If there's anything more comforting than boiled pasta in a sauce, it's got to be baked pasta in a sauce. The baking adds a crispy crust that is such a delicious contrast to the tender goodness of the dish.
The challenge is to how to get the pasta to turn out just right. Most baked pasta recipes instruct you to boil the noodles until cooked halfway before baking them. This allows the pasta to finish cooking in the oven as it bathes in the sauce. But this method has challenges. If you boil the noodles more than halfway, they'll be overcooked by the time you pull the finished dish out of the oven. I find it hard to get the pre-cooking time right.
And precooking the pasta, even halfway, takes work and dirties a large pot and colander. Then again, if you don't precook the pasta and instead add it dry to the sauce for baking, it will take much longer to become tender in the oven, even as it absorbs all the liquid in the sauce. Dry pasta needs to hydrate.
So what's a home cook to do? Use my simple no-cook method of precooking the pasta. Just soak the pasta in warm salted water before adding it to the other ingredients and sliding the mixture into the oven. Presoaking is a way to begin hydrating the pasta and washing away some of its starch, even as the salt in the water pre-seasons the pasta.
Yes, you'll dirty a bowl, but given that that's the same vessel in which you'll combine all the dish's ingredients, it's the only bowl you'll need. The soak requires 45 minutes, but it's hands-off time, freeing you up to prep the rest of the ingredients in the meantime. Then it takes no time at all to assemble the dish and pop it into the oven.
Just 20 or so minutes later you can collect your reward: deeply-flavored baked pasta, creamy on the bottom and crispy on top. The perfect wintry entree. Add a salad and some crusty bread and be happy.
BAKED PENNE WITH PROSCIUTTO AND FONTINA
Start to finish: 1 hour 15 minutes (20 minutes active)
1 pound penne pasta
Butter, for coating the baking pan
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
1 1/2 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 ounces coarsely grated fontina cheese
4 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped
In a large bowl, combine the pasta with enough lukewarm, well salted water to cover. Let stand for 45 minutes.
Heat the oven to 450 F. Lightly butter a shallow baking dish (12-cup capacity with 2 to 2 1/2-inch sides).
Drain the pasta and set aside. In the same bowl, combine all remaining ingredients, stirring well. Add the pasta, toss to combine, then season with a pinch of salt. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish, pressing it down evenly. Bake on the oven's middle shelf until bubbly and browned, 20 to 22 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 590 calories; 240 calories from fat (41 percent of total calories); 27 g fat (15 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 1060 mg sodium; 63 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 24 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."