Oven-baked pasta has a long history that goes back to the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, when pasticci, timballi and other forms of baked pasta were often served at the large banquets in the palaces of nobles. “Pasta al forno” was an opportunity for the court chef to show off his creativity and inventiveness. Eventually, the dish was adopted all over Italy—its success, no doubt, due to its infinite versatility. Today, it’s still a staple dish of southern Italy, where it is usually prepared on Sundays, religious holidays and special occasions. Sicily and Campania (which includes the cities of Naples, Amalfi, and Salerno) are the regions where pasta al forno is most popular and creative. It’s often called a piatto unico—one serving is virtually a complete meal in itself—including carbohydrates, meat, vegetables and cheeses.

In Italy, the great variety in preparations of pasta al forno depends not only on what you have in the refrigerator or pantry, but also on regional traditions and approaches. For instance, in northern Italy, butter, pork fat or even bone marrow are used for sautéing ingredients or in preparing the ragù (meat sauce); while in the southern regions, olive oil is predominantly used. Southern-style baked pastas are often based on vegetables—such as roasted or grilled eggplant; peppers or zucchini; sautéed or steamed peas; spinach or chard; broccoli or broccoli rabe; or cauliflower. Local cured meats—such as sopressata, prosciutto or sausages—can be added. Sometimes tiny meatballs or even sliced hard-boiled eggs are used. Cheeses—such as caciocavallo, scamorza, provola and mozzarella—are added to the layers or placed on top to form a delicious crust.

A northern version of pasta al forno is sometimes made with fresh, filled egg pasta—such as tortellini or ravioli—with béchamel (made of butter, milk and flour) and ragù alla Bolognese. Alternatively, thickened braised meat gravy is used, mixed with layers of vegetables, mushrooms, cured meats (such as Parma ham or speck) and cheeses, such as Parmigiano or Grana Padano, Taleggio, Gorgonzola or Mozzarella.

One of the most famous examples of oven-baked pasta is “lasagne al forno” and this dish varies according to the geographical area. For instance, in southern Italy, white sauces are rarely used since butter was virtually unknown in that region until just a few decades ago. In Italy, “fai con quello che hai”—making do with what you have—is an essential part of home cooking and it particularly applies to baked pasta.

The following are some tips and ideas for preparing your own baked pastas:

  • Short pasta—such as penne, rigatoni, shells, or ziti—is the pasta of choice. It should be cooked less than half of the packages’s suggested cooking time.
  • Sometimes the pasta is mixed in with all the other ingredients and then baked; alternatively, the ingredients are layered in a baking dish.
  • Any leftovers you have on hand—cooked meats, grilled, roasted or steamed vegetable, sauces or gravy and soft cheeses—are ideal for oven-baked pasta.
  • To obtain a deep brown crust surface, top the casserole with a lowfat béchamel sauce and/or cheese.

Beef-Pesto Lasagna

Ingredients

  • 1 lb lean ground round beef
  • 1 clove garlic (minced)
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1 (26-ounce) jar marinara sauce or 3 ½-4 cups homemade sauce
  • 1 (3.5-ounce) jar pesto or ½ cup fresh made basil pesto
  • 1 (15-ounce) container part-skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 packages (10-ounce) frozen chopped spinach (thawed and squeezed dry)
  • 1 package frozen artichokes (defrosted and sliced)
  • 1⁄2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 (16-ounce) box lasagna noodles (cooked al dente)
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Directions

Cook beef, garlic and Italian seasoning in a large nonstick skillet about 5 minutes or until browned; drain; stir in marinara and pesto sauces.

Combine ricotta, spinach, artichokes and Parmesan cheese.

Spread 1 1/2 cups beef sauce in the bottom of a 13-x 9-inch baking dish. Arrange 1/3 noodles, slightly overlapping if necessary. Spread half of ricotta mixture over noodles. Top with 1 1/2 cups beef sauce and repeat layering with noodles and ricotta mixture. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees F for 1 hour. Uncover and let stand 15 minutes.

Chicken Spaghetti Bake

This is a very kid friendly dish.

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces uncooked whole grain spaghetti
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans Italian diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 each teaspoon salt and pepper
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 3 cups chopped cooked chicken
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Cook pasta al dente. Drain.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic; sauté 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, seasoning and salt; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.

Stir in 1 cup mozzarella cheese, cooked spaghetti and chicken. Spoon into a 3-quart casserole coated with cooking spray.

Sprinkle with remaining 1 cup mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Bake at 350ºF for 15 minutes.

Fall Vegetable Casserole

For a vegetarian version leave out the sausage.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups cubed peeled butternut squash
  • 1/2 pound fresh brussels sprouts, halved
  • 1 medium onion, cut into wedges
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 3/4 lb whole wheat penne pasta
  • 1 pound Italian pork or turkey sausage links, casings removed
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cans (14-1/2 ounces each) Italian stewed tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 1/3 cup shredded Asiago cheese, divided

Directions

In a large bowl, combine the squash, brussels sprouts and onion; drizzle with oil and toss to coat.

Spread vegetables in a single layer on a large baking pan coated with cooking spray. Bake, uncovered, at 425°F for 30-40 minutes or until tender.

Meanwhile, cook pasta al dente. Drain pasta and return to the pan.

In a large nonstick skillet, cook sausage over medium heat until meat is no longer pink. Add garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Add tomatoes and tomato paste; cook and stir over medium heat until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Add sausage mixture, 1 cup mozzarella, 1/4 cup Asiago and roasted vegetables to the pasta.

Transfer to a 13-in. x 9-in. baking dish coated with cooking spray. Cover and bake at 350°F for 30-40 minutes or until heated through. Uncover; sprinkle with remaining cheeses. Bake 5 minutes longer or until cheese is melted. Yield: 8 servings.

Shrimp & Macaroni Casserole

Ingredients

  • 2 cups uncooked short macaroni (penne, ziti, elbow)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup half-and-half 
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup shredded Italian fontina cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 pound uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined and halved
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh spinach

Directions

In a small bowl, combine the eggs, half & half and butter; set aside.

Cook macaroni al dente. Drain macaroni and return to the pan.

Add the Fontina and Parmesan cheeses, 3/4 cups mozzarella cheese, garlic, salt, pepper and reserved egg mixture; toss to coat. Stir in shrimp and spinach.

Transfer to a 2-qt. baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake, uncovered, at 350°F for 25-30 minutes or until shrimp turn pink and cheese is melted and beginning to brown.

Yield: 6 servings.

Vegetable-Stuffed Shells

Ingredients

  • 16 uncooked jumbo pasta shells
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 1 small red bell pepper, chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 small zucchini, diced (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 can (2 1/4 oz) sliced ripe olives, drained
  • 1 jar (14 to 15 oz) tomato pasta sauce or homemade sauce
  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (4 oz)
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Heat oven to 350°F. Spray a 2-quart baking dish with cooking spray. Cook and drain pasta shells al dente.

Meanwhile, in 10-inch skillet, heat oil over medium heat until hot. Cook onion, bell pepper and garlic in oil 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender. Add zucchini; cook 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in olives and 1/4 cup of the pasta sauce. Cook, stirring frequently, until hot. Remove from heat.

In medium bowl, mix ricotta cheese, egg, Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup of the mozzarella cheese. Stir in zucchini mixture until well mixed.

Fill each cooked pasta shell with about 2 tablespoons ricotta vegetable mixture. Place in baking dish. Pour remaining pasta sauce over shells.

Cover with foil; bake 30 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining cheeses. Bake uncovered 5 to 10 minutes longer or until bubbly and cheese is melted.

Makes 4 servings (4 shells each)

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