Italian

How to Make Any Kind of Baked Pasta (& Live a Happy Life)

November  9, 2015

My mom is far from an Iron Chef and even farther from an Italian grandmother (and she would say the same). But despite these significant disadvantages, she can make a mean baked pasta.

She never relied on a fancy recipe—her go-to macaroni and cheese came from one Nancy Reagan—but, to this day, even with my New York snobbery, I find it hard to resist the smell (and soft gurgling—though maybe that's my imagination) of the cheddar bubbling up over pasta.

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While I associate "baked" with a belabored, harrowing weekend meal (and my mom made it out to be that way), it's not always the case. If you add enough cheese and enough sauce and you avoid cooking your pasta to death, you won't mess up. And, with a few smart tricks—like soaking your pasta instead of boiling it, using leftover roasted vegetables as add-ins, and baking at a high temperature for a short time—it's fast, too. 

Use some creativity to veer off the macaroni and cheese and baked ziti paths (if you want to), and use your leftovers and pantry items (roasted vegetables, the za'atar you've been stockpiling) for flavor inspiration. But, as my mom taught me: Don't forget to start with more cheese than you think you need.

Here's how to get those gooey strings of mozzarella make any kind of baked pasta, using what you've got on hand:

1. Pick your pasta shape(s).
Some baked pasta dishes—macaroni and cheese, stuffed shells, baked ziti—are named for their particular shape, but when you're working without a recipe, you have the freedom to mix and match (and to use up all of the three-quarter-empty boxes in the pantry).

As long as the shapes have cook times within a couple of minutes of each other, you won't have to worry about a weird mix of undercooked and overcooked pasta. We used campanelle, rotini, and cellentani, short shapes with cook times in the 10-minute range.

I know what you're thinking: Could you use tortellini or ravioli? I don't see why not!

2. Soak—don't cook—the pasta while you make the sauce.
Most baked pasta recipes (even Genius ones) tell you to boil the pasta until just shy of al dente. That's why we were astounded (but not surprised) when J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats and author of The Food Lab, came up with a better way to do things. Don't boil your pasta at all: Simply soak it in hot, salted water for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until al dente. 

In a half-hour (you may need a few more or a few less if you're using particularly short or long shapes), your pasta will rehydrate enough that it won't suck moisture from your sauce, but not so much that it gets soggy and limp. And you won't have to bring a pot of water to a boil!

3. Make a sauce. 
How are you feeling? Do you need something that's rich and creamy and comforting, or are you in the mood for a baked pasta that feels as fresh and light as a baked pasta can?

Now's the time to pick a style (and color!) and stick to it: 

  • White-ish and creamy: We went the first route, blending leftover roasted butternut squash with cream (yep, we went for it) until we got a pourable consistency. You could use other kinds of liquids—like broth (chicken or vegetable), half-and-half, cashew cream, or coconut milk—to loosen up the sauce, and you could use other roasted or blanched vegetables—like carrots, cauliflower, or red peppers—as the base.

    Or, skip the roasted vegetables altogether and go the more traditional route. Martha Stewart's Genius Macaroni and Cheese starts off with a classic béchamel made from adding cheddar and Gruyère to a roux.

    Don't skimp on the seasonings! Creamy sauces can be bland, so make sure to add plenty of salt and pepper. Throw in a pinch of nutmeg for a by-the-books macaroni and cheese, or add harissa, za'atar, or smoked paprika for something with a little more joie de vivre! Taste the sauce. Would you want to eat it on pasta as it stands now? If not, you have some adjusting to do.

  • Green and fresh: The other path is pesto-inspired. Blend some herbs (or dried herbs) and your favorite greens (using kale, spinach, or even carrot tops) into a loose sauce, adding olive oil, nuts, and cheeses. We'd also recommend mixing some dairy, like Greek yogurt, into the sauce to ensure that it clings to and hydrates the pasta in the oven.
  • Red and tomato-y: You're not going to go wrong with a classic tomato sauce, like Marcella Hazan's or the marinara we know you (wish you had) canned at the end of the summer. Make it a bolognese if you're in the mindset for meat. Just be sure that the sauce isn't too watery; otherwise, you risk drowning your pasta in the oven. 

4. Pick the add-ins.
Now, the essential question: How much stuff do you want in your baked pasta? If you're using long shapes, like spaghetti or linguine and/or a sauce with a complex flavor, it might be awkward or distracting to have large chunks of vegetables or meat interrupting the eating experience. Baked spaghetti, for example, is often best with only a simple, extremely flavorful tomato sauce. 

But the short shapes we used are perfect for adding similarly-sized vegetables, cooked sausage, or torn chicken. We mixed in roasted cauliflower and sautéed mushrooms, but you could add anything that you have leftover, like roasted cubed squash or smothered cabbage.

Remember that you won't be doing much "cooking" in the oven, so you only add ingredients that are already cooked or that you would want to eat in their raw state.

