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A few weeks ago, my husband and I spent a night in Providence, Rhode Island. Since he'd never been before, I wanted to take him to Al Forno, notorious for their rich, creamy baked pastas and their epic wait times. After an hour and a half (some of which we spent wandering around the neighborhood), we were seated, both a little weak with hunger and anticipation. Luckily, dinner did not disappoint.
Jonathan had a steak, but I couldn't resist ordering a baked pasta, especially since they were featuring a seasonal version of their original 5-cheese wonder that also incorporated pumpkin and pancetta. Rich, lightly sweet but also tangy from the blend of different cheeses, the pasta was tinted a rich orange throughout -- although there were little chunks of pumpkin among the baked shells, I guessed that there had been some pumpkin pureed into the cream sauce as well.
When I got home, I consulted the original recipe for the 5-cheese version, from Cucina Simpatica, and did my best to recreate what I'd had at the restaurant, adding roast pumpkin, pancetta and a little thyme. The most important part of the technique? You boil the pasta for barely 5 minutes, allowing the final blast in a flaming hot oven to cook it through to al dente and tinge the edges of the shells a lovely rich brown.
Pasta Al Forno with Pumpkin and Pancetta
Serves 6 to 8 (it may not seem like enough for 8, but this pasta is incredibly rich)
One 3-4 pound cheese pumpkin or butternut squash
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ pound pancetta, diced
1 pound conchiglie rigate (shells)
2 cups heavy cream
¼ pound shredded fresh mozzarella
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano
½ cup fontina, coarsely grated
¼ cup crumbled gorgonzola
2 tablespoons ricotta
2 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Halve the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds. Cut the pumpkin into 8 equal wedges and arrange on two baking sheets lined with foil. Sprinkle the wedges with salt and pepper and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Bake for about an hour, until the pumpkin is caramelized and tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Remove from the oven and let cool until you can handle the pumpkin without burning yourself.
2. In the meantime, crisp the pancetta in a medium saucepan over medium heat, about 10 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels, discarding the fat.
3. Turn the oven up to 500 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta for exactly 5 minutes, drain and run cool water over it for about 10 seconds. Set aside in the colander.
4. Scoop enough of the cooked pumpkin from the rind to make 2 cups. Combine this with the cream in a blender and puree just until smooth (be careful not to overblend, or you’ll whip the cream). Scoop out some more of the pumpkin (you probably won’t need the whole thing) and chop roughly to make about a cup and a half.
5. Combine the pumpkin and cream puree with the cheeses, salt, thyme and pancetta in a large bowl and stir gently to combine. Add the pasta and the chopped pumpkin and fold together just until combined.
6. Spread the pasta evenly in a casserole or baking dish. Bake uncovered for 7 to 10 minutes, until the top is browned and the bottom layer of pasta is just tender.