Pull it from the oven with crusts of burnished bronze, the aromas of simmering sauces intermingling with luscious cheeses and rich meats rise up to fill a room. Baked pastas with layers of cheese, spinach, sausages, pancetta, mushrooms and piping hot, glistening macaroni is soul warming on a cold day.
Baked pasta dishes are the quintessential one-dish meals and best make ahead dishes. We all recognize lasagna, baked pasta shells with spinach and the classic macaroni and cheese, but these popular dishes are just the beginning. The sky’s the limit when it comes to creating baked pasta dishes.
You don’t really need a recipe. If you’re skilled with pasta making, you’re already ahead of the game. Just a few hints to get you started. First, choose your favourite pasta. Macaroni works better than spaghetti. Cook the pasta three-quarters of the way done, or very al dente. Next, you should have twice as much pasta sauce as you would normally use. The third ingredient is cheese, you’ll need plenty of cheese.
Now layer the dish. Start with a smear of pasta sauce at the bottom of the baking dish. Add a layer of pasta dressed with plenty of sauce. Generously sprinkle the cheese and continue to layer, finishing off with more sauce. Now bake, covered, for approximately 30 minutes at 350F.
Feel free to add other ingredients such as cooked pancetta, bits of broccoli or bits of leftover meat such as chicken or pork. Get exotic with your cheeses, experiment in the wild world of macaroni shapes and try different sauces from tomato to bachamel and pesto.
Remember the glorious timballi that was made in the much under-rated movie The Big Night? It was made with both tomato and bachamel sauce layered with slices of eggplant, spicy Italian sausage and ziti pasta. Yum!
Early recipes for timballi called for a sweet pasta encasing a savoury filling. The crust wasn’t really meant to be eaten, but only to impart a sweet essence to the savoury ingredients inside the “drum.” In very few instances is the timballo still made this way today. Instead, sheets of unsweetened pasta are now used. It’s best to make all of the ingredients from scratch, but if you can’t, there are many good Italian products on the market.
Pasta al Forno or baked pastas are savoury, rich and irresistible. Plan on making this Timballo a little at a time over a few days.
Timpano alle Melanzane
2 medium eggplant
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 good quality lean hot Italian sausages
¼ cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, bruised
2 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, diced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
5 fresh basil leaves, torn in small pieces or ½ teaspoon dried basil
salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk, warmed
pinch of salt
6 ounces fusilli or macaroni of your choice
1 tablespoon sweet butter, melted
6 lasagna sheets, rolled thin in a pasta machine
¼ cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese
Wash the eggplant and cut into thin slices. Meanwhile combine the garlic and olive oil and set aside. Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Lay the eggplant in a single layer on parchment paper lined baking sheets and brush with garlic oil. Bake for about 8 minutes. Turn the eggplant over, brush with remaining garlic oil and bake for an additional 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Tomato sauce: Remove the sausage from the casings. In a large skillet, gently sauté until no longer pink, about 15 minutes. Remove the sausage and set aside. Drain excess fat from the skillet. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and basil to the skillet. Simmer for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
Béchamel sauce: In a heavy bottomed saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth and it begins to pull away from the pan. Add a ladle full of warm milk and stir until smooth. Continue to add milk, a little at a time, stirring constantly until you get a velvety smooth sauce. Cook for an additional 10 minutes over low heat to thicken. Remove from heat and add salt. Cover the surface of the sauce with plastic wrap to prevent a skin forming and let cool.
When all of the components above are prepared and cooled, cook the pasta in rapidly boiling, salted water until about 2 minutes short of al dente. Drain and toss with a bit of butter. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Line a pasta mold, deep springform pan or deep baking dish, with lasagna sheets overlapping the edges. Begin layering the ingredients starting with tomato sauce, eggplant, tomato sauce, sausage, béchamel, sprinkling of parmigiano, thin layer of pasta. Repeat layering in this order until all ingredients are used up. Wrap the top with the overlapping pasta. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Let rest about 15 minutes. To serve, invert pasta onto a serving plate and garnish with fresh basil leaves. Makes 1 timpano serving 6 people.