Pasta al forno (baked pasta the classic Italian way)
This recipe is based on the wonderful ‘pasta al forno’ (pasta bake) my Sicilian mother-in-law makes! In fact, she brought a dish (actually two) over to our house on Easter Sunday. We had 22 people for lunch which was quite a challenge but the great thing about Italian families is they are always happy to contribute towards the cooking and food, so it’s rare for the hosts to end up doing everything. Dessert is a very traditional offering and we actually ended up with 5 different cakes made by various guests and family members! Plus this wonderful pasta al forno!
If we include vegetarian dishes,there are hundreds of different recipes for baked pasta here in Italy, however the most traditional and classic is with a meat sauce or ‘ragu’, a tube pasta type such as macaroni (in Italian ‘maccheroni’). rigatoni, tortiglioni, elicoidali, penne etc and some local soft or semi soft cheese as well as parmesan, pecorino or grana sprinkled on top.
‘Pasta al forno’ is a popular dish in Italy on Sundays or public holidays, especially in the South. This is probably because it takes longer to make than recipes with pasta which has only been boiled, so it is too time consuming for a week day meal. However, it can be made mostly in advance and is ideal for feeding a large number of people. Needless to say, there are always plenty of guests at an Italian family Sunday or holiday lunch! Kids also love it and a beautifully baked ‘pasta al forno’ looks so great when brought to the table!
Normally in Italy, pasta is not the main course. It is the ‘primo’ or first course and is often followed by meat or fish with vegetables and sometimes potatoes, although Italians aren’t big potato eaters unlike the Germans or the Brits! For this reason, pasta is often served with a lighter sauce but on special occasions when families get together baked pasta is a popular tradition.
Housewives and cooks in each Italian region have a slightly different way of making ‘ragu’. However, the basic ingredients are much the same; two types of ground meat (often pork and beef or veal) fresh tomatoes or passata, carrots and onions, stock and wine. The rest of the ingredients vary from region to region and sometimes from cook to cook. Some add other vegetables, spices, herbs and Bolognese, for example, is made with milk.
In some regions they also add hard boiled eggs and many add homemade bechamel sauce to the dish. Not every pasta al forno includes a soft cheese but most do. The most commonly used is mozzarella but scamorza, caciocavallo or provola are popular too.
This recipe (see the next page) is made with Sicilian ragu which includes peas, caciocavallo and tortiglioni pasta. It was yummilicous and despite the number sitting down to lunch that day, there was quite a bit left over so I was able to enjoy it the next day too!
If you have never made pasta al forno, do give it a try. It’s a wonderful go-to dish when you are planning to feed a large number. I’d love to hear from any of you who make this recipe, so feel free to comment here on the blog or on my Instagram account!