A Baked Penne That'll Make a Casserole Believer Out of Anyone

November 16, 2016

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.

Cubing the mozzarella or fontina creates pockets (!) of melty cheese. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

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.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

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. 

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

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What dish do you make when you need to feed the masses? Let us know in the comments!

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


Bonny January 30, 2017
Miss Alexandra
I am unable to find a recipe for the squash pie mentioned by your reader.
Alexandra S. January 31, 2017
Hi Bonny! Here you go: Ronnie Hollingsworth's Most Excellent Squash Pie:
kwellestatum January 1, 2017
Advice on how long to bake and at what temperature if you assemble it ahead and refrigerate?
Bonny January 2, 2017
I made it ahead early in the day and just let it sit at room temp. Baked 350 degrees. Not sure of time. Covered with foil for 20 min so the pasta on top wouldn't dry out. Removed foil and baked ten min or so more. It was great reheated in the microwave.
Alexandra S. January 2, 2017
Thanks for the advice here, Bonny!
Bonny January 1, 2017
Most excellent. No fresh sage so I added curry powder. I use up all the mozzarella I had and filled in with Gouda. Excellent
Will make this again. My vegetarian daughter said she could eat it every day?
Alexandra S. January 2, 2017
Yay!! So happy to hear this. Happy happy New Year!!
Leandra November 23, 2016
this was so unbelievably delicious!!!!!! I used 2% milk because I already had it and it seemed work fine. Cannot wait to make again and again
Alexandra S. November 25, 2016
So happy to hear this, Leandra! Great to know re 2% milk too.
Fresh T. November 20, 2016
This looks fantastic. I have 4 butternut squashes and 2 spaghetti squashes - I know what I wanted to do with at least 2 of the squashes (your most excellent squash pie is on the Thanksgiving rotation) and I think we're going to add this to the list. Looks wonderful. Thanks so much Alexandra!
Alexandra S. November 20, 2016
I'm so excited for Most Excellent Squash Pie!! Hope you try this one, too. We've had house guests for nearly a month now, and this one has become a staple. xoxo
bonnie59 November 16, 2016
When do you add the cream in the recipe?
Alexandra S. November 16, 2016
Ah, thanks for catching that! Just updated the recipe. You add it right after you add the butternut squash sauce to the pasta: