Classic white pasta bake with peas and ham

baked pasta ziti fusilli peas ham

Pasta al forno (baked pasta) is to Italy what macaroni and cheese is to the rest of the world.

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 Parmigiano and pasta imported from Italy as he was not satisfied with locally produced ingredients.

Note: pasta and Parmigiano, no Cheddar. Sadly the upper class appeal of pasta baked with cheese and butter disappeared already in the middle 1880s. I don’t even want to know how all that goodness morphed in a neon-orange, dry, cheese-flavored sauce in a prepackaged pasta mixture.

Whatever has happened, including various microwavable abominations now available in most Italian supermarkets, a traditional baked pasta is still a favorite in our home.

This is an ideal main, no matter if for a summery garden-party or a winter holiday because you can adapt the recipe with the seasons. Also, it’s very easy to prepare it in advance which is always a bonus when you have guests.

For best results:

  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, cook it  one minute less than half time.
  2. instead of peas, use seasonal vegetables, either sauté with garlic, roasted or lightly steamed so they keep crunch and color.
  3. use only one or two types of vegetable. 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. Less is more.

This pasta dish improves if you bake it until warmed through, cool off and refrigerate. Bake it again to finish the next day, before serving.

As you see from the recipe I use a modest amount of ham as a flavor enhancer. To make it vegetarian, use smoked or blue cheese or a little black truffle.

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 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 Parmigiano or Pecorino cheese
  • white wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste

Directions

For the pea sauce

In a large pan sauté the chopped onion over low heat, until golden brown. Keep it covered. Increase the heat, uncover and deglaze with a few tablespoon of white wine.
Add the peas and 1/2 cup water and boil quickly until they are cooked through but still bright green. Remove from the heat and add the chopped ham.
Make a fairly thin Béchamel using my quick microwave method, see here.

For the pasta

Cook the 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.

To bake

Line a ovenproof pan with a sheet of oiled parchment paper. This pasta tends to stick even in non-stick pans. Layer the pasta and peas mixture with 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 nicely golden on top.
Serves 6

baked pasta with peas and ham

Comments

  1. Pasta al Forno is such a comforting dish and I like the way you have used peas in this one. “The rest of the world” is not America. Many parts of the world also have strong Italian traditions and pasta al forno is cooked in the Italian manner, although I do recull a nasty sludgy version of Kraft Dinner appearing around the 1960s. Australian food traditions are quite different from those of America.

    • Hi Francesca! you are right, however my first experience of mac and cheese was in Zimbabwe among all places. In an experimental station I was visiting because of a tse-tse fly project. The station cook, an adorable African-Zimbawi man made it especially for me and – to my big surprise I must admit- it was delicious. I guess this is how I thought Mac and Cheese was somewhat “universal” 🙂

      • It’s sad when my little grand child asks for Easy Mac- I think it might be creeping back in. I am always on guard, making sure the littlies don’t have their taste buds polluted by these plastic versions from the States.

  2. It happens here too! Lots of prepackaged food! My daughter doesn’t like them as she always has real food at home but some of her friends live on that awful stuff. Food multinationals are the real dark powers of the world!

  3. Thanks so much tried the recipe. it was great for dinner and the next day too Sharon and John

  4. How would you cook pumpkin if you intended to add it instead of peas? I have lots of delicious homegrown pumpkins that I’m looking for recipes for!

    • HI Michelle, I love to roast pumpkin in a little olive oil, with onions and sage, it would be great for the pasta bake but please also lookup my other pumpkin/squash recipes!

      • We followed your advice. We couldn’t get any sage (British supermarkets), so we used oregano instead but it was still very tasty.

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