Italian sausage and pumpkin manicotti

Warm up on a chilly evening with this cheesy, meaty, pumpkin-y manicotti. The prep work can all be done ahead of time so the dish is ready to pop in the oven after school or work, or even after trick-or-treating.

The Runaway Spoon
Subtle pumpkin flavor is paired well with sweet Italian sausage, ricotta and parmesan cheeses, and sage.

As I remember it, trick-or-treating is hard work. Lots of walking, in what is invariably an uncomfortable costume, that heavy bag of candy and keeping your best manners on under all that stress.

But the promise of a seemingly endless supply of fun-size candy bars made it all worthwhile. I even liked the stripey, crunchy peanut butter Mary Janes and the peanut taffy in the orange and black wrappers. Then there was the dentist down the street, who gave the “special” neighborhood kids a toothbrush, while any other kids got granola bars.

So after a hard slog of candy hunting, it’s nice to come home to warm, comforting seasonal dinner. And what could be more perfect on Halloween than pumpkin? This creamy, cheesy casserole can be made ahead, and popped in the oven to cook while you’re out and about. The meaty sausage and melty cheese are perfect, with a subtle pumpkin flavor that will satisfy little tummies (and grown-up appetites) before the sugar rush sets in.

Creamy Italian sausage and pumpkin manicotti
Serves 6 to 8

For the manicotti:
1 (8-ounce) package manicotti pasta shells

 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, bulk or casings removed

medium yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

7 fresh sage leaves, chopped

1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese

1 cup pumpkin purée, from a 15-ounce can

1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

2 cups shredded mozzarella or Italian cheese blend

For the pumpkin sage béchamel sauce:

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

10 fresh sage leaves, very finely chopped

3/4 cup pumpkin puree (the remainder from the manicotti recipe)

salt and pepper to taste

For the manicotti:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the manicotti according to the package instructions. Cook the manicotti about 2 minute less than the recommended cooking time. Drain the manicotti and rinse thoroughly with cold water to prevent sticking.

While the water is boiling and the manicotti is cooking, crumble the sausage into a large skillet and cook over medium high heat, breaking it up with a spatula, until it begins to brown. Add the onion and 1/2 cup of water and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the sausage is cooked through and no longer pink and the water has evaporated. Stir in the garlic and chopped sage and cook for two more minutes. Add the ricotta and pumpkin and stir until the filling is creamy and smooth. Stir in the parmesan cheese until melted. Leave the filling to cool to room temperature while you make the sauce.

For the pumpkin béchamel:

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat, then whisk in the flour until you have a loose, smooth paste. Slowly whisk in the milk and cook over medium until the sauce is creamy and thickened. Whisk in the nutmeg and chopped sage. Stir in the pumpkin purée until combined and cook until lightly bubbling. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To assemble:

Spread about 1/2 cup of béchamel sauce over the bottom of a greased 9 by 13-inch baking pan, to prevent the pasta sticking to the bottom of the pan. Stuff the manicotti shells with the filling and lay them over the sauce in the pan. I admit, I am a bit of a manicotti cheat – I cut the shells open with a pair of scissors, place a line of filling down the center, roll it up, and place it seam side down in the pan.  If you have some leftover filling, tuck it in around the noodles.

Spoon the béchamel sauce over the noodles and gently spread it out to a thin layer covering the noodles. Sprinkle the 2 cups of shredded mozzarella over the top of the manicotti.

The manicotti can be covered and refrigerated several hours or overnight at this point. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake the manicotti for 40 minutes, until heated through and bubbling. If the cheese begins to brown, loosely cover the pan with foil.

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