In a big bowl, toss together the drained pasta, the sauce, the add-ins, and any creamy cheeses—like goat cheese and ricotta—that you'd melt evenly into your dish. Add fresh herbs (whole basil leaves, chopped fresh sage, rosemary, thyme) and another round of salt and pepper. Other doodads—like capers, chopped olives, white beans, or chickpeas—are also welcome.

5. Top it off.
Butter an oven-proof baking dish. We like to use a roaster that's wide and shallow because there's more surface area for crispness. But, in addition to the natural textural variation created from the oven, this is also your opportunity to guarantee that you'll have those crunchy and gooey bits. 

Add ingredients—like pine nuts, breadcrumbs, chopped walnuts, sliced almonds, savory granola, Corn Flakes (?!), crushed Ritz crackers (?!?!)—that you know will get crunchy and toasty in the oven. For the goo factor, tear hunks of a melty cheese—like fresh mozarrella—that will burnish and bubble for a dramatic effect. 

6. Bake 'til bubbly.
While most recipes call for baking at mid-range temperature (350° to 400° F) for the good part of an hour (45 to 60 minutes), keeping the dish covered with aluminum foil until the end, we love Al Forno's Genius technique: They bake at a high, high temperature (500° F) for just as long as it will take you to set the table and open a bottle of wine (10 minutes).

Since none of your ingredients require extensive cooking, all you're aiming for is to get the top brown and the cheese bubbly without dehydrating the inside layer. A quick stint in a hot oven will give you all the burnished, crispy bits you want without making the center a desert. If you're using a deeper dish, however, beware that you may need to increase the cook time. 

You will know when your baked pasta is done because your kitchen will smell good and the cheese will have slid all over the surface. Also, you will have an irresistible urge to stick your face into it. 

What's your favorite spin on baked pasta? Share it with us in the comments!

Photos by James Ransom and Linda Xiao

13 Comments

Carmen L. January 4, 2017
Finally I did it! Took your roasted cauliflower + mushrooms cue with basil and tomato sauce and goat cheese and panko. Yes!
 
Carl November 16, 2016
For the love of all that is delicious, please write out the recipe for this pasta you've made. I can't not have this in my life.
 
d W. June 26, 2016
I don’t use a lot of salt by volume…I use sea salt and use less. I have cooked and baked for centuries, or so it seems, all over the world, while a Soldier. Started when I was a child. Salt can kill a flavor as well as bring it out. With pasta, I put in the pasta I make, rarely buy it. put little in that I purchase. Like the new way to prepare it…tastes more like fresh pasta.
 
JenniferJoy November 16, 2015
Recently I mixed a container of ricotta with a can of pureed pumpkin with some cooked shells, a bunch of fresh basil, left-over veggies and a lot of shredded Italian cheese blend. YUM!
 
Smaug November 11, 2015
Just back from the store- I see that Barilla, a generally dependable brand, has a new line of no boil pastas. Instructions are to put the contents (12 oz) in a large skillet with 3c. cold water and stir over heat until the water is absorbed- about 10 min. They then add the sauce and finish, but this might be a good way to start a baked dish, too. Due to chronic dumbness of the head, I neglected to check the ingredient list.
 
Smaug November 10, 2015
The thing about soaking the pasta is interesting, but needs more detail. What do they mean by hot water? Hot tap water, I suppose, since the article specifies you don't have to boil water. And do you use the stove to keep it warm, or let it cool off naturally- in which case the amount of water, type of pot (and whether you cover it), and temperature of the kitchen will all be significant factors. The saving, after all, is not huge- the water heater still has to heat the water, plus whatever water you run off to get to hot water, you still have a pot to wash, and you're cooking with hot tap water, a thing generally to be avoided.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. November 10, 2015
Yes, I can clarify! Use hot tap water. It doesn't have to be boiling. And you let it cool off naturally, over the 30-minute period.
 
Smaug November 10, 2015
That still leaves an awful lot of variables- temperature of the water at the tap, temperature of the kitchen (plus presence of drafts), characteristics of the pot, amount of water. It just doesn't seem like something you can do by the clock with any accuracy.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. November 10, 2015
I think the nice thing about baked pasta is: It won't matter that much. Soak the pasta in the hottest water that comes from your tap (and add plenty of salt) for 20 minutes. Then feel it. Is it al dente? You're ready to go! Does it need more time in the still-warm water? Then leave it there to hang out as you finish assembling. It's going to be good either way.
 
Smaug November 10, 2015
Precisely- it's going to be trial and error. Unfortunately, if you tell people "30 minutes" they're apt to take you at your word and wonder where they went wrong. At any rate, I'll give it a try (sans sel).
 
NuMystic December 21, 2015
Why sans sel? Salting during the pasta soaking/cooking step is the only opportunity to actually season the inside of the pasta itself. (which is notably different than adding later to taste)
 
Sara D. January 7, 2016
I'm surprised by the suggestion to use hot tap water to soak the pasta since hot tap water is more likely to leach heavy metals like lead from the pipes. It's safer to boil the water separately, but then you might as well just cook the pasta regularly anyways. A safer option would be to use an electric kettle to heat cold tap water.
 
Carmen L. November 9, 2015
The most yummy!!