What do you get when you combine homemade pasta, ricotta cheese and fresh tomato sauce that's been simmering all day on the stove?
For Kayla Molina and her family, those ingredients create the perfect pan of manicotti.
Molina's grandmother, who she called Nonna, was born in Sicily in 1940 and moved to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. At age 18, Nonna, whose name was Francesca Castiglione, married her husband, Salvatore, and the pair built a family together.
Nonna loved to cook and was famous for her freshly made manicotti, which she'd prepare for holidays and family gatherings, much to the delight of her children and grandchildren.
"This recipe is honestly a huge staple of my childhood," Molina, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, told TODAY Food. "This was the recipe in our family — the one everyone looked forward to."
Molina's mother, Nonna's daughter, Rosanne, said the kitchen was always the center of her mother's home.
"Manicotti was one of our mother’s signature dishes," said Rosanne Molina. "She prepared them from scratch and when you took a fork full, they dissolved in your mouth with the flavor of all the ingredients hitting your taste buds all at once. It was a piece of heaven."
Kayla Molina recently shared her Nonna's manicotti recipe, along with her recipe for fresh tomato sauce, in the Old_Recipes subreddit, where old recipe enthusiasts excitedly asked questions about the process and made plans to try their own hands at making fresh pan-fried pasta at home.
And Molina had answers: Before Nonna passed away, she was given a lesson by the master herself in creating the delicious dish.
"It was really sweet," Molina recalled. "My Nonna and I were making it in the kitchen, and my Nonno was chiming in with extra advice. The biggest take away I got from their lesson was to make the dough extremely thin. You really want it to melt in your mouth when eating."
Feeling a bit nervous about attempting Nonna's famous recipe in my own kitchen, I read through Molina's recipe and went to work.
I cooked Nonna's sauce, made from canned tomatoes, potatoes and other simple ingredients, on my stovetop all day, per the recipe's suggestion. If I had only made the sauce alone, I'd have felt like I won the lottery: It's rich and flavorful, and the recipe makes so much, I was able to freeze lots of extra for future pasta nights.
It's simple enough to mix up Nonna's ricotta cheese mixture: Adding some ricotta, mozzarella, eggs and spices to a bowl and mixing creates a fresh delicious filling that I had to resist eating right off the spatula.
The manicotti, made from a thin combination of eggs, water and flour, was another story. Nonna may have been disappointed in how long it took me to get the hang of it, but I persisted. What worked best for me was spooning a large ladleful of the batter into a small frying pan — which must be screaming hot! — then cooking on both sides.
Once I mastered frying the manicotti, I filled each with ricotta and baked them in the oven with a generous portion of mozzarella and Nonna's famous sauce.
The result was pure, cheesy heaven.
Molina and her family were not kidding when they describe the manicotti as "melting in your mouth." Every bite was an explosion of flavor and had the perfect, al dente texture.
Plus, I felt pretty accomplished, having made homemade sauce and pasta in one day.
We didn't have many leftovers, as we all ate a few platefuls of the delicious pasta, but the following day, when my 10-year-old daughter learned we had some left over for lunch, she squealed and did a dance in my office.
I think she'd have fit in with the Castiglione-Molina family quite well.
Unlike me, Molina's uncle, Nonna's son, Frank, said making amazing family meals was effortless for his mother.
"I have so many wonderful memories of my mom, and most of them are related to her food," he said. "She was our matriarch. She brought us all together and her table was where we came together. Even when my parents were older and it was just two of them in the house, her kitchen table was for 10."