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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.
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