This cheesy, nostalgic stuffed pasta dish is the coziest indulgence for sweater time.

Stuffed shells have always been a treasured food in my household. If there was a desire for a Italian Where Italian-American composing at Easter, ThanksgivingChristmas or New Year in addition to turkey, ham or another centrepiece, stuffed shells were usually my dad’s main request.

For our family, it has become an annual event: the mixing of ricottaboiling the shells, sneaking around and eating the broken shells as they sadly sat in the colander while Christmas music filled the air. When my brother and I were little, we helped my mother fill the shells; and by that I mean we would do our best, but we probably wouldn’t do anything productive. Either way, I think she was grateful.

There’s something deeply comforting and reassuring about stuffed shells: perfectly cooked, soft pasta shells filled to the brim with the creamiest ricotta mixture imaginable, drizzled with sauce and cheese galore and baked until perfectly browned. It doesn’t get better than that, especially on vacation.

It should be noted, however, that stuffed shells are just as good on a random sunday, or maybe even a stormy Tuesday night. They’re not particularly difficult, but they do require a bit of work, especially when it comes to stuffing them, which can also be a slightly irritating job. Using a piping bag (or a Ziploc with a small corner cut off) is definitely the easiest way, but even that can get tiring, especially if you’re working through a sizable pile of cooked shells. Tired forearms and ricotta-covered fingers aside, it’s a dependable and spectacular dish that will always have a place on my table, whether it’s a special holiday meal or a weekday dinner.


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Our standard stuffed shells were shells + ricotta/egg + my mom’s sauce + maybe a touch of mozzarella, but I’m tweaking that a bit with a few fall additions: a sauce swap, a texture component. . . and much more cheese.

This recipe is layered, to put it lightly, so there are quite a few steps. So it’s not something that comes together in no time. Set aside about an afternoon to relax and go through the stages without rushing. Then, have a festive, hearty meal that will be deeply satisfying.

Shells stuffed with ricotta with herbs and butternut squash with brown butter, pesto cream and nugget seeds

Ingredients

  • 1 pound jumbo shells (see chef’s notes)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 container ricotta, 28 to 32 ounces (see chef’s notes)
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella, divided
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups grated parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1/4 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup shredded or shredded Asiago
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium sized butternut squash, peeled and cut into large cubes
  • 1/2 cup broth of your choice
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 cup pesto of your choice (homemade, store-bought or specialty: see chef’s notes)
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (shelled or shelled pumpkin seeds)
  • 3 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped

directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Define a (very) large water pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Season with salt, add the shells and cook until tender but not too mushy. Aim for the firmer side of the al dente pastry, as the pasta will continue to cook in the oven. (Note: use your largest pan here; the shells expand during cooking and take up a ton of space.)
  3. Drain the pasta and allow the shells to cool slightly in a strainer placed in the sink. Do not rinse.
  4. In a large frying pan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the butternut squash cubes and cook, stirring occasionally, 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown and starting to soften. Add broth and cook thoroughly until squash is tender, about 5 to 7 minutes more.
  5. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Gently swirl the pan or stir, letting the melted butter begin to take on a darker color and a very fragrant smell. Remove from the heat and let stand, then baste the butternut squash. Transfer the butternut-brown butter mixture to a VitaMix or high powder mixer and mix until thick, smooth and velvety. Add more cream or broth if it’s too thick. Season with salt.
  6. In a big bowl, combine browned-butter mixture, ricotta, 1/2 cup mozzarella, eggs, 1/2 cup Parmesan, parsley, asiago and 1/4 cup heavy cream. Mix well, until just combined. Season with salt and pepper; go a little lighter on the salt than usual, as the cheeses are already quite salty.
  7. In another saucepan over low heat, combine the pesto and the rest of the cream, until hot and smooth.
  8. Stuff a food storage bag full of the ricotta-butternut mixture, close tightly, cut off a corner and use it to pour the filling mixture into the shells. Keep doing this until all the shells are filled (and feel free to reward yourself for all your hard work by munching on the broken shells).
  9. At the bottom of a Oven dish or casserole 9×13, spread a layer of pesto cream. Cover with a layer of tightly packed cockles, then another layer of pesto cream. Repeat until all the shells have been added to the dish. Drizzle the rest of the pesto cream on top, along with any remaining cheese.
  10. Transfer to the oven and cook for half an hour. Broil and broil for about 3 minutes, or until the tops of the shells are golden brown and crispy. (Be careful here: broilers differ exponentially from house to house and can turn a dish from perfectly crispy to inedibly burnt in seconds).
  11. While the shells cook, add the remaining butter to a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the pumpkin seeds and cook for up to 5 minutes, until fragrant and toasted. Season with salt and rosemary.
  12. Remove from oven, garnish with toasted rosemary seeds and let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Cook’s Notes

When taking out pasta shells, do not opt for orecchiette or Velveeta type shells, as stuffing them with ricotta would take a Herculean effort.

When it comes to ricotta, I especially love those white cellophane-wrapped boxes with a pile of ricotta sticking out from the top, like this brand.

Customizations are certainly doable, but I really can’t speak for them. Because it’s the kind of meal I wouldn’t skimp on, I only tried it with whole milk ricotta, standard shells, and typical cheeses. I’m sure alternates would be stellar, though.

For this dish, I made a pesto spinach, hazelnuts, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. I put hazelnuts in my pesto and opted for pumpkin seeds for the finishing garnish, but you can use the same nut or seed for both.

If you’re not really a pesto lover, I’d aim for a simple bechamel sauce (or even mornay sauce) with a touch of nutmeg. This creamy and enriching sauce is the perfect accompaniment to these shellfish.

Feel free to omit the rosemary if that’s not your favorite grass.

My dad never liked the extra cheese that browned and melted under the broiler. If you prefer to keep the cheese entirely in the shells themselves, don’t add the extra heaps of cheese at the end.

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