Large skillet
- Add 2 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a food processor. Pulse a few times. Add eggs and water 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 2-3 minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temeparature.
- While the dough rests, make the filling, bechamel, and red sauce. Heat a large skillet to a medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon butter to the pan along with onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook the veggies for 3-4 minutes until softened. Add ground veal, pork, and chicken and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Use a wooden spoon to break up the meat while it cooks. You don't want it to brown, you just want it be cooked through. Continue to break up the meat with the spoon.
- Once the meat has cooked, add 1 tablespoon tomato paste to the mixture along with 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/8 tsp cinnamon. Cook another 1-2 minutes. Transfer mixture to the food processor. Pulse until mixture is very finely ground, it should take about 4-5 pulses. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Pulse once more time to blend.
- Add remaining 3 tablespoons butter to a medium saucepan. Heat to medium. Whisk in 3 tablespoons flour. Cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in warm milk. Continue to whisk until it's smooth. Return to the heat, and add remaining 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/4 teaspon salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer until thickened, about 4-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl.
- Wipe the saucepan clean you used to make the bechamel. Add remaining tomato paste, 1 cup + 2 tablespoons water, garlic powder, sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt to sauce pan. Whisk to combine. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Continue to simmer for 4-5 minutes. Turn off the heat.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To roll out the pasta: 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). 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.
- Add 1/2 cup of the bechamel sauce to the meat mixture. Stir to combine.
- Grease a 9x12 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Spread 1/2 cup bechamel in the bottom of the pan along with 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce.
- Use a 1/4 cup measuring cup to measure out a heaping 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 tomato sauce over the prepared cannelloni. Pour the bechamel on top. Cover with foil and bake until bubbly and the pasta is cooked through, about 40 minutes. If a knife easily goes through the pasta, it's done.
- Remove the foil from the cannelloni, and sprinkle with remaining parmesan cheese. Bake another 5 minutes. Serve hot.