Attention to detail — and patients — delivers superior baked pasta results
Hot, hearty and comforting, baked pasta will assuage any winter blues. John Coletta, executive chef/managing partner at Quartino in Chicago, Illinois, has prepared and served many baked pasta dishes for nearly seven years.
The most popular is lasagna al forno, made with bolognese meat ragu,house-made ricotta and tomato sauce. he creates the pasta in-house, making the traditional meal the way he grew up eating it. “The lasagna is prepared individually allowing for a highly personalized food experience,” he says.
Coletta also prepares baked capellini with fresh ricotta and baked orecchiette with house-made sausage. He enjoys preparing the pastas, saying, “baked pasta dishes are comforting and impressive expressions of the chef.”
Angel Fabian, corporate executive chef for Vero Amore Restaurants, which has locations in Tucson and Marana, Arizona, prepares baked linguini marinara, composed of house-made mozzarella, house-made marinara and is finished with Parmesan.
The Vero amore lasagna is a popular two-meat, three-cheese lasagna. his baked bowtie pasta and cheese elevates macaroni and cheese with the inclusion of Piave and sharp white cheddar cheeses and prosciutto.
“We take our time with these dishes to ensure the best possible flavor, tex- ture and appearance,” says Fabian. “We bake our pasta dishes slowly to allow all of the flavors to develop. we use only the highest quality local and imported ingredients available.”
Cedric Arwacher, chef/owner at Pasta Folies, in Miami, Florida, pays tribute to world flavors through his baked pastas. For example, Thai fusion lasagna incorporates shrimp, shallots, soy sauce, basil, red pepper, bean sprouts, paprika and lime. The indian fusion lasagna marries carrots, zucchini, onions, eggplant and red peppers, together with creamy curry.
“Baked pastas are great for the restaurant business because you can do a lot of prep work ahead of time and the flavors become richer as you let them marinate,” says Arwacher.
Generally, baked pasta dishes have comparable food costs to non-baked pasta dishes. however, labor costs tend to be higher with baked pastas due to the time needed to produce consistent dishes.
“There are many precautions needed in order to achieve moist and flavorful baked pasta,” says Coletta. He recommends placing the completed pasta and its serving vessel into a water bath and then into the oven; covering the casserole with oiled aluminum foil, and baking at 375 F to prevent the pasta dish from drying and/or burning.
Operators must remember that there is carry over cooking when the baked pasta is removed from the oven.“Pasta is always best eaten al dente,” says Coletta. “It is always best to under cook the pasta realizing that the pasta continues to cook even after being removed from the oven.”
When it comes to serving baked pasta, Coletta says that the “ideal scenario” is to assemble the pasta at the moment when ordered by a customer. An alternative is having several baked pastas assembled in advance prior to baking.
Fabian prepares the dishes’ components and stores it separately until the dish is ready to be cooked to the customer’s order. “Air is dough’s biggest enemy. Keep the pasta covered and dry,” he says.
To keep pasta from becoming chewy, diligence with your prep and following the recipe exactly is necessary. “when using fresh pasta, allow it to rest according to the recipe, be sure not to over work the dough and serve immediately,” says Fabian.
Different pasta varieties offer different textures. while Coletta prefers using fresh baked pasta, he says dried pasta made from durum wheat semolina, and dried pasta made from grano tenero flour are nice alternatives to using fresh pasta.
Fabian prefers using hearty pastas such as dumplings, gnocchi and macaroni. Thicker pastas tend to absorb flavors and sauces better than thinner versions. “I stay away from thinner delicate pastas like angel hair pasta,” he says.
“And,” Fabian continues, “try to be patient. You can’t rush a good pasta dish.”
Baked Capellini with Fresh Ricotta
Recipe courtesy of John Coletta, Quartino
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 tablespoon salt
1 pound dried capellini
4 cups Besciamella Sauce
9 teaspoons grated Parmigiano-Reggia- no, divided
Salt and pepper
4 large eggs, beaten and strained 3 tablespoons whole milk
¾ cup fresh whole-milk ricotta
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking dish with butter.
In a covered pasta pot over high heat, bring water to a boil. Add salt and capellini. Cook, uncovered, until pasta is almost al dente. Scoop out about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside. Drain pasta.
In a large sauté pan over low heat, combine 1/3 cup reserved pasta water and 2 cups of Besciamella sauce. Simmer. Add capellini and, using pasta tongs, toss to coat evenly. Add 3 tablespoons of Parmigiano-Reggiano and toss. Season with salt and pepper.
Remove from heat. Add eggs and toss to mix well.
Sprinkle dish with 3 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano. Add capellini. Whisk milk into remaining Bescia- mella sauce and spread evenly on top. Distribute ricotta equally over top and sprinkle with remaining Parmigiano- Reggiano.
Bake until top is golden, about 35 minutes. Serve immediately.
Baked Ziti with Sausage
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup onion, coarsely chopped
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
3½ cups tomato puree
2 teaspoons dried oregano 2 teaspoons dried basil
8 ounces ricotta
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ cup grated Parmesan
1 pound ziti or penne pasta
½ pound mozzarella, shredded (about 2 cups)
In a large sauté pan, warm olive oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add onion and sauté, stirring for about 2 minutes.
Add Italian sausage and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until sausage is cooked through. Remove from heat and drain off excess grease.
Add tomato puree, oregano and basil. Cook sauce at a steady simmer while preparing the rest of the dish.
In a large bowl, combine ricotta, salt, parsley and Parmesan. Set aside (refrigerate if any unused for longer than 30 minutes).
Cook pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until about half cooked. Drain pasta and set aside to dry further if you have time.
Add pasta to ricotta cheese mixture and stir well to combine. Pre- heat oven to 400 degrees.
Remove sauce from heat and allow to cool about 5 minutes. Add sauce to the pasta and ricotta mixture and combine well.
Pour pasta sauce mixture into a 4-5 quart ovenproof dish.
Level top with the back of a spatula or spoon. Spread mozzarella evenly. Bake until cheese is golden brown. May be pre- pared ahead and reheated for service.
Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. She covers food, business and lifestyle trends.