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Baked Stuffed Shells in Vodka Sauce with Pesto Oil and Smoked Mozzarella

Large shell pasta is stuffed with a mixture of ricotta, smoked mozzarella and parmesan and baked in homemade vodka sauce. It is then topped off with more cheese, and baked until melted and finished with a drizzle of pesto oil.
Course pasta
Cuisine Italian
Keyword baked stuffed, mozzarella, pesto, shells, smoked cheese, spinach, stuffed, vodka, vodka sauce
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Servings 6

Ingredients

For the vodka sauce:

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium shallot, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • cup tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons vodka
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt, as needed

For the herb pesto oil:

  • 1 cups packed basil leaves
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt, as needed

For the filling and assembly:

  • 6 ounces baby spinach
  • 1 pound whole milk ricotta cheese, drained (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • cups shredded smoked mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • Kosher salt, as needed
  • Freshly ground black pepper, as needed
  • 1 pound jumbo shells or conchiglioni pasta

Instructions

For the vodka sauce:

  • Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and heat through. Add the shallot and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently until tender, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste and cook until it’s a deeper red color, about 2 minutes. Stir in vodka and cook until almost evaporated, about 3 minutes.
  • Stir in the cream and red pepper flakes then season to taste with salt. Set aside until ready to use.

For the herb pesto oil:

  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the basil until wilted, about 10 seconds then use tongs to remove to a strainer and run under cold water. Drain as much water as possible from the basil.
  • Add the basil, lemon zest, garlic and oil to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade attachment and blend until smooth. Add to a bowl and set aside until ready to use.

For the filling and assembly:

  • Preheat oven to 400ºF.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the spinach and cook until the greens are wilted, about 1 minute. Remove the spinach to a strainer (leaving the pot of water on the heat).
  • Dry the spinach completely then roughly chop and add to a large mixing bowl with the ricotta, 1 cup of the Parmesan, 1 cup of the mozzarella cheese and the egg yolks. Stir to combine completely then season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Return the pot of water to a boil, add the shells to the water and cook until they’re just shy of al dente, about 8 minutes (they will continue to cook in the oven). Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water then drain the shells and set aside.
  • Add ½ cup of the pasta cooking water to the vodka sauce, stirring to combine over medium-low heat.
  • Spread ¾ cup of the vodka sauce to the bottom of a large baking dish. Fill each shell with 1 heaping tablespoon of the filling and arrange in the baking dish.
  • Pour the remaining sauce over the shells and top with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Pour the remaining pasta cooking water over the top (this will prevent the pasta from drying out).
  • Cover and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake until the top is bubbling and the cheese is melted, about 15 minutes.