Genius Recipes

Al Forno's Penne with Tomato, Cream & Five Cheeses

By • April 13, 2012 • 41 Comments

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Every week, FOOD52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A baked pasta that's full of surprises, plus a noble new destination for the forgotten bits in the cheese drawer.

Pasta Al Forno

- Kristen

You won't meet a speedier baked pasta, not one this good.

The recipe comes from a couple of former artists -- she a photographer, he a sculptor -- who, on the eve of opening their first restaurant in 1980, felt inspired to add baked pastas to their menu after seeing one in a smoky photo in an old Gourmet magazine.

johanne killeen & george germon  cucina simpatica

The couple was Johanne Killeen and George Germon and the restaurant was Providence, Rhode Island's Al Forno, whose name essentially translates to "from the oven". This is exactly what they would come to be famous for: food fired at brazen temperatures, like this pasta and grilled pizza (a technique that -- as the story goes -- Germon introduced to the United States, by accident).

cheeses

While grilling pizza is by now a widely known technique (and rightly so), Al Forno's pasta method isn't in enough cooks' back pockets just yet.

It's time: because once you know about it, you'll never shy away from inviting company for dinner; never wonder what to make to cheer someone up; never go out seeking solace in shoddy takeout, when comfort is right in your pantry (and cheese drawer).

grating cheese  cheeses

Here's how it comes together: gather your cheeses; mix them into a slurry with canned tomatoes, basil, and a pint of cream in a big bowl. Boil a pound of pasta briefly, then drain and add that in too.

Pasta Al Forno

Then portion the whole mess into whatever shallow baking vessels you have, scatter some butter shavings across the top, and roast in a 500 degree oven for oh, about 10 minutes.

The first time you make it, you won't trust it (I didn't). The sauce, at first, looks thin and sketchy. It seems your poor penne will be undercooked (it's only boiled for 4 minutes out of an alleged 13). You will wonder if eating all that cream and cheese is wise, and why five different cheeses needed to get involved.

baked pasta assembly

You needn't worry. During that brief time in the hot oven, the cream will bubble up to just barely finish cooking the pasta, travelling up the tubes and into the crevices, to be trapped until you pick up a forkful and hot cream spurts out under your teeth. Al Forno uses penne and conchiglie rigate interchangeably -- both are good vehicles for cream delivery.

dotting with butter

Meanwhile, the uppermost noodles poke up like periscopes. They'll stay a little chewy and the tips will singe to a crisp. You wouldn't want to eat a whole pan full of burnt pasta ends, but here they're the most precious, sought-after bits.

Pasta Al Forno

All those cheeses you questioned melt into a rich but nuanced sauce -- except for the slices of fresh mozzarella. They stay behind in little patches of molten goo that, once disturbed, leave behind stringy trails as you twirl them up. Full of surprises, this pasta.

You could swap tomato puree for the diced ones, but it's nice to keep the cream barely tinted with tomato. And left whole, the bright clumps of tomato are points of relief that renew your hunger for more cream.

dirty dishes

This recipe, as written, is genius for all of the reasons listed above. It's fast, thrilling, and delicious. But even more genius is the fact that the technique can be reapplied in countless ways.

There are eight slightly different versions of the recipe in Killeen and Germon's first cookbook Cucina Simpatica alone, and Al Forno is always cycling in seasonal variations: thinly sliced asparagus and lemon zest, radicchio and shiitake, pumpkin and pancetta (the last of which Merrill reverse engineered and posted on FOOD52 back in 2010 -- save her recipe now to try next fall).

Here's one last secret: You don't really need to go out and buy five new cheeses. Once you've got it down, this technique can also work with whatever forgotten ends you have lying in the cheese drawer. And what a noble new destination for them.

Pasta Al Forno

Al Forno's Penne with Tomato, Cream & Five Cheeses

Adapted very slightly from Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking by Johanne Killeen & George Germon (Harper Collins, 1991)

Serves 4, or 6 to 8 as an appetizer

2 cups heavy cream
1 cup chopped canned tomatoes in heavy puree
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup coarsely shredded
Fontina cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
1/4 pound thinly sliced fresh mozzarella cheese
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
6 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1 pound penne rigate or conchiglie rigate
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, sliced thinly

See a slideshow and the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom


Tags: genius, Al Forno, pasta, baked pasta, weeknight, entertaining, comfort food, everyday cooking

Comments (41)

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5 months ago Jenna @ DeliciousDaydreams.com

I'm in love.

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about 1 year ago Mlouise

Pecorino Romano, Fontina, Gorgonzola and ricotta....but there is flexibility such as Parmesan rather than Romano or something similar to the fontina.

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about 1 year ago Milissa

I am away. Can someone who owns Cocina simpatica tell me what cheeses go into the baked penne pasta with rapini? Per favore.

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almost 2 years ago Bill Crane

I made this last night with wonderful results. I live and cook in Colorado at 6,000 feet, so I had to make a few adjustments with the time. I increased the boiling time on the pasta from 4 to 8 minutes. Instead of separate smaller dishes I finished it in the oven in one large rectangular pan, and it baked for 18 minutes until the pasta was done. During the baking, at the 10 and 15 minute mark, I gave it a good stir to keep the top part from browning excessively before the pasta had a chance to cook. Most importantly though, this is delicious and another winner in the list of genius recipes. I will definitely prepare this again.

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almost 2 years ago Mlouise

One of my favorites, both at home and at their brilliant restaurant. CUCINA SIMPATICA and their second cookbook, ON TOP OF SPAGHETTI deserve shelf space in every cook 's library .

