When you need to feed a hungry Italian family, turn to baked pasta, or "pasta al forno." Prepared in advance, this low maintenance dish is also very forgiving and has the ability to feed many hungry bellies in one go. It's a must at any family gathering, in any of the regional forms it comes in, from lasagne to this riggidanella from Calabria. —Emiko
4 to 6
garlic clove, chopped finely
bottle (750 milliliters, or about 25 ounces) tomato purée (tomato passata)
small piece of dried chile, chopped finely (or 1 teaspoon dried chile flakes)
A handful of basil leaves
(500 grams) rigatoni, maccheroni, mezze maniche, or other similar short pasta
Prepare the eggplants by cutting off their tops and slicing them lengthwise (about 1/3 inch or 1 centimeter thick). Sprinkle salt on them and let them drain on paper towels. Leave for 2 hours, then rinse salt off and pat completely dry with paper towels before deep frying in about an inch of olive oil until they are golden. Drain the oil off on paper towels and set aside until needed.
Prepare a tomato sauce by gently sautéeing the garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until fragrant but not colored. Add the tomato purée, chile, and basil leaves, and cook for about 5 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt.
Cook the pasta by boiling it in a large pot of salted water until al dente -- you want to aim for slightly underdone, as it will have a chance to cook longer in the oven. Drain the pasta and toss with the tomato sauce. Set aside until needed.
Make a béchamel sauce by melting the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook for about a minute, stirring frequently. Add the milk slowly, stirring continuously to avoid lumps. Cook until the sauce has thickened and heavily coats the back of a spoon. Season with a pinch of salt and set aside until needed.
Lightly grease a large casserole dish (or individual ramekins) with olive oil and layer the bottom and sides with the eggplant slices. Fill with a layer of pasta, followed by a layer of béchamel and a layer of eggplant and continue until you finish the last layer with béchamel.
Bake in the oven at 350º F (180º C) for 20 minutes or until browned on top. You also want the dish to firm up enough so that you can invert the pasta bake onto a serving dish, if desired. Otherwise, tuck right in and serve it straight from the casserole dish.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.