Baked Penne Pasta with Butternut-Sage Sauce

November 14, 2016
10 Ratings
Photo by Alexandra Stafford
  • Serves 4
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

What You'll Need
  • 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
  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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • panania
  • Rosalie Lovy
    Rosalie Lovy
  • deanna1001
  • Mary Catherine Tee
    Mary Catherine Tee
  • Nancy
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.

65 Reviews

panania October 26, 2023
This was good. The recipe was easy to follow and resulting dish was nice. I'm just not yet sure how I feel about a baked pasta dish without tomatoes. The acid in the tomatoes cuts the dairy back and balances it. This had the cheese and the cream and a creamy vegetable all in one and it was all a little too much.
LisaD October 27, 2023
I wonder if a small can of tomato sauce in there would do the trick, along with some red pepper flakes. Maybe adjust some of the other liquids.
Carolyn C. January 11, 2024
I had mouth surgery years ago & can't have acidic anything (sucks, I'm Italian), so I'm so happy to see a few recipes without tomatoes. Or as suggested below, with a small amount of tomatoes. I miss red sauce terribly, make for family, but can't eat. Never used béchamel much before (almost never), & now try to sub milk for some of heavy cream (and have used very successfully making Alfredo).
barbara N. February 8, 2024
I don't know if this would make a difference since its your mouth but, my husband gets terrible heartburn and I add a little sugar to my red sauce. I don't use a measuring spoon but I'd say 1TBS to 6 quarts of the sauce. Can't taste it but it's enough that he has no problems.
Carolyn C. February 14, 2024
Thank you but unfortunately it's just too acidic. Wish it would work.....learned to live with it. Milk/milky products are only thing that cuts the acid for me. But it was a great suggestion for others who might only be slightly affected by the acid in tomatoes. There are many levels of sensitivity after mouth/throat surgery, so always good to see suggestions.
Kate December 11, 2021
Is there a point to stop and freeze ahead? Trying to prepare some tasty meals ahead of time for the Christmas crowd.
Jane December 11, 2021
I treated this similar to Mac and cheese. I cooked it at a much lower temp (375°). So along that vein, like I sometimes do with Mac and cheese, you could make and bake it, cool and freeze, then thaw overnight in frig and reheat. Or make it up to the baking part, freeze, thaw overnight and bake. Not sure what the author of this recipe might think, (I hate being THAT person that changes up a recipe) but I think it’s a pretty forgiving and versatile recipe.
Kate December 11, 2021
Thank you for your thoughts! I wouldn’t have thought of baking first and then cooling and freezing but that would help for even faster preparation when heating it up day of. Thanks!
Jane December 11, 2021
Make sure you thaw in frig overnight and take out at least an hour before you plan on reheating or it will still take awhile. Check periodically to stir out the colder center, or cover if edges are getting too crispy.
Kate December 11, 2021
👍👍thank you!!
Nancy M. January 19, 2021
I have done this sauce x3 with 'what's on hand' tweaks each go. I live in Mexico so availability of anything non-traditional can be spotty.
I use it for a sauce....stuffed pasta, gnocchi....a starch with meat and usually a salad. I use calabasta (a pumpkin type squash), other types very hard to come by. An addition of garlic I call essential and any of the herb de provence group are great. Summer savoury. Arbol pepper for depth. I use white wine to cut the sweetness. Stellar addition to my repertoire.
Rosalie L. November 10, 2020
I was worried about the sweetness after reading these reviews so I added a little dry white wine and a parsnip -- really balanced out the squash!

Also subbed some gruyere for about half of the parm.
Laura W. October 12, 2020
It's that time of year! So happy to find this recipe, but next time I'll give it a few tweaks. It felt a little bland and I wanted a warmer flavor, so I'll follow the suggestion of a butternut ravioli recipe that I've liked and add a dash of nutmeg to the sauce. A touch of cayenne for heat would probably be great too. Or smoked paprika??? Hmm, so many choices! I also wanted it to be saucier after cooking. This ended up a bit dry, but it may have been that I cooked off too much water while making the sauce. I'll watch it more closely next time.

The cheese was on point and the grated parm added a nice salty balance. I threw in some peas right before baking so that the kids would have something green in their meal without a fuss. Definitely a keeper! I'm going to freeze the half of the squash that I didn't use so that we can make this again soon.
Cindy W. October 21, 2019
We just made this for dinner, and were pleased.
The changes we made were based on ingredients we had — acorn squash instead of butternut, unsweetened almond milk instead of cream, and no parmesan cheese. It was tasty and nice with a green salad.
We thought 4* out of 5.
Jenn K. January 27, 2019
I had some roasted pumpkin in the fridge, so I used that instead of butternut squash (and then of course didn't simmer for long since it was already cooked). I was skeptical of the small amount of mozzarella but that's what we had leftover from pizza night, and guess what, it was perfect! My two year old was especially enthusiastic about the high proportion of crunchy bits that resulted from baking in a 9*13 pan.
AM February 16, 2019
Would this recipe work with a non-dairy cream, such as coconut cream or cashew milk?
Cindy W. October 21, 2019
We used almond milk, and were pleased with it.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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?
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!
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!!
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?
500° sounds like such a high temperature to bake the pasta-just want to clarify that too..
Can’t wait to try this!
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!
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!
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! http://alexandracooks.com/2014/12/03/butternut-squash-lasagna-thanksgiving-vt/
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!
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.
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).
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!
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! (:
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.
Alexandra S. December 9, 2016
Wonderful to hear this, Natasha! Thanks for writing in!