I've eaten many baked pasta dishes over the years, mostly at Italian-American homes and restaurants. Occasionally they've been exquisite, but more often than not I've been served something heavy, dense, and welded together with gluey mozzarella and tomato paste. Even in southern Italy, where most of these dishes have their origins, the baked pastas I've sampled in rural trattorias haven't been much different (so you can't blame Americans for this one).
A major problem is that long, low-heat cooking, the way most of these dishes are traditionally prepared, allows the pasta to soak up too much moisture from the sauce, resulting in waterlogged, mushy pasta.
I've been experimenting with the baked pasta concept, and I've come up with a few easy ways to make these potentially wonderful dishes lighter and fresher yet still wholly satisfying. The result you're after is a dish that has a creamy, moist interior and a firm, crisp crust. The best way to achieve this is by baking the pasta in a hot oven (at least 425°F) for no longer than 20 minutes, just until the top—often helped along with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs—is browned and the dish is bubbling hot.
Think of it as a pasta gratin
Pasta bakes fast in a wide, shallow dish. Skip the deep lasagne pan; choose a gratin instead.
I like to bake the pasta in a wide, shallow baking dish—a gratin dish, really. This provides more surface area for a crispy crust and allows the interior to heat through quicker, keeping the pasta firm and the sauce moist. I use a 13-inch-long oval dish that's 2 inches deep. Square or round dishes of equivalent size will work, too.
Choose imported pasta and cook it al dente. Generally, dried durum wheat pasta in sturdy shapes like rigatoni and penne hold up best in baked dishes. I prefer Italian brands, which cook up firm and have a good nutty taste. I've also had luck using fresh egg pasta, such as fettuccine, as long as I undercook it slightly.
Because you don't want the pasta in your finished dish to be mushy, drain the pasta while it's still quite firm to the bite. The starch from the pasta itself will also give your dish some firmness as it bakes, so don't rinse the pasta after boiling (not that you would even think of such a thing, would you?).
Focused, boldly flavored ingredients stand up to baking. The time-honored tomato-mozzarella-and ricotta baked pasta can be wonderful when not baked to death (I've included my version here), but I also like to explore less common flavoring options, such as the orange zest paired with roasted peppers in the baked cavatappi recipe. Instead of using a dried herb, I add an abundant amount of its fresh counterpart, which keeps the filling's flavor bright, and in the case of the baked ziti, deliciously unexpected. I also like to use all different kinds of cheeses: fresh goat cheese, Gruyère, Taleggio, mascarpone, and fontina all melt beautifully and will pull you out of the mozzarella rut, while pecorino and grana padano are delicious -- and less expensive -- replacements for Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Season each element of the dish. A baked dish is difficult to properly season once it's assembled; you can only really get at the top. That's why you need to add salt and pepper as you go, seasoning the vegetables you're sautéing as well as the béchamel you're whisking. Remember to salt the pasta water generously, and add a pinch of salt and pepper to the breadcrumb topping. Each component of your baked pasta should taste wonderful on its own. If it does, you won't wind up with a flat-tasting finished dish.
Be generous with the sauce, but go easy on the cheese. Baked pasta needs a bit more sauce than unbaked pasta, because some gets soaked up when you bake the pasta and some just evaporates with the oven heat. The pasta should be well coated and even a bit loosely sauced before baking. A hard grating cheese, like parmigiano reggiano or an aged pecorino, adds body to the dish, but a little goes a long way. Too much will make your pasta stiff.
Add crunch by sprinkling with breadcrumbs and cooking uncovered. For the best flavor and texture, make your own breadcrumbs; it takes no time at all, and the difference is huge. Commercially packaged breadcrumbs always taste like chemicals to me and are too finely ground, which can sometimes result in a mushy topping. Simply break good quality, day-old Italian or French bread into small pieces and then pulse the pieces in the food processor until you have a slightly rough crumb. There's no need to toast breadcrumbs for a baked pasta; the oven will do that.
To prevent the pasta from steaming (which will make it soggy) and to assure a browned top, bake the pasta uncovered. It's in the oven for such a short period that there's little risk of overcooking the top.
Traditionally you let a baked pasta rest a few minutes after removing it from the oven to firm it up. This is a good idea with lasagne, where you want to cut neat, square servings, but with less constructed baked dishes made with dried pasta such as ziti, or even with fresh fettuccine, the looseness is part of the charm. I take those dishes from the oven and serve them right away (they tend to get gummy when reheated), making sure everyone gets an ample amount of the crisp top.
You can make these ahead
One of the things I like about these pastas is that during the 20 minutes they're baking, you have enough time to clean the dishes and dress your salad. But I know that part of the charm of a baked pasta dish is its make-ahead-ness. Yes, you can assemble these completely ahead, keep them refrigerated for a day, and then bake them. But your results will be good—not great. The way to get ahead of the game with these recipes, and keep their distinctly fresh feel, is to make the components ahead of time—sauté the vegetables, cook the sauce, combine the cheeses, boil the pasta—and then combine everything just before baking. Just keep in mind that if you start with cold ingredients, you may need to bake the dish an extra five minutes or so.