What for many is just a pasta bake, for Italians – pasta al forno – is a whole world of tradition, memories and comfort. I really don’t know how I managed to put off posting this recipe for so long. It should have been one of the first to share on Coochinando both because of what it stands for and for its sheer goodness.
As they say, thankfully, it is never too late… better late than never and all that. Most importantly I promise you that it was worth the wait!
Pasta al forno is a simple and relatively quick pasta dish to put together. I remember my mum would often make it as “svuota frigo” (to empty the fridge), to use up ingredients that needed to be eaten soon.
Now. I have to be fair and admit that an Italian is more likely than any other person in the world to just have the required ingredients lying around in the fridge. I’m talking about ingredients such as mozzarella, scamorza or provola, parmesan and an endless stock of pasta, tomatoes and bottles of home-made passata.
That said, pasta al forno is so deliciously scrumptious and comforting and such an all-around crowd pleaser that it is totally worth going out and buying the ingredients needed. It is just a great family meal – or one to prepare for your friends coming over for a Sunday lunch.
Whaaaaaat? Pasta as a main and not a Sunday roast? Yes, I do it all the time. I serve pasta as a main, which guests regularly eat thinking it is a massive starter… and then still serve the roast as secondo piatto. Easy peasy, everyone’s happy 😀 Cultural food barriers? What are they, even?
You can make the traditional and richer version of pasta al forno, which I am sharing today, or opt for the simpler vegetarian option, which just means leaving out the mince.
Original or vegeterian option, there is one essential requirement – an absolute must: pasta will need to be arruscata (lightly burnt on top)! If it is not arruscata, it is not pasta al forno.
Given the dish’s yumminess, some of you readers may wonder why I did not post about this recipe before, while others may ask what prompted me to write about pasta al forno this week. And I recognise that some of you just couldn’t care less and just want to get on with the recipe.
However, I am really keen to tell you why my choice fell on pasta al forno this week, because the little story behind it is one of new friendships, bonds and support.
Last weekend while I was in the process of booking train tickets to Nottingham, my talented and gorgeous friend Ewa got in touch to tell me she was going to prepare some pasta al sugo as one of the dishes she is going to make for her engagement party (which we are lucky enough to be attending!).
And I thought: wait, would it not be better to just make a good pasta al forno that you can prepare in advance and keep warm? Ewa immediately types “pasta al forno coochinando” into a web search, and guess what? She got a recipe from an English blogger and in horror she exclaimed: this needs to be rectified!
Ewa: your wish is my command 🙂 I sent her the ingredients through Facebook and we ended up pretty much making pasta al forno at the same time, exchanging photos as we we went along. And we were both pretty delighted by the result. And someone else was, too… clearly.
End of story? Ewa was so sold on the goodness of pasta al forno that she officially decided to include it as part of her engagement party menu. Yay!
This is a pretty casual conversation and not particularly exciting, but what if I told you that Ewa might be Coochinando’s biggest fan? (I have to leave it open as I know there is good competition out there…!)
I met her for the first time back in 2010 at George’s and my engagement drinks in London but didn’t manage to speak to her or see her again… until… Coochinando was born.
Ewa has tried pretty much 70% of the recipes I shared so far. She has treated me with lots of precious feedback, photos and thoughts on the recipes and made my day every time she told me how she fell in love with this dish or that dish. It’s been a truly rewarding feeling and given me so much needed encouragement and ongoing support. But what I really love about Ewa is her relaxed attitude to good food: she doesn’t hold back and totally shares my views on how amazing it is to make great food.
Ewa’s attitude to cooking and learning is fantastic. I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her but one of the things that really touched me and made me feel I might actually be making a little difference to people’s attitude to cooking was something she said recently:
“I totally improvised some simple courgette pasta last night and I found myself thinking how much your blog has taught me! I end up just using some of your techniques in my recipes now.”
I have always claimed that in order to cook good food you do not need to attend expensive or fancy courses and cooking classes. You just need some time and a willingness to give it a go.
And whatever knowledge I manage to share effectively with any of you, allowing you to feel more confident when making Italian dishes or simply giving you ideas for recipes to use on special occasions or on a daily basis, that will have been worth the hours, the late nights, early mornings, the pestering sessions with my husband George and colleagues to ask them to help out with the technical side of things and branding, and the time it usually takes to write and maintain this blog.
So to go off-topic, I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of you for testing my recipes and letting me know how they worked out for you. You are too many to mention and I hope you know how much I value all your support.
That was one of the longest tangents I have ever taken. Quite an achievement….
