Baked Penne with Butternut-Sage Sauce

November 14, 2016

Test Kitchen-Approved

Author Notes: A riff on Al Forno's well-known and widely adored baked pasta, this one calls for making a butternut squash-sage sauce, which can be used on its own to coat boiled noodles, but works really well with this technique, too. I've used both mozzarella and fontina and like both. The original recipe, which I read about in Amanda and Merrill's A New Way to Dinner calls for 1 cup of heavy cream, but I've had success using 1/2 cup, perhaps because the butternut squash sauce tastes creamy on its own. Alexandra Stafford

Serves: 4


  • 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
In This Recipe


  1. Melt butter in a large heavy pot over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then add sage and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add cubed squash, diced onion, 1 1/2 cups water, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and pepper to taste. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until squash is very tender and water has reduced considerably, 15 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the squash pieces.
  2. If you have an immersion blender, purée mixture right in pot. If you don't, transfer mixture to a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Taste sauce. Add more salt if necessary. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it is too thin, simmer over low heat until it thickens. You should have about 3 cups of sauce.
  3. Preheat the oven to 500ºF. Bring a large pot of generously salted (I use 1 tablespoon kosher salt) water to a simmer. Boil penne for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Transfer penne to a large bowl. Pour the butternut sauce over top. Add the cream. Add the cubed mozzarella or fontina, grated parmesan, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and toss to coat.
  4. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish (such as a 9x13-inch pan). Transfer pasta mixture to prepared pan. Bake until bubbly and brown, 10 to 15 minutes. If pasta isn't browned to your liking on top, turn on the broiler, pop pan under it for 3 to 5 minutes, keeping a close watch. Cool slightly before serving.

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Reviews (48) Questions (1)

