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Recipe

Baked Pasta Recipe: Create Your Own

The six months I spent working in a Roman restaurant kitchen gave me both a wonderfully colorful Italian vocabulary and an appreciation for Italian cooking’s basic techniques. The cooks at the restaurant rarely used measuring spoons or specific recipes. Instead, they prepared almost every dish by following a traditional method they had been taught and then added their own personal touches along the way.

I’ve assimilated this easy-going approach into the way I cook. There are times to be exact, and others when a basic method and a little creativity will suffice. Baked pasta is an example of the latter. I love to make baked pasta in the cold winter months, especially with a lot of friends and family around during the holidays. But I never make the exact same version twice. By sticking to the method but varying my ingredients, I get a different delicious dish each time.

The formula for baked pasta is quite simple. While the pasta cooks, brown your choice of flavor bases—meats, mushrooms, or onions (or a combination)—and make a sauce by adding puréed canned tomatoes, cream, or a combination. Once the pasta and sauce are done, toss them together with some vegetables if you like, top with cheese (and perhaps some breadcrumbs), and then brown in a hot oven. In a short time, you’ll have a hearty dish with a golden brown, melted crust that blankets a warming mix of pasta, vegetables, and meats.

 

Baked Pasta Master Recipe

Serves 6

Get ready to cook

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 450°F. Put a large pot with 6 quarts water and 2 Tbs. kosher salt on to boil. Grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with 1 Tbs. olive oil.

Brown the flavor bases one at a time

Whatever you choose here gets braised in your sauce until tender and intensely flavored. Choose chicken and sausage for a hearty dish, or go vegetarian.

Heat 2 Tbs. olive oil in a 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven or heavy-based pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, about 1 minute, add one of the flavor bases (see options below) and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost cooked through and nicely browned, about 5 to 10 minutes. If you’re only using one flavor base, use a spatula or wooden spoon to push the contents of the Dutch oven to the side. If the pan is dry, add 1 Tbs. oil, and then 1 to 2 cloves of minced garlic and cook until it just starts to sizzle and becomes fragrant, about 10 seconds. If you’re using a second flavor base, transfer the first to a bowl with a slotted spoon, add another 2 Tbs. olive oil to the pan, and brown the second flavor base as above. Once the second flavor base is ready, return the first to the Dutch oven and cook the garlic as directed.

 

Choose up to two flavor bases for a total of 1 lb.

Mushrooms, cut into 1/4-inch slices

Yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced

Boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat and cut into 3/4-inch pieces

Sweet or hot Italian sausage, removed from its casing and crumbled or broken into 3/4-inch pieces

 

Add the sauce and simmer

Tomato sauce is classic but cream and chicken broth makes a rich, decadent sauce. Or, split the difference with a tomato-and-cream pink sauce.

Add the sauce (see options below), plus 1 tsp. kosher salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a gentle simmer, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, so that the sauce thickens slightly.

 

Choose a sauce

Red sauce: two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, drained of 1 cup of their combined juices and then puréed
in a blender or food
processor

Pink sauce: two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, drained of 1 cup of their combined juices and then puréed
in a blender or food processor, plus 1/2 cup heavy cream

White sauce: 1-1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth plus 1 cup heavy cream

 

Season and simmer the sauce

Liven up your sauce with some fresh herbs, a splash of vinegar, or chunky piquant addidions like olives or sun-dried tomatoes.

Add your choice of sauce enhancers (see options below) and cook until they’re heated through and their flavors have melded, about 5 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.

 

Choose two or three sauce enhancers

Sherry: 2 Tbs.

Balsamic vinegar: 2 Tbs.

Pitted, coarsely chopped olives (preferably Kalamata): 1/4 cup

Drained, thinly sliced Oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes: 1/4 cup

Dried red chile flakes: 1/4 to 1/2 tsp.

Coarsely chopped fresh basil: 1/4 cup

Coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley:
1/4 cup

Coarsely chopped fresh rosemary: 1 Tbs. Coarsely chopped fresh thyme: 1 Tbs.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta

Short, chunky pasta types are best for these recipes, since they’ll catch lots of sauce and other tidbits like sausage or vegetables.

Cook 1 lb. of the dried pasta of your choice (see options below) in the boiling salted water until it’s just tender to the tooth, about 10 minutes. Cook the pasta a little less than you normally might because it will cook more in the oven later.

 

Choose a pasta

Campanelle

Farfalle

Fusilli

Gemelli

Orecchiette

Penne rigate

Rigatoni

Ziti

Add the pasta and vegetables, if using, to the sauce

Vegetables add color and texture to a baked pasta–not to mention vitamins and fiber.

Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, along with your choice of vegetables (see the options below).

 

Choose up to two vegetables, 8 oz. of each (optional)

Asparagus, steamed or
boiled until
barely tender, then cut
into 1-inch lengths

Broccoli florets, steamed or boiled until barely tender

Cauliflower florets, steamed or boiled until barely tender

Baby spinach

Frozen peas

 

Add cheese

Balance strong cheeses like Gorgonzola with milder ones like Fontina or Mozzarella.

Add 6 oz. of your cheeses (see options below) to the pasta mixture and toss well. Transfer to the baking dish and spread evenly.

 

Choose two or three cheeses for a total of 12 oz.

Shredded Fontina

Shredded Mozzarella

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Shredded Gruyère

Crumbled Gorgonzola (use no more than 4 oz.)

 

Top and bake

Breadcrumbs are optional, but they make a great finish. Use coarse, fresh breadcrumbs (good crusty bread pulsed in a food processor) or panko.

Top the pasta with the remaining 6 oz. cheese and (if you like) 1/2 cup of fresh breadcrumbs, seasoned with salt and pepper. Bake until the cheese is golden brown and the breadcrumbs (if using) are crisp, about 15 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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