Baked penne pasta with proscuitto and fontina cheese is pictured. Photo by: AP Photo/Matthew Mead
December 28, 2016 10:20:02 AM
If there's anything more comforting than boiled pasta in a sauce, it's got to be baked pasta in a sauce. The baking adds a crispy crust that is such a delicious contrast to the tender goodness of the dish.
The challenge is how to get the pasta to turn out just right. Most baked pasta recipes instruct you to boil the noodles until cooked halfway before baking them. This allows the pasta to finish cooking in the oven as it bathes in the sauce. But this method has challenges. If you boil the noodles more than halfway, they'll be overcooked by the time you pull the finished dish out of the oven. I find it hard to get the precooking time right.
And precooking the pasta, even halfway, takes work and dirties a large pot and colander. Then again, if you don't precook the pasta and instead add it dry to the sauce for baking, it will take much longer to become tender in the oven, even as it absorbs all the liquid in the sauce. Dry pasta needs to hydrate.
So what's a home cook to do? Use my simple no-cook method of precooking the pasta. Just soak the pasta in warm salted water before adding it to the other ingredients and sliding the mixture into the oven. Presoaking is a way to begin hydrating the pasta and washing away some of its starch, even as the salt in the water pre-seasons the pasta.
Yes, you'll dirty a bowl, but given that that's the same vessel in which you'll combine all the dish's ingredients, it's the only bowl you'll need. The soak requires 45 minutes, but it's hands-off time, freeing you to prep the rest of the ingredients. Then it takes no time at all to assemble the dish and pop it into the oven.
Just 20 or so minutes later you can collect your reward: deeply flavored baked pasta, creamy on the bottom and crispy on top. Add a salad and some crusty bread and be happy.
Sara Moulton is on a book tour and is taking a break from writing her column for the remainder of 2016. In her absence, The Associated Press offers a "Best Of" from Sara's archived recipes.
BAKED PENNE WITH PROSCIUTTO AND FONTINA
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes (20 minutes active)
1 pound penne pasta
Butter, for coating the baking pan
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
1 1/2 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 ounces coarsely grated fontina cheese
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped
Nutrition information per serving: 590 calories; 240 calories from fat (41 percent of total calories); 27 g fat (15 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 1060 mg sodium; 63 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 24 g protein.