I used to mock my mother for being the owner of three (three!) refrigerators. I used to gasp at the amount of sliced turkey my mother-in-law would purchase when expecting a visit from her sons. But, the older I get, the better I understand. BIG portions, especially around the holidays, are the name of the game: cauldrons of soup, vats of chili, 9x13-inch casseroles of anything.
For the past few weeks, I’ve had more than the usual mouths to feed under my roof, and I’ve never been so appreciative of the dishes that materialize in these cauldrons, vats, and casseroles. Most recently, it’s been Baked Penne with Butternut-Sage Sauce. The recipe’s a riff on Al Forno’s baked pasta with sausage ragù, which I read about in A New Way to Dinner. In the notes, Merrill describes Al Forno’s version as “the best [she’s] come across,” and when I read she’d had success using their technique with other vegetables, I immediately remembered a longtime personal favorite butternut squash pasta sauce.
The sauce comes from the 10-Minute Mains section of an old Gourmet and calls for sautéing butter with sage, then adding diced onion, cubed squash, and water. When the squash is tender, the mixture gets puréed, which turns it into a silky smooth sauce that so nicely coats the noodles. With a little stock, the sauce can be turned into soup. And, as I’ve just discovered, with enough “heavy cream to make Julia Child blush,” as Merrill says, it can be given the Al Forno treatment. Just combine the sauce with parcooked pasta and a mix of cheeses, then bake in a shallow gratin dish in a blazing hot oven.
After 10 minutes, the bubbling casserole of saucy noodles emerges, tips crisped to perfection. Despite the enrichments of mozzarella and heavy cream, the flavors of the classic trinity of sweet squash, earthy sage, and salty Parmesan persist. This dish needs nothing more than a bitter green salad on the side, and while I’d like to promise it’s perfect for feeding the masses, I’ve learned from the holiday-season veterans in my family: For a crowd, break out your soup cauldron, make a double batch of the butternut squash sauce, and proceed with loading up your fridge with as many casseroles that will fit.
Some things to note about this baked pasta:
The unbaked casserole can be assembled ahead of time, up to 2 days in advance. Store it in the fridge covered with foil. If time permits, bring it to room temperature before baking. The sauce can be prepared up to 5 days in advance and stored in the fridge or frozen for up to 3 months.
Other squash could be used here, though butternut is ideal because it’s easy to peel and, when puréed, its texture is incredibly smooth and silky.
You can vary the types of cheese to your liking, but at a minimum use something salty like Parmesan and a good melting cheese like mozzarella or fontina. I like to cube (as opposed to grate) the mozzarella or fontina to create pockets of melty cheese. You could also add a small amount of blue cheese, which would nicely complement the flavors of the squash.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
- 1 small bundle sage
- 4 cups 1-inch cubes, butternut squash (about 1 lb. post peeling)
- 1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1.5 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- freshly cracked pepper to taste
- 1 pound penne
- 4 ounces fresh mozzarella or fontina, cubed
- 1/2 cup heaping (50 g) grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
What dish do you make when you need to feed the masses? Let us know in the comments!