For as long as there have been ovens and pasta, there have been pasta bakes. In Italy, there's lasagne, in Greece pastitsio and in Aussie homes all manner of wonderful, inventive dinners.
Baking the pasta with its sauce delivers two great improvements. First, the sauce gets to thicken and soak into the pasta; second, the dish develops a delicious golden crust which might include gnarly pieces of crunchy pasta and golden, crispy cheesy bits.
There aren't many classic dishes that fall into this pasta bake category. Mac'n'cheese perhaps qualifies, as does cannelloni filled with ricotta and spinach. Less well known are Sicilian timballo, Parisian or Roman baked gnocchi, American baked ziti and Maltese timpana.
Look through the pasta bake recipes on major recipe sites and you will see there is no shortage of homestyle inspiration and creativity built on these basics. But before you start, you need to understand the seven simple secrets of the pasta bake and realise every great pasta bake — and every disaster — revolves around three main areas: the sauce or flavourings, the topping and the pasta.
Think of a tomato or a tomato-based meat sauce paired with something creamy whether it's béchamel, a cheese sauce, or slices of mozzarella or thin slabs of ricotta. That's one reason why a lasagne, or cannelloni filled with ricotta, works so well baked with napoli sauce. A more robust pasta shape like ridged penne, which gives lots of surfaces for the sauce to cling and soak into, is a favourite for baking, so toss it with a Sicilian caponata or a tomato sauce and little bocconcini.
The meat element
Both lasagne and pastitsio have few set rules of what meats are used. Beef mince might be traditional but the meat sauce some cooks use in their lasagne has veal mince. In Greece, the layers of tubular pasta in pastitsio may be separated by a layer of cinnamon spiced lamb or beef mince and finished with a layer of white sauce topped with cheese, while in Cyprus, the meat is likely to be mince with haloumi cheese topping. The Maltese timpana has the pasta mixed with beaten egg, cheese, corned beef and (sometimes) hard-boiled eggs.
Inspiration for pasta bakes can come from other "old favourite" combos that work well with pasta and colliding the two. Think of a tuna mornay sauce baked over farfalle; a "white lasagne" of poached chicken with ricotta and asparagus or spinach and mushrooms; or penne baked in a creamy leek and chicken sauce. You can turn carbonara into a baked pasta dish but you'll need hot pasta, a hot (60C ) baking dish and then baking under a very hot grill to golden up the top before the egg sets.
The heat of the oven grill will bubble-up fatty cheese nicely and give a golden skin to a cheese sauce. If that is not unusual enough, how about replacing with a layer of haloumi? You can also add crunch by covering the pasta with a layer of larger fresh breadcrumbs sprayed with olive oil. You can pep these up with parmesan or fresh herbs like thyme or lemon zest, dried chilli or smoked paprika.
Usually, the choice for a pasta bake is between pasta sheets for lasagne-style dishes, large tubes for the cannelloni or other pasta shapes for pasta bakes. But why not try spaghetti if the sauce is quite fine? In mac'n'cheese, try penne with a cup or two of peas and flavour the sauce with a crumbled vegetable stock cube. You will also find that the peas have the cute trick of lodging inside pasta tubes so they look like pasta peashooters. Don't be afraid to bake with filled pasta shapes. Undercook these a little before baking as you would any pasta for a bake. Gnocchi is great baked under wilted silverbeet and gorgonzola, but dress this with crunchy toasted walnuts before serving. A pureed sauce of peeled broccoli stalks with crispy pancetta, topped with blanched florets and grated hard cheese is another winner.
...And some baking twists
You can play with the idea of the pasta bake by stuffing large pasta shells and baking them under a sauce or some grated cheese; rolling lasagne sheets up with meat sauce and perhaps thin slices of eggplant to make a dish of bolognese rotolo; or standing tube pasta on one end to fill a baking dish and then filling the upturned tubes with a tomatoey meat sauce. Also think of what you will bake in. I've played with baking mini mac'n' cheeses in small buttered muffin pans so you get more crusty edges or doing the bake in a spring-form cake tin.
Simple secrets to a better pasta bake
- Use the right pasta — something with holes and ridges to catch the sauce is best
- Undercook the pasta by two to three minutes if it takes 9 minutes or more. It will finish cooking during the baking process. If it is not properly al dente it will end up overcooked in the finished dish.
- Don't rinse the pasta after draining.
- Red and white is best. Contrast is vital, especially in a pasta bake that can be too heavy and rich. A bright and slightly acidic tomato sauce is the perfect foil to a creamy cheese sauce or all that melted cheese.
- Use whole canned tomatoes and crush the tomatoes with your hand so they still have some texture in the sauce.
- Cook at 160C and finish under the grill to get the toasty browny corners and edges.
- After cooking let the bake rest before hoeing into it.
Frankie pasta bake
A simple student pasta and tomato dish - delicious, filling and cheap to boot.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
400g can cherry or chopped tomatoes
few dashes of sauce
100g rigatoni or other tube-shaped pasta
50g Gruyère or cheddar, grated
hunk of baguette or sliced bread, coarsely grated
2 frankfurters, sliced
Heat the oil in a medium pan and fry the onion for 5 mins until softened and lightly golden. Stir in the garlic and cook for a further min. Mix in the tomatoes and sugar, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 mins. Add a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and season to taste. This basic sauce can now be chilled or frozen, see recipe intro.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to pack instructions. Heat the grill to high. Mix together the cheese and breadcrumbs. Drain the pasta and stir into the sauce. Tip in the frankfurters and spoon into a heatproof dish. Scatter over the cheesy crumbs and grill for 3-5 mins or until bubbling hot and golden. Serve with a simple salad.