Heart-Stuffed Shells in Lemon Ricotta Béchamel

Waaaaay back during holiday season, I was browsing around Williams Sonoma for Christmas gifts and the Smitten Kitchen cookbook caught my eye… and I had to have it.  If you don’t know about Smitten Kitchen, then oh boy are you in for a treat!  She takes the most beautiful photos of her food and posts the most amazing (and creative) recipes.  Just head over to her blog or pick up a copy of the cookbook. It is totally worth it.

Anyway, my brother-in-law was in town, as well as one of my best friends, so we had a little dinner party!  I flipped through the cookbook and saw the gorgeous photo of her heart-stuffed shells in lemon ricotta béchamel.  And it had to be made.  I’m not lying when I say that these might be the most delicious stuffed shells I have ever had 🙂  So thank you, Smitten Kitchen, for ALL of your delicious recipes.

Heart-Stuffed Shells in Lemon Ricotta Béchamel
slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Ingredients// shells.
18 jumbo pasta shells
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large onion, diced
12 ounces frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and patted dry
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup finely grated Romano cheese
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt

Ground pepper, to taste
Ingredients// sauce.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups skim milk (or whole milk)
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup ricotta cheese, part skim
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
Ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (optional)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, cook shells, drain, and toss with olive oil to prevent them from sticking together.  Set aside.
Melt better in the same large pot used to boil the shells and cook until it browns, stirring occasionally.  Once browned, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the diced onion.  Cook until the onion is slightly brown and caramelized (about 7 minutes).  Add artichoke hearts and cook until softened a bit.  Add the wine and cook until the liquid has disappeared.
Remove pot from heat and let the mixture cool slightly.  Transfer the artichoke mixture into a food processor, adding the cheeses (Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano), egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, and ground pepper.  Pulse until ingredients are mixed well, but texture is still a bit coarse.  Set aside
For the sauce, melt butter in a medium pot over medium-high heat.  Once melted, add flour and whisk until smooth.  Add milk, a little at a time, whisking constantly so that lumps do not form.  When the mixture has reached a batter-like consistency, begin adding the milk in larger pours.  Once all milk has been added, add garlic and bring the sauce to a boil, stirring frequently.  Reduce heat down to medium and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, while the sauce thickens.  Stir in ricotta, lemon juice, salt, and ground pepper.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Pour 1½ cups of sauce into a 9-by-13 inch baking dish.  Fill each shell with 1-2 tablespoons of artichoke mixture.  Place shells in the baking dish in a row, seam up.  Pour remaining sauce over the lined up shells.  Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes.  Remove foil and bake an additional 15 minutes.  Garnish with chopped basil (or parsley).