3.21.2010

Demystifying The Perfect Baked Pasta

Throughout my blog posts, I have often talked about that one meal that just really does it for me.  It's the dish that I consistently turn to, signifying comfort and love.  After yesterday's trip to the North End, I found myself staring at all of the components of my favorite meal and I just had to make it.  I couldn't resist.  Although I devoted a whole post to this dish before, I didn't actually share the recipe or pictures and today's absolutely perfect combination of fresh cut dried pasta, important Italian tomatoes, chopped basil and fresh mozzarella slices just was so perfect that I had to share.


There really isn't much to this dish however the possibilities are endless, which is what makes it so wonderful.  You can easily make enough of it to feed an army or just enough for one.  Today I just kept it simple and fresh but sometimes I like to change it up by adding different meats and vegetables.  You can also switch up the herbs, tonight I opted for a traditional basil and left it at that, but sometimes I'll put in rosemary and thyme along with some oregano.  Or I'll also throw in some fennel seeds for a slightly different flavor.

There are a couple of tricks to getting the perfect baked pasta:

1. Bake it slowly.  I bake mine at 300 - 325 degrees.  It takes longer but the rewards make it worth it.  This is how you get some of the noodles that are poking out of the cheese to brown and get a little crispy (that's my favorite part).

2. Bake the pasta until it is still very al dente (in Italian that means "to the tooth".  It means that you should cook your pasta for a couple of minutes less than normal so that the center still has a little snap to it.)  This way, it will still cook in the oven, but not over cook and get mushy.

3. Use way more sauce than you think you'll need.  Noodles are like little sponges and you don't want them to soak up all the sauce, leaving a dry baked pasta.  You want this oozing with flavor!

4. To get the most out of this dish (or any dish your making for that matter), use all of the freshest ingredients possible, right down to the pasta.  I recommend (when you can) using a fresh dry-cut pasta.  What I mean by this is you want to look for pasta that was handmade and then handcut and dried for packaging.  Now this might not seem like a big deal but it is.  The flavor difference is amazing and in a baked pasta dish, this type of pasta really holds its own and doesn't fall apart and get super mushy.  It also has this unique flavor that machine made pasta just doesn't have.  To tell if it's been handcut, sometimes it will say so on the package but the telltale sign pasta with sort of a floury exterior and somewhat irregular in size.  The ends might even be a little jagged.

5. Always generously salt the water before you boil the pasta.  It is the only chance you have to give the pasta  an extra boost in flavor and it leaves your baked pasta with an added layer of flavor.

Good luck and Enjoy!
Ooey Gooey Cheesy Pasta
*The ingredients list is based on one serving.  Adjust to however many people you are serving, or if you wnat leftovers.

- 1 c. dried pasta (fresh dry-cut preferred)
- 1 - 14 oz can of good quality, whole peeled Italian tomatoes, broken up with kitchen scissors or a knife
- Fresh or dried herbs (the amount depends on your taste preferences)
- Tomato paste (the amount you use depends on how thick of a sauce you want and how much water is in your tomatoes.  For mine, I used about 2 tbs)
- A hearty splash of extra virgin olive oil
- A generous splash of chicken or beef stock
- Assorted add-ins (meats and vegetables)
-  4 thin slices of fresh mozzarella cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste, plus extra salt for the pasta water

In a pot, heat a little extra virgin olive oil and add whatever meats you're using.  Brown the meat and then add the vegetables that you are using.  Cook until they soften.  Add a little more olive oil and combine with the tomato paste.  Frequently stir the paste-vegetable/meat mixture until the tomato paste starts to darken.  (About 5 minutes) Add the canned tomatoes and chicken or beef stock.  If using dried herbs, add them in now.  If using fresh herbs, wait until the very last minute.  It will help them maintain their fresh color.

In another pot, add salt to water (the water should taste like the ocean) and bring it to a rapid boil.  Add the pasta and boil it until it is just undercooked.  (See note above)  Drain the pasta and then add the noodles to the sauce.  Stir to combine (if using fresh herbs, add them now).  Once the pasta is well combined, using a baking dish (I have a cute little single serving one that I use all the time) pour the pasta and sauce into the pan. Top with fresh mozzarella.  Bake in the oven at 300-325 until the cheese starts to brown a little and the sauce bubbles.  (About 45 minutes - 1 hour)

1 comment:

vincent said...

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