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Friday, February 19, 2010

Baked Pasta

I came home from Rome with several new ideas to implement in the kitchen. Most of them relate to pasta, and one of them was to become far better at making baked pasta dishes. I am reknowned for my macaroni and cheese, which is noodles in a bechamel sauve with cheese--then baked. The beauty of it is that it can be made well in advance of cooking it, it doubles and triples and quadruples beautifully, and so it can be made for a crowd. If I use upscale cheese, like fontina and gruyere, and top it with panko it can be quite a nice dish at a buffet where some will take it as a side dish, but children and vegetarians can make it a meal. Many of the memorable pasta dishes from Rome are things where the pasta must be cooked in conjunction with the meal--they can't sit around for minutes, much less days, and so while tasty, are really for making for family.

I was making dinner for the synagogue, and decided to make baked pasta--one with the traditional red sauce and ricotta filling, and another with a bechamel sauce and sauteed vegetables. Bechamel sauces in Italy had a much stronger fresh nutmeg flavor than I have been using, so I grated an entire nutmeg into my sauce, and it was at the level of a Roman sauce. I used the Barilla lasagna noodles, which require no boiling, and while you need to be aware they will absorb some moisture, you don't need to overly compensate with sauce. The resulting dish has a noodle that is not overcooked, and it is easy to assemble as well. I made full sized aluminum pan-sized dishes, which weighed about 10 pounds each. Hefty, in other words. I baked the dishes for 2 hours at 350 (the first hour covered and the second uncovered)--this was good, but they could have baked longer--perfect for a meal where you are not exactly sure when it will start. There was room for improvement, but both were an excellent start to having some good make ahead pasta options.

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