I used to never be a fan of pasta. That's because I've always held this 'image' in my mind of what pasta is. Spaghetti, canned tomato sauce and parmesan cheese...'pasta'. As we've been diving into the multiple cookbooks that now line our shelves, I'm come to realize that pasta is so much more. It's penne with vodka sauce, it's a base for great french chicken and it can even be naked! Not to mention, most pasta dishes seem to be fast and easy to prepare, with fantastic results.
I decided to try another unique pasta recipe tonight; 'Baked Cheesy Pasta Casserole'. My normal association with that phrasing is boxed noodles that come with some dried cheese (I.E. 'just add milk') concoction that is all too perfectly yellow and doesn't really taste like cheese. Unfortunately, the common casserole has become so mass produced and 'easy' that what you can find from Hamburger Helper and in the freezer section has just become 'acceptable'. Well, with tonight's recipe - I'm hoping to dispel that myth. My recipe tonight is quick, easy and (hopefully) delicious.
The Recipe: Baked Pasta Casserole
Original Recipe Found In: The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook
What You'll Need:
2 Slices High Quality Bread (White or Wheat)
1 Ounce Parmesan Cheese, Grated (About 1/2 Cup)
4 Ounces Italian Fontina Cheese, Shredded (About 1 Cup)
3 Ounces Gorgonzola Cheese, Crumbled (About 3/4 Cup)
1 Ounce Pecorino Romano Cheese (Or Substitute) *
1 Pound Penne
2 Teaspoons Unsalted Butter
2 Teaspoons All Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Cups Heavy Cream
As always, pre-measure before you begin
*Pecorino Romano cheese proved a little tricky for us to track down this week. We did find some, but it came in large quantities (when we only needed an ounce, it seemed like overkill). Pecorino Romano, also called 'Romano' cheese is made from goat's milk in Italy. However, the North American version comes from cow's milk - meaning substitutes for this cheese are fairly simple to find. Pecorino Romano is a sharper cheese, with a salty finish. This means you can substitute with cheeses such as parmesan, asiago or any pecorino cheese. In our situation, I simply substituted the spendy Italian cheese with the relatively cheap parmesan cheese.
Begin by taking two high quality slices of white or wheat bread (this can be bread you've made yourself - or if you don't want to take the extra effort, by buying some higher end bread. Pepperidge Farms' Whole Wheat bread is a very high quality bread that works well here) and slice them into quarters. Our slices of bread had extra crumbly and tough crust, so I opted to remove the crust and break them down separately. Place these strips of bread into a food processor and pulse until the bread has been reduced to crumbs. This should take about 15 to 30 seconds.
Who knew it was so easy to make breadcrumbs?
Add the bread crumbs into a small bowl and mix in 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese along with a dash of salt and pepper. Set this bowl aside for later.
Mixing the cheese and breadcrumbs
Set your oven rack to the middle spot, and preheat the oven to 'full whack' 475-500 degrees (depending on the range of your oven). Next, place of large pot (roughly 4 quarts) of water on high heat and bring it to a boil.
While you are waiting for the water to come to a boil, you can get a head start on shredding your cheeses. Once shredded, mix all three (pecorino, fontina and gorgonzola) in a large bowl and set aside.
Adding the cheese together
Once your water is boiling, add the penne along with a pinch of salt. Stir often and cook until al dente.
While your penne is cooking, melt two tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan. Once melted, slowly whisk in your flour and stir until all the lumps are gone. Next, slowly pour in your heavy cream, whisking it in with the butter/flour mixture until everything is well blended. Turn the heat up to medium and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often. (It doesn't so much 'boil' as does 'foam'. Once the surface of the mixture starts to solidify and rise up, you have reach the boiling point.) Reduce the heat to low immediately and allow to simmer for another minute.
When your penne has reached al dente, drain it. Add the penne to the bowl with your cheese mixture and immediately pour the heavy cream over everything. Cover with aluminum foil and allow to rest for three minutes. You goal here is to melt all of your cheese into one nice, gooey, cheese ball. After three minutes, remove the foil and mix everything together with a rubber spatula. It will take a few folds to get everything mixed, but the longer you spend on mixing, the better the blend - so it's well worth the time.
Finally, transfer the noodles to a 13 X 9 inch baking dish. Press down on the noodles to get them nice and compact. Sprinkle your bread crumb / parmesan mixture evenly over the entire dish and press down once again. Place your baking dish in the 500 degree oven and set the timer for 7 minutes. After 7 minutes, your bread crumb topping should be nice and golden brown (if not, add a few minutes). All that is left is to serve and enjoy!
Judging by Maggie's satisfied 'gurgle' as she took the first bite of the casserole, it turned out quite well. The three unique cheeses all blended superbly into one delicious (and not too cheesy!) dish. It was surprising that these cheeses worked so well together, actually as they were so diverse before we combined them.
Maggie (my official cheese taste tester) was munching on extra pieces of the fontina cheese as I was grating it. She described it as a 'softer version of mozzarella'. Parmesan is, of course, standard parmesan - a sharper cheese with a slightly saltier finish. Gorgonzola, well...gorgonzola made my cheese loving fiance gag. "Uck, that was strong!" Maggie exclaimed after eating a small piece of the multi-colored cheese. I immediately became concerned that this pungent smelling cheese would bring the demise of my recipe. In fact, I temporarily contemplated removing the cheese altogether. In the end, I decided to leave it in and it was a good thing I did.
The flavor was neither strong nor sweet and none of the cheeses overrode each other in the final dish. The bread crumb topping was a delicious crunchy addition and the extra dash of parmesan cheese mixed into the crumbs was nice flavor boost. All in all, this was one fantastically delicious recipe. Certainly going into our repeat recipe book.
Yesterday, while picking up groceries I made a mental note to compare cooking times of 'pre-made' casserole dishes. Two freezer section casseroles that were comparable to my dish tonight took 45 minutes to cook. One boxed version took 30 minutes, plus you had 'mix the cheese packet'. My recipe tonight, including waiting time for the water to boil: 25 minutes. It's faster, healthier, tastes better AND the cheese isn't neon orange. Why exactly are people buying prepackaged casserole dishes anymore?
That's all we have for your tonight. I have to go nurse a burn on my arm (I now know why my Mom always wanted oven mitts that reached her elbow. While grabbing the baking dish from the oven, I bumped the top of the oven with my mid forearm - OUCH!) Here's hoping you give this recipe a shot for yourself. It simple, quick and very, very delicious. Maggie returns to the kitchen tomorrow night, so be sure to stop back then to see what she's got cooking. Until then,