There are certain ills that only pasta can cure. Bad day at the office? No chocolate in the house? Sore feet? Never fear. These are all curable with a plate of pasta. Don’t believe me? Try it.
It’s no wonder then that after a particularly stressful day, not too long ago, I had pasta on the brain. But not just any pasta dish … pasta al forno. Baked pasta.
In the dead of winter, when spring seems like a wish that will never come true, nothing comforts quite as much as baked pasta. Yes, buttery mashed potatoes can help. And I’ll admit that a well-made rice pudding will set off a warm glow inside the belly. But neither come close to a plate of creamy, buttery, cheese-enrobed, crusty-topped pasta that calls to you the way the lighthouse calls to the lost ship. Come to me, it says, as it opens its arms wide to envelop you in its warmth.
For quite awhile I ignored the siren call of one baked pasta dish in particular. But last week, resistance was futile. I succumbed to the temptation of penne with five cheeses (actually six cheeses as I fiddled with the recipe).
This particular pasta dish, from the Barefoot Contessa Family Style Cookbook, had been giving me "come hither" looks for at least six months. It was around that time that I first saw the Barefoot Contessa episode where she prepared this dish. Now you must understand that when I watch Ina Garten, I am usually torn between two emotions: envy because I want her kitchen so badly and admiration because I admire her kitchen so badly. Much of the time, the food takes on the role of supporting actor to the Barefoot Contessa’s leading lady. But not the penne with five cheeses. Sorry, Ina, but you faded into the background like all those lovely copper pots on your stove.
Armed with my cookbook, I set about to prepare the pasta dish that would offer me so much comfort. I tweaked it a bit. I added Parmigiano Reggiano because if you have five cheeses you might as well have six. And I didn’t bake it in individual gratin dishes. I baked it in a rectangular ceramic dish that held all those lovely little penne together as one. I must also admit that I broke one of my own little food rules: I used an ingredient out of season. Basil. You see basil isn’t exactly flourishing in Canada at this time of year. But I had to do it. It’s as if that little package of basil promised that summer would soon return and bring with it all the glories of the garden.
When I finally removed the pasta from the oven, I set it gently on the counter and let it cool slightly before I greedily dug into it. As expected, the bad day was forgotten. I suddenly remembered a secret chocolate stash in the kitchen cupboard. My feet were no longer sore. And like the lost ship struggling to make it home, I saw the light and made it to dry land.
Penne with Six Cheeses
Adapted from the Barefoot Contessa Family Style Cookbook.
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 1/4 cups crushed tomatoes in a thick puree
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
- 1/4 cup shredded imported Italian fontina
- 1/4 cup crumbled Italian Gorgonzola
- 3 tbsp. ricotta cheese
- 1/4 pound buffalo mozzarella, sliced thinly (use fresh mozzarella if you can’t find buffalo mozzarella)
- 3 tbsp. Parmigiano Reggiano (add more if you like!)
- 3 or 4 fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 1 pound of penne rigate (you can use regular penne or rigatoni)
- 4 tbsp. unsalted butter
To make the pasta
- Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and then add salt; stir.
- In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients except the penne and the butter. Mix well so that the cheeses and cream are combined
- Drop the penne into the boiling water and boil for 5 minutes. Drain the penne and immediately add to mixture of cheeses and cream. Toss to combine making sure that the pasta is completely coated in the mixture.
- Pour the pasta into a large baking dish. Dot with butter and bake until bubbly and brown on top, 7 to 10 minutes.
Note: I have an older oven that isn’t well-calibrated so it took a bit longer (about 15 minutes).