48 Reviews

deanna1001 December 9, 2017
Yum. As usual. Smoked mozzarella and asiago for cheese. Added a clove of garlic because why not. Leftover turkey stock mixed with water for the simmer. Totally fabulous. Thanks again for a great vegetarian recipe!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. December 10, 2017
Oh, Deanna! I'm so happy to hear this. All of your changes sound fabulous. You are so welcome. Hope you are well!
Deborah S. November 6, 2017
I had a lot of homegrown butternuts and a sage bush in the garden, so I gave this recipe a try. I wanted to like it, but I would up throwing more than half of it out, since there were only the two of us. The squash and the cream (I used half and half) combined to make a sauce that was definitely on the sweet side even with no added sugar, and the flavor was too bland. I would not make this again.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 6, 2017
Sorry to hear this, Deborah! Did you add salt?
Deborah S. November 6, 2017
Yes, I did add the salt. I also tried a sprinkle of red pepper flakes on top, but still too sweet.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 6, 2017
Ahh, too bad! Sorry this didn't work for you. I'm wondering if a sharper or nuttier or saltier cheese might help balance the sweetness of the sauce and therefore possibly make this one work for you.
Mary C. November 5, 2017
This was really good! The only thing I did differently was double the fontina and sprinkle the top post-bake with a generous pinch of flaked sea salt because I thought it needed just a little more salty umph. I ended up using my dutch oven from start to finish, so it was a one pot meal. Fewer browned bits, but less clean-up. Thanks so much for sharing, Alexandra!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 5, 2017
So great to hear this! I would trade fewer browned bits for less clean-up any day – great tip! Thanks for writing in.
sfro October 30, 2017
Delicious dish! I follow recipe exactly minus the heavy cream. I found myself wanting a saltier/stronger flavored cheese to balance the sweetness of the butternut squash. Any recommendations?
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 30, 2017
Maybe Fontina and/or Pecorino or Locatelli? Someone else was asking about smoked mozz, and I'm wondering if that might add a savoriness you're looking for.
sfro November 6, 2017
I made this again with Gruyere and it was perfect. Thanks again!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 6, 2017
Wonderful to hear this!
Deborah October 25, 2017
This is incredible! I brought some for lunch today and wished I could have seconds. My tweaks: (1) I browned the butter before adding the sage, because I've never met a dish that brown butter didn't improve; (2) I cooked the pasta for 8 min, because I was using rice pasta to make this GF and undercooked rice pasta is a travesty: and (3) I added a cup of whole milk to the cream, both to account for the extra absorbency of rice pasta and because my sauce seemed rather thick. I also threw in some extra cheese for all that extra milk. Perfect!!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 25, 2017
Thanks for all of these tips, Deborah! So glad you were able to make this g-f friendly. Thanks for writing in!
Jane October 23, 2017
Would smoked mozzarella be weird in this recipe? <br />500° sounds like such a high temperature to bake the pasta-just want to clarify that too..<br />Can’t wait to try this!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 23, 2017
I think smoked mozz sounds amazing actually! Yes, very high, but it cooks quickly — the high temp is to get those crispy edges.
Nancy October 20, 2017
This is amazing! I made the Butternut sauce a day ahead and kept it in the fridge. The immersion blender works perfectly here. I used the 4 oz mozzarella and also 4 oz of the Fontina I like cheese! I cannot say enough how incredibly delicious this is. Making the sauce, cubing the cheese and grating the parm ahead really makes this easy to put together. I covered it with tinfoil for the first 15-20 minutes since the sauce was cold. Then took that off to brown the top. Awesome!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 20, 2017
Yay! So happy to hear this, Nancy!
Rhonda35 October 2, 2017
I'm going to make this tonight! Reminds me of the flavor profile of a Gourmet Magazine butternut squash lasagna recipe I made for many years - it was always a hit. I anticipate this dish will be, too!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 4, 2017
I know that Gourmet butternut squash lasagna! With the layer of whipped cream on top? A friend of my aunt's brought it to Thanksgiving one year, and it stole the show. It has been a staple every since!
Rhonda35 October 4, 2017
Yes, that's it! I think it uses rosemary instead of sage. It's so good - as is your recipe above - we devoured it!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 4, 2017
Yes, rosemary, exactly! And I'm so glad you liked this!
Angie W. October 1, 2017
I just made this for my family for football night. I doubled it. Everybody loved it. Sooo good. Thx for the recipe. A fall staple now.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 2, 2017
So happy to hear this, Angie!
Kelli A. June 29, 2017
This has become a family favorite. We love it. And, as a bonus, it is super easy (especially if you buy the BN squash pre-cut).
Author Comment
Alexandra S. October 2, 2017
So true re peeled and cut bn squash!
Sally January 2, 2017
It looks delicious! I'm making it right now, and plan to serve it for supper. Do you recommend baking it now and reheating later, or prepare w/out baking and do that step later? Thanks!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 2, 2017
I would prepare it all now w/o baking it. If you have time, bring it to room temperature (maybe an hour before you bake it) so that it cooks evenly and quickly.
Andrea T. December 15, 2016
Oh my goodness, OH MY GOODNESS, this is one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my mouth! The only pasta I had on hand was rotini, though, and I think it soaked up a bit more sauce than the penne would have, because while the pasta is flavorful it's not very, well, saucy. The finished photo above looks similar to mine, so maybe it's just that I'm used to a more mac and cheese type, or wetter pasta dish. Regardless, delicious times a thousand, and I've already shared the recipe with my FB friends. Thank you so much for posting it! (:
Author Comment
Alexandra S. January 2, 2017
So happy to hear this, Andrea!! I think you're probably right about the rotini soaking up more of the sauce than penne. Thanks for writing in!
Natasha December 9, 2016
Delicious! Made this for dinner with roasted chicken and a kale salad for friends. The biggest hit, zero leftovers. Would definitely make again and double for a crowd.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. December 9, 2016
Wonderful to hear this, Natasha! Thanks for writing in!
Petervl December 6, 2016
Excellent - and I'm especially glad to read the comment about chix stock instead of cream: my partner is a bit heavy cream averse, so I think I'll do this but I'll blend the butternut and stock together, then pour it all over the pasta. Sounds delicious for this weekend, perhaps!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. December 9, 2016
Hi Peter! I think the chicken stock substitution will be great—the sauce tastes rich on its own. Have a great weekend!
Andrea C. December 2, 2016
This is so great! I did something similar with leftover roasted pumpkin. I made my usual Mac & Cheese and added the pumpkin puree. Covered with breadcrumbs, parsley and parm and baked to perfection. This looks equally yummy!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. December 9, 2016
Oh yum, sounds so good, Andrea!
macyi November 19, 2016
Does the sage stay in the the sauce or do you take it out before you blend?
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 20, 2016
It stays in!
Ann S. October 22, 2017
Can you clarify about "bundle" of sage, in terms of either number of leaves or equivalent chopped amount?
Ann S. October 22, 2017
Disregard; saw comment below.
KellyBcooks November 17, 2016
So glad some one pointed out this error in the printed recipe! I was a bit confused last night while making it; had to go back online to reread the directions. Despite initial confusion, I am so glad I made this recipe! Thanks! It's definitely a recipe to feed a crowd. Love the saucy, cheesiness to it, as well as the featured flavors of fall. I think I must have had too much squash, as I have 2 cups + of leftover sauce and plan on making it into soup. Yum!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 17, 2016
So happy to hear this! And I'm glad you have leftovers for soup. It's a magical little sauce in this way—so versatile!
LisaD November 16, 2016
Where/when does the cream go in?
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 16, 2016
Right after you pour the butternut sauce over the pasta! Recipe has been updated. Sorry about the confusion!
Emily November 16, 2016
Tracker620 November 16, 2016
Hi! What does a "bundle" of sage mean? Also, do you think you could swap chicken stock for the water, or will that muddy the flavors? Thanks!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. November 16, 2016
I know, so vague, sorry. If you look at photos 2 and 3 above in the slider, you'll get a better sense. It's maybe a scant 1/4 cup? Hard to quantify. Surely re chicken stock!
Janet M. September 18, 2017
This is one of my hot buttons with recipes. Those that number chicken breasts particularly make me nuts, because these days, it looks like those chickens are trying to be turkeys--no lie because at my supermarket butcher counter, they can weigh anywhere between 12 and 18 oz, and I like to factor in 4-6 oz per serving. But bunches of anything are problems, too. I can get a bunch of cilantro at my supermarket that weighs 8 oz, but it's only 4 oz at another. Same with parsley, and one of my local stores packages herbs in 2 oz sealed portions. Things like sage I have growing in my pot garden--along with a bunch of other herbs so that bundle thing tells me nothing. One store sells kale in bulk, and others tie up bundles that vary significantly.