“Casseroles don't have to be just about canned ingredients and vegetables you normally wouldn't even think of eating alone, much less stuck in between layers of sauce and breadcrumbs. They can vary from everyone's favourite all-time casserole,
macaroni and cheese, to the ultimate English casserole, Shepherd's Pie.” - Marcus Samuelsson.
I am very fond of pasta baked in the oven (al forno). Baked pasta is, hands down, one of the best comfort foods known to
mankind. Done right, this classic is the perfect combination of cheesy, starchy, saucy, hot, and salty. Pair it with a bottle of red, and you have a veritable feast on your hands. The two giants of this genre are obviously lasagne and macaroni & cheese,
but there is another wonderful dish made with penne, which is not a pasta normally associated with oven baking. Once you get used to the idea, give it a try: it is well worth the effort.
But before we turn to the recipe, I would like to share some tips
with you. By knowing a little of the science behind pasta you can make your family’s favourite dinner even better. First – and most importantly - use the right noodle for the job. For the rich, creamy and often meaty sauces used in baked dishes
you should avoid smooth, slim pastas. Sauce will slide off the smooth sides, leaving a pool at the bottom of the plate (not to mention, naked noodles). Rather use a tubular pasta that has deep ridges, like rigatoni, penne rigate or fusilli bucati.
you should undercook your pasta (honestly!) To avoid mushy baked pasta, seriously undercook the pasta in its boiling phase. Boil it for just five minutes before draining it well and tossing it in the sauce. Because the pasta’s going into a hot sauce
in a hot oven, it’ll continue to cook long after it’s been drained. Cook it completely in the beginning, and by the time you serve it, you’ll have sad, limp noodles.
Thirdly, never trust a recipe and simply hope for the best. Taste
Everything. You have a lot of moving parts in a baked pasta dish: The sauce, the cheese, and the pasta itself. Be sure to taste every single component before combining them and sticking the pan in the oven. Your dish should be well-seasoned, but not overly
salty, and the noodles should be tasty with an extra-firm bite—you should not want to eat the pasta as it is when it is put in the oven.
Also, baked pasta will never acquire that golden, bubbling crust in a regular oven. Baking it steadily at
180°C will ensure that the cheesy sauce melts beautifully into the noodles, but the temperature isn’t high enough to get any colour on the top layer of cheese. You can’t keep the pan in the oven for hours; it will result in overcooked pasta.
Therefore, once the pasta is perfectly cooked (about 15 - 20 minutes for a 2 – 3l casserole), turn on your grill and monitor it closely. It can take as long as four minutes to achieve that deep burnished top layer, but it can quickly overshoot and become
overdone, so watch proceedings like a hawk.be vigilant and don’t walk away from the kitchen. As a bonus, broiling the casserole will inevitably result in a few crunchy, crispy noodles toward the top.
Lastly, let your dish rest before tucking in.
We all agree that one should let a steak, roasted chicken, or leg of lamb rest before slicing it. A baked pasta casserole is no different. Allowing the dish to hang out for five to 10 minutes after cooking will give the sauce a chance to settle into the nooks
and crannies of your pasta. Dig in right away, and the juice will pool to the bottom of the casserole, leaving you with a fiery hot, thin-tasting sauce. A burnt tongue means you won’t be able to enjoy your hard-earned effort.
time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a Sangiovese or Malbec
700g Tinned or bottled marinara sauce
450g Beef mince
250g Dry penne rigate
250g Cream cheese
1 Onion, chopped
1 Shallot, thinly sliced
½ Green or red bell pepper, chopped
1 Cup fresh Parmesan, grated
2 Tbsp. milk
1 Tbsp. butter
- Cook the penne to slightly less than al dente,
drain and set aside.
- Brown the beef mince in a large saucepan. Drain the excess grease.
- Add the Marinara sauce to the saucepan and heat.
- Combine the onion, pepper and butter in small glass bowl. Cover and microwave for 4 minutes
on HIGH until soft.
- Add the cream cheese and milk to the vegetables and stir it in.
- Spray a 30cm x 20cm baking dish with non-stick spray.
- Assemble in the following order: a thin layer of the beef/marinara sauce, cooked penne, cream
cheese and vegetable mixture, the remaining meat sauce and Parmesan.
- Bake at 180°C for 25 minutes.
- While the dish is baking, fry the shallot slices until brown and crisp in a little oil over high heat.
- Remove the baking dish
and top it with the fried shallot.
- Return to the oven and grill for another 3 - 5 minutes, until the top is golden brown.
“Italians love three things: sun, sin and spaghetti.” – Lady Randolph Churchill.