Red Pasta Bake

To explain the slightly odd title we have always viewed pasta bakes in this household as either red or white, tomato sauce based, or bechemel sauce based. I guess this makes a lasagne a pink bake? But this has become a staple during lockdown, to the extent where cooking five portions on a Wednesday, handing a portion to a friend on Thursday, the individual who lead to the inclusion of breadcrumbs, and baking the leftovers that evening was as reassuring and comforting as the warm and familiar flavours. Been appearing a little less since I’ve been fasting as the batch cooking and copious cheese crust mean I’m trying not to have this as a day to day meal but it’ll be a forever favourite.

N.B. This uses this Tomato Sauce recipe, but you can substitute your own or a jar sauce in a pinch.


The Red Pasta Bake


Mise en place

To be honest most of the sauce prep will come first, bar the protein here.

  • Protein, diced or decased

So here you can take all sorts of liberties, but we tend to go with about 4-500g sausages or chicken, normally caramelized onion sausages actually. The trick to using sausages for this is to decase the sausages, unless you’ve got chipolattas in which case just chop sections as long as the sausage is wide. To decase a sausage to take the sausage in one hand, holding with forefinger and thumb around the middle, pinch the middle of the sausage and rotate the other half with your free hand, this will open the casing at both ends and give you a point to squeeze out from. Once you’ve got the sausage meat out you can just discard the casing and cook with it almost as if you’re cooking with mince. If you’re working with other proteins this should be adaptable; if it needs frying this method works, if it doesn’t you can just skip forward to adding the protein near the end.

  • Cheese, grated

Approximately 2-300g of cheese, but that’s a very approximate value. If you’ve a wider dish to bake in more might be wise, if it’s a taller narrower one, or just just want a lighter meal you can cut this right down. Varieties can vary, recently I have been using a mix of mature cheddar and vegetarian parmesan (don’t get me started on GOP cheeses and calf rennet) but the ideal mix I’ve found is scamorza, provelone and mature cheddar, mozzarella is always a strong base however. Grating grade, for lack of a better word, is personal taste, but I tend to grate finely and feel it gives a nicer crust, but if you’re going lighter on the cheese a coarse grate can give a lovely aesthetic.

  • Breadcrumbs, golden

A few tablespoons, maybe a bit more if using aged cheeses or a lot of mozzarella, it absorbs the fat or potentially water and manages baking it away to leave a crunchy cheese crust that is a bit tougher to get without them.

  • Pasta, for 4-6

Fresh is always best, but this is a recipe that can be easier with dried, particularly if you’re preparing ahead of time and letting it sit.

  • The Usual

i.e. Salt, Pepper, Oil.

Method

Fry the protein

I tend to use a stick pan (a non-non-stick pan) for this, a high heat and a splash of oil, cook until the protein is cooked through and coloured and ideally leaving a good fond, the sticky dark residue, on the pan then remove from the pan leaving as much fat as possible and set aside.

Make the tomato sauce

Using the pan with the fond as your starting point go through the process for this sauce, beginning the following steps while it simmers. Also use this as a chance to start preheating your oven to around 150°C (assuming you’re in a civilised part of the world and have a fan oven, otherwise probably about 170°C).

Boil the pasta

Reduce the regular cooking time by a couple of minutes if you plan to bake this immediately or more if you intend to prepare it and bake later, even more if you aren’t letting the sauce cool before combining and leaving to sit.

Mix the cheese crust

Combine in a bowl the cheeses and breadcrumbs until evenly mixed

Assemble!

Return, or introduce the protein to the sauce, mix with the pasta and place into your baking dish, ensuring it is well mixed and level. This is a great time to set to one side having prepared it in the morning and just sling it in the oven later, of course don’t preheat during the simmering in this case. If doing this, simply refrigerate the cheese mix and the sauce-pasta mix covered for the course of the day or even overnight. Cover in the cheese crust.

Bake So baking can vary from 10-20 minutes, normally on the shorter side of that, and often varying based on details like the position of the crust of the bake in the dish. The point you are baking towards though is gratination this is after the cheese has melted and when it darkens, in effect this baking step is like making cheese on toast and you’re looking for the same process. If you’ve chosen to prepare and bake seperately then you make want to up this time to the region of 30 minutes with a foil covering for the first 15 or so.

Serve

Pair with an italian style salad for a balanced dinner or heap into a bowl on your lap for a comforting winter warmer. My partner particularly enjoys this baked again the day after as twice cooked pasta is just a wonderful thing so let the leftovers cool and bake again under foil until hot through and serve in the same way. It shows that I’m a programmer that I wanted to then make a recursive call to serve. But generally I’d only reheat once, however separate portions can be kept in the fridge in an airtight container for a few days quite safely as long as they are heated to piping hot in the middle.