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 openingtheir 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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Al Forno's Penne with Tomato, Cream & Five Cheeses
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
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."