Thursday, October 22, 2009

Baked Pasta Cravings

I’ve been craving proper Italian pasta al forno for ages. There’s just one hitch. My kids aren’t really into creamy/mixed sauces… in fact sauces are a bit problematic altogether. The only pasta our son likes is Dad’s aglio olio with bits of bacon in, as it leaves the pasta practically bare, so it doesn’t activate the sauce detector alarm.

When you’re cooking pasta al forno, you need to have an army to feed to make it worth the effort of making meat sauce, making béchamel and then baking it all together with the cooked pasta, so I put off satisfying my craving. And then yesterday I did have an army to feed. The four German students, who have come over with two of their teachers to help at our school for a few weeks, all stayed the night with us so that they could all leave early to drive up to Addo Elephant Park today.

It was nearly a week since I’d shopped. But the teacher we are hosting had cooked spaghetti bolognese for us a couple of nights before and had drastically over-estimated the quantities need to feed a family of five with sauce-averse kids. So there was a ton of meat sauce and loads of parmesan just begging to be used up. I seized my opportunity and it tasted great! So good that we finished up the leftovers cold for lunch today.

Cold pasta al forno, doesn't look as delicious as when it is hot from the oven, but it still tastes great!

Our son declined to even taste it last night, but luckily I’d second-guessed him and shoved some potatoes in to bake alongside the pasta. And I’d thrown together a second pot of pasta for the vegan student with fresh tomatoes, rosemary and chickpeas sizzled in hot garlic oil. And the students made a salad. And I’d baked yet more bread. So it was a feast of carbohydrates that even defeated the three seventeen-year old boys at the table, to produce yet more leftovers.

You don’t have to use a meat sauce for this baked pasta dish. Any sauce with a good strong flavour would work well: roasted vegetables, tomato and basil, porcini mushrooms, whatever you feel like adding to it. It makes sense to make a double batch of sauce, use it to sauce normal pasta one night and keep the rest to make this a couple of nights later, then you don’t have nearly so much work to do for your pasta al forno. The béchamel sauce is quite light and subtly flavoured with nutmeg and only a little parmesan, so it needs a contrasting sauce with a bit of oomph to bring the baked pasta to life.

Recipe for Rigatoni or Penne al Forno

Bolognese sauce made with approx 450g / 1lb meat
Or about 4 cups of pasta sauce of your choice
500g / 1lb penne rigate or rigatoni
750ml / 3 cups milk
90g / 3oz butter
4 ½ tablespoons flour
40g / 1 ½ oz freshly grated parmesan
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons millk
30g / 1oz butter

Preheat the oven to 200C / 400F.

Make your béchamel first. Melt 90g butter in a heavy based pan. Stir in the flour and keep stirring for about a minute so it cooks, but don’t let it turn dark. Add the milk a little at a time, giving it a chance to warm on the base of the pan and then stirring it in well, before adding the next lot.

Most recipes tell you to heat the milk separately before adding it, which is sensible, but I learned from a friend that if you give it a chance to warm on the base of the béchamel pan before you stir it in it works just as well.

Keep adding milk and stirring it in until it is all incorporated, then carry on stirring until the béchamel thickens to a thick pouring cream consistency. Season with pepper, salt and nutmeg then stir in half the parmesan. Taste to check the seasoning.

Cook the pasta till it is al dente. Take care not to over-cook it, or it will collapse to a dense solid indigestible mass when baked. You want the shapes to hold up and trap the sauces nicely. Toss the pasta with the warmed meat sauce and then with about two thirds of the béchamel.

Tip the sauced pasta into a roasting tin buttered with the remaining butter. Level it off. Pour the milk over, then pour the rest of the béchamel on top. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan. Bake for 20-30 minutes until golden and bubbling. Let it rest for at least five minutes before serving.

Perfect for those in need of a carbohydrate fix!


  1. That's it, Kit. I'm on to your plan. To kill me outright with descriptions of carb-filled food that I can't have on my diet.

    Aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhh! Looks so delicious... the pasta ends look like little mouths all singing in a choir. And the song goes:

    "Eat meeeeee, ohhhhhhhhhh
    Eat meeeeee, yes, yes, meeeeeoohhhhhhhh!"

  2. My son would love this! The bigger the noodle the better. So simple yet so good!

  3. Ooh: I want this NOW! It's odd that the little touches, like a soupcon of nutmeg and a grating of pepper are what really make me hungry for the sauce!

  4. yummy! a big hit in our house and something different from boring old spag. bol.! for mom and dad.


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