Stringio

almost 2 years ago Jann

This recipe is one of the easiest pastas you can make AND my family said it was over the top great! Wouldn't change a thing! With homemade yeasty garlic rolls and a catch-all salad, you cannot go wrong. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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almost 2 years ago Queen Mab

Oh wow, this really was good. I added leftover cooked chicken (about 4 cups). I wound up with enough to feed my family of 6 twice. Next time I think I'll add some raw spinach, as well. My whole family liked this--a rare feat--though they did say it needed a little more salt. Question: What is a good substitute for gorgonzola? I don't care for blue cheese, and my kids will not eat feta (my usual sub) if it has been cooked. For today, I doubled the ricotta to compensate for the gorgonzola.

Miglore

almost 2 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

Queen Mab, sorry for the delayed response. Because there's only 2 tablespoons of gorgonzola, it's not a very noticeable presence -- you might like the recipe as written, especially if you use a mild gorgonzola dolce.

But check out this full comments thread and the one on the recipe too -- it sounds like people have used all sorts of cheese combinations with success since we posted the recipe.

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almost 2 years ago KirbysDad

Can this be frozen after it's been baked? I made it in two smaller pans and would like to freeze one. Thanks.

Miglore

almost 2 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

I haven't tried it myself, but I've heard that it freezes well. Let us know how it works for you!

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about 2 years ago rocrow29

FAB U LOUS!

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about 2 years ago LE BEC FIN

We actually had this dish at a book signing for this book at Michela's in Cambridge 20 odd years ago when the book came out! Thanks to the 52 feature, we finally got to make this tonight. My experiences:
--The more cooked it is, the more crunchy, the better. 20 minutes maybe
-- We needed some oomph. At one end of the casserole we tried sauteed sliced shiitakes and bacon, and that did it for us, and we both said swiss chard next time.
-- needed S and P
-- delish
thx so much!

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about 2 years ago Katie Sullivan Morford

Love this technique.....so much simpler than bothering with a cheese sauce and then baking it.

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about 2 years ago Tatanka

Amazing recipe! Just don't eat too much, which is hard not to do since it is so flavorful, it's scrumptious. Made it using cheddar, bucheron, manchego, and probably some gruyere, since all I could see was some Germanic language on the rind. I cooked it in a pyrex pan with 3 cups of cream to get the level of cream a bit higher from where it was (only 2/3 of the noodles were covered) and had to cook it for 20 minutes instead of the recommended time for ceramic bowls.

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about 2 years ago Tatanka

Amazing recipe! Just don't eat too much, which is hard not to do since it is so flavorful, it's scrumptious. Made it using cheddar, bucheron, manchego, and probably some gruyere, since all I could see was some Germanic language on the rind. I cooked it in a pyrex pan with 3 cups of cream to get the level of cream a bit higher from where it was (only 2/3 of the noodles were covered) and had to cook it for 20 minutes instead of the recommended time for ceramic bowls.

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about 2 years ago LisaCooks

I went to college in Providence and a trip to Al Forno was always saved for special occasions. I agree--Al Forno is just incredibly good food.

Stringio

about 2 years ago Clairelivia

I just made it, and it's just so heavy. I love cream but it's too much

Miglore

about 2 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

Sorry to hear that -- we all loved it, but for those who want something lighter, some of the responses below give great ideas for lightening the sauce while still using this technique.

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about 2 years ago Shoubi

Love it! I've made similar baked pastas previously and substituted part of the cream with evaporated milk (which has kept my sauces from breaking/curdling) which makes for a lighter weeknight choice. Thanks for great flavor combination.

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about 2 years ago Nursemegg

I got this recipe from a former co-worker and I have been making this recipe for years, usually at Christmas time....given the caloric count I can only do it once a year.

It is ALWAYS a hit and it doubles or triples easily. I think, however, it serves way more than four people...even as an entree...it is so rich and heavy you can't have much more than a small portion.

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about 2 years ago newkiwi

I would really love to make and serve this (and cheese is my favorite food)...but the total fat content (heavy cream, all that cheese and butter, too) makes me delete this one. I mean, well-informed people just do not cook like this anymore! I hope you will keep these high-fat/high-calories recipes to a minimum!

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about 2 years ago Tatanka

We all have a choice on whether to cook a recipe on Food52 or not. Not making a recipe like this here, or elsewhere is ridiculous. If it's good, and I just made it, so I can tell you it is amazing, there is no reason for posting the recipe. There are also a number of comments showing how to make the recipe lighter.

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about 2 years ago big-andy

Like most everyone, I always have little leftover scraps of cheese in the refrigerator that I rarely get around to using. The recipe seemed quite specific regarding the cheeses to use. What can I get away with regards other cheeses?

Miglore

about 2 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

This is the basic formula that Killeen & Germon use for all eight baked pastas in their book, but they do vary it a bit, sometimes dropping a cheese or tweaking the amounts. You can use the amounts here as a guideline and try to include roughly the same measures of soft, semisoft, and hard cheeses that they do if you want to be safe, but it's quite flexible.

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about 2 years ago JET Recipes

Great idea but if it serves 4 that means ½ cup cream, ½ cup cheese, and 1 tablespoon butter PER SERVING!

Miglore

about 2 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Senior Editor of Food52

This isn't a light pasta, it's true. To be fair, I should clarify that the four entree servings recommendation would only be for four big eaters -- but better safe than sorry.