So, yes, pasta al forno is a dish that won’t let anyone down. It is a great mixture of yummy but simple ingredients: tomato passata, basil, mozzarella and mince. And speaking of mince, I have to mention the fact that one of the things that Neapolitans are crazy for in this dish is polpettine (mini fried meatballs: the same ones you would make for lasagne napoletane).
Because I see this dish as a quick one to make, I decided to share the version in which I cook the mince mixture in a different way. I do not make the mini balls as it is quite time-consuming, but I fry the mince in the frying pan and scramble it as you do when you prepare scrambled eggs.
This doesn’t prevent you from making polpettine if you are willing and have time on your hands.
Pasta al forno belongs to that category of pasta dishes that are definitely and magically tastier the next day. I usually count the hours until the next day when I can reheat pasta al forno made the night before and enjoy all the flavours that will have sunk in and settled even more. Heaven. Pasta heaven.
- 500g rigatoni pasta (or ziti, penne or maccheroni)
For the tomato sauce
- 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
- A small onion, chopped finely (use less for a more subtle onion taste)
- 2 bottles of passata, 700g each
- Salt, as required, depending on your taste
- A bunch of fresh basil leaves
For the filling
- 500g scamorza affumicata, chopped into cubes (or well-drained mozzarella cheese, roughly chopped)
- 70g grated parmesan
- 2 hard boiled eggs, sliced (optional)
For the fried mini meatballs as part of the filling
- 400g lean beef mince
- 2 medium-sized eggs
- 2 abundant pinches of salt
- 4 tablespoons of fine breadcrumbs
- 1 big clove of garlic reduced to purée
- A sprinkle of black pepper
- A bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- A sprinkle of grated nutmeg
- 30g parmesan
- Salt for boiling water
- More extra-virgin olive oil to fry the mince (between 5 and 8 tablespoons)
Prepare the tomato sauce
In a medium-sized saucepan, add 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and the finely chopped onion. On low heat, sauté the onion, until it is a pale golden colour.
Add the passata, an abundant pinch of salt and stir well (you will need to taste it – what is sweet for someone can be quite salty for someone else!) and a bunch of basil leaves.
Let simmer with the lid on for 30-45 minutes. Check every now and then and stir.
Towards the end, increase the heat until the sauce becomes thicker and you can no longer see any watery content on the surface.
Taste and season with extra salt if required. And no: no other spices are needed. There will be parmesan, mozzarella and meatballs added to the filling, which provide plenty of flavour. 😀 Set aside.
For the mince and meatballs
In a bowl, combine the meat with all the ingredients as they are listed, and mix them well with a fork until you obtain a smooth, compact dough. You can use your hands if you find it difficult.
As said previously, once you have made the mixture, you can decide whether to go ahead and make mini meatballs and fry them, or cook the mixture in the frying pan, which is the quicker way.
In a large frying pan add 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, warm it up until hot and fry the mini meatballs or the mince dough until brown. For the mince, fry it on high heat and as it cooks scramble it like you do when you prepare scrambled eggs. When ready transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C fan).
Cook the pasta
In a very large saucepan add about 2.5/3l of water. Bring to boil. Add at least a tablespoon of salt. Pour the pasta and cook very al dente (approximately half the time indicated on the packet) because the pasta will be cooked further in the oven, for at least 20 minutes. This is an important step I cannot stress enough: the dish will be ruined if the pasta is overcooked.
Regarding salt for the pasta, it is of course a matter of taste, but traditionally it is good practice (mind you, I have not said healthy practice) to add a fair amount of salt. Start with a little and then taste the pasta while it is cooking. Add more if required.
Drain the pasta and move back it to the pan. Pour 3 big ladles of tomato sauce and mix well. Add some grated parmesan (about 20g out of the 70g) and mix well.
Line a square baking dish sized 30x20cm with 3-4 tablespoons of tomato sauce and distribute evenly. Pour in half of the pasta and distribute evenly to create a first layer.
Add half of the mini polpettine or the cooked mince and distribute evenly. Add half of the chopped mozzarella or scamorza and enough tomato sauce to cover the surface. Now sprinkle some parmesan evenly. If you cooked the eggs, add them all on the first layer of pasta.
Create the second layer with the the remaining pasta and distribute evenly with a spoon. Repeat the same operation as described above until all ingredients are finished: mince or polettine, mozzarella or scamorza, the remaining tomato sauce and parmesan.
Place in the oven and cook for about 20 minutes. It could take shorter or longer, but in no case more than 3o minutes. Your pasta al forno is ready when the top is arruscato: kind of burnt:-)
Take out and let rest for a few minutes. You can only do one thing now: cut yourself a slice and savour all the goodness of this world… but do make sure you leave some for the next day to be reheated because THAT is when this pasta dish will shine and thrive!