baked pasta

Baked pasta (cheater lasagna)

22 January 2016

It’s not sexy food, but done right, baked pasta is cheesy, meaty, tomatoey contentment. A good baked pasta communicates caring – soothing tastebuds, filling tummies, and showing love with warmth and abundance. It’s just what I want to be eating on a cold winter’s night, and everyone loves it just as much for lunch the next day.

My family loves lasagna, but I find lasagna noodles irksome – they stick together during cooking, and I end up tearing the hot, slippery slabs. Now I just mix pasta with the sauce, pour half in the dish, spread the cheese layer, pour the rest of the pasta on top and end with a little more cheese. To them, it’s still lasagna.

Dry baked pastas bum me out, and I’ve found that I need twice the sauce for baked pasta as I would use in a regular pasta dish. I use ground turkey, because to me it gives the meaty flavor without being heavy. And though no Italian would use cottage cheese, I like how it remains creamy when baked, unlike ricotta which can get dry.

But really, this is a flexible framework. Bake pasta, meaty tomato sauce and cheese in a dish, and you can’t go wrong. Use ground beef, or sausage, or a mix. Can’t stand the idea of cottage cheese? Use more mozzarella and parmesan, and serve it with a dollop of fresh ricotta. Add in spinach, or mushrooms. It’s all good.

Start with onions, garlic and ground turkey.

onions garlic ground turkey

Season the meat very well.

seasoning meat

Add tomatoes. You can always cheat and add jarred tomato sauce to cooked meat. But it hardly seems more work to use canned tomatoes and flavor it myself.

adding tomatoes

This is a double batch of an already-big recipe.

meat sauce

Mix cottage cheese, egg and parmesan.

cheeses and egg

Undercook the pasta; it will cook more in the oven.

undercooked pasta

I’m always tempted to stop here and just eat the well-sauced pasta.

pasta and sauce

Add half the pasta to the greased baking dish.

pasta layer

Then the cheese layer.

cheese layer

More pasta.

final pasta layer

Mozzarella on top (you can also use parmesan, or a mix).

cheese on top

This makes a giant dish. But no one complains about eating this one left over.

baked pasta

Baked pasta (cheater lasagna)
Less time-consuming than lasagna, this baked pasta makes excellent leftovers and kids’ lunches. The key for me with baked pasta is twice the sauce as I’d use in a regular pasta dish, so it doesn’t end up dry.

Sauce ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste
  • 1 28-ounce can diced or whole tomatoes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Optional (good for lackluster tomatoes): spoonful of sugar, dash balsamic vinegar

Cheese layer

  • 3 cups cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated or shredded
  • 1 egg
  • 8 ounces mozzarella, grated or sliced thin
  • Optional: 2-3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley or basil

Pasta

  • 1 pound dried short pasta (penne, rigatoni, macaroni, shells, etc)

Directions

  1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil, followed by onion and garlic. Cook a few minutes until onions are translucent. Add ground meat and cook until brown, breaking up meat with a metal spatula.
  2. Add salt, pepper, oregano, basil and crushed red pepper. Add tomatoes and water. Heat until bubbly, then reduce to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add a bit of sugar and/or balsamic vinegar if the tomatoes lack flavor.
  3. In a large bowl, combine cottage cheese, parmesan, egg and parsley/basil. Mix well and set aside.
  4. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add salt and pasta (water should be salty like the sea) and stir. Cook a bit underdone – two minutes less than suggested cooking time – pasta should still be firm in center.
  5. Add the pasta back to the pot and immediately mix in the sauce.
  6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly oil a 4- to 5-quart baking dish (eg a lasagna pan or something bigger/deeper than a 9″x13″ baking dish). Add half the pasta and spread evenly in pan. Top with all of the cottage cheese mixture and half of the mozzarella. Add the remaining pasta and top with the remaining mozzarella.
  7. Cover with foil (lightly spray the underside of the foil with oil so the cheese doesn’t stick as it melts) and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce bubbling on top (may need longer if lasagna was made ahead and refrigerated). Remove foil and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes to brown the top.

Serves 12.

Notes

  • Meat substitute: Italian sausage, ground beef, ground beef and pork, or a mix of ground meat and sausage. You can also double the total amount of meat if you like a meatier dish. Note that if you use sausage, you may want to reduce the salt and pepper in the recipe.
  • Tomato substitute: you can use two cans of diced/whole canned tomatoes, but add 2-3 tablespoons of tomato paste to the sauce to thicken it (diced/whole tend to be more watery than crushed tomatoes). And of course you can also add jarred tomato sauce to the meat instead of making your own sauce.
  • Cottage cheese substitute: real Italians would never use cottage cheese, but I like how it stays creamy after cooking – unlike ricotta, which can get dry and gritty. You can get away with 2 cups of cottage cheese if you don’t feel like buying a second tub and having some left over (increase other cheeses if you like). You can also eliminate the cottage cheese entirely (eliminate the egg too – it’s only there to thicken the cottage cheese) and up the mozzarella to 12 ounces and the parmesan to 3/4 cup. I recommend ricotta fans serve the baked dish with a dollop of fresh ricotta, as Smitten Kitchen does.
  • Lasagna option: use 1 pound lasagna noodles and layer the regular way (3 layers of noodles, sauce and cheese topped with a final layer of noodles and extra mozzarella and/or parmesan).
  • Half-recipe: use a 2- to 3-quart baking dish, 1/2 pound pasta and 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes. Half to a full pound of meat. Cheese is flexible, so don’t worry too much about exactness (you can still use a whole egg in your cheese mixture).
  • Making ahead: you may refrigerate the assembled dish for a day or so ahead of time. I wouldn’t recommend freezing this size – better to use two smaller pans, or it will take forever to thaw. Bake a cold lasagna at 350 degrees F, covered; better to