madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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classic white pasta bake with peas and ham

Baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

baked fusilli with Parmesan, peas and ham

Pasta al forno (baked pasta) is to Italy what macaroni and cheese is to the rest of the world. In the good, homemade, festive way, not – heaven forbid – in the Kraft dinner way. I was amazed to discover that the recipe was originally  imported to the US by no less than President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. He even had Parmesan and pasta imported from Italy as he was not satisfied with locally produced ingredients. Note: pasta and Parmesan, no Cheddar. Sadly the upper class appeal of pasta baked with cheese and butter disappeared already in the middle 1880s. My  guess is that it kept in a free fall until today’s microwavable abominations.

If you live in North America, you probably know all the above. As for myself, I can’t wrap my brain around the idea of a neon-orange dry cheese-flavored sauce in a prepackaged pasta mixture. The only idea gives me brain fog.

Hopefully you are here because you want to know how to make an authentic baked pasta, one that you will find in many Italian houses, particularly when in need to feed a crowd, from a summery garden-party to Christmas or other holidays.

  1. use good quality pasta, possibly bronze drawn and cook it in plenty salted boiling water for half of the time indicated on the package to avoid overcooking. For example, if the pasta package indicates 10 min, cook it for 5 min. If it’s gluten-free pasta you might need to cook it  one minute less than half time.
  2. instead of peas, use seasonal vegetables, saute with garlic, roasted or lightly steamed so they keep crunch and color.
  3. use only one or two types of vegetable in a recipe. This gives a more refined and decisive taste. If I combine two vegetables I tend to use them of approx. the same color, e.g. asparagus and zucchini, mushrooms and squash.
  4. Don’t overload it with condiments. You want to attain a balance of texture and flavor not a gloppy blob of fat. Less is more.

It’s a great recipe because you can change it with the seasons and you can prepare it in advance which is always a bonus when you have guests. It actually improves if you bake it until warmed through, cool off and refrigerate. Just finish it the next day before serving.

As you see from the recipe I use a modest amount of meat as a flavor enhancer. Pork can be substituted with stewed game or a slow cooked beef ragu with no tomato.  You can also easily make it vegetarian by using some smoked or blue cheese or a little black truffle.

Recipe

  • 500 gr (16 oz) short pasta like ziti, fusilli or penne
  • 2 and 1/2 cups Béchamel sauce made with 1/2 lt ( 2 cups) milk, 30 gr (2 tablespoon) corn starch and 30 gr (2 oz) butter.
  • 500 gr (16 oz) petite green peas
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 150 gr (5 oz) cooked ham, chopped finely
  • 200 gr (7 oz) mild cheese such as caciotta or mozzarella, sliced thinly
  • 100 gr (3 oz) grated Parmesan or Pecorino
  • white wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste

Over low heat and covered, saute onion in a large pan until slightly golden. Increase the heat, uncover and deglaze with a few tablespoon of white wine.

Add peas and 1/2 cup water and boil quickly until they are cooked through but still bright green. Remove from heat and add the chopped ham.

Make a fairly thin Béchamel using my quick microwave method, see here.

Cook pasta in plenty salted boiling water until half of the cooking time. Drain and toss with half of the Béchamel, 2/3 of the grated cheese and all the peas and ham.

Line a ovenproof pan with oiled parchment paper. This pasta tends to stick even in non-stick pans. Make layers of the pasta mixture and the mild cheese ending with a layer of pasta, a layer of Béchamel and a generous sprinkle of grated cheese.

Bake at 200 °C ( 390 °F) until slightly golden on top.

Serves 6

A most festive dish, beloved by everyone

A most festive dish which will bring smiles all around the table


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pasta al forno alla siciliana

baked Sicilian-style pasta

SICILIAN PASTA TIMBALE or PASTA INCASCIATA. When it gets as cold as it is now here, I need to dream of the sun. Or of sunny food.

This recipe is for those of you who still have summer somewhere, probably very far from here.

It’s a vibrant dish, with all the colors and flavors of the Mediterranean. To get it right, you do need good sun-ripened eggplants  and plenty fresh basil. No greenhouse ghosts of ingredients please.

Pasta incasciata is traditionally prepared in Sicily for the August 15th holiday. The term means “baked in a mold” or “baked with cheese”, in other words a timbale.

Timbales have been popular in Southern Italian cuisine  as early as the XVII century and they still are. I love the sensual description of a pasta timbale  given by Tomasi di Lampedusa. In its legendary novel The Leopard, he describes a dish presented at the table of Fabrizio, prince of Salina in XIX century Western Sicily.

“The burnished gold of the crust, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a smoke laden with aromas, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken, and truffles in masses of piping-hot, glistening macaroni, to which meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.”

The pasta incasciata is the peasant version of the princely timbale. Meat, spices and truffles are substituted by (less expensive) eggplants, eggs, cheese and some sausage.

May be simplified, but to me it’s a royal treat.

Recipe

  • 1 kg short pasta like penne or anelletti
  • 3 medium eggplants, fried
  • 2-3 cups basic tomato sauce
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
  • 150 gr (5 ounces) ham shredded
  • 300 gr (10 ounces) mild cheese or mozzarella, cubed
  • 100 gr (3 ounces) grated Parmesan
  • a bunch of fresh basil leaves

My family’s version of the recipe is slightly lighter than the original. If you wish to follow the tradition, use Italian salami instead of ham and pecorino instead of Parmesan.

Using the recipe in the link above, make a basic tomato sauce with two 400 gr./12 ounces  can diced tomatoes. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water for half of the time indicated on the package. Drain well and toss with 3/4 of the tomato sauce and half of the Parmesan.

Cut each fried eggplant slice in 5-6 pieces. Prepare all ingredients on the table.  Preheat oven at 20o° degrees C (400 F°)

Build up the timbale in layers starting with a ladleful of sauce on the bottom of a ovenproof pan. Top a layer of pasta with cheese, ham, egg slices, eggplant and a few basil leaves. Sprinkle lightly with Parmesan. You should be able to make 3-4 layers depending on the size of the pan.

End with a layer of pasta.  Drizzle 3-4 tablespoon of the reserved tomato sauce, add a few basil leaves and a final sprinkle of Parmesan.

Bake until cheese melts and timbale sets, 20 to 25 minutes. Serves 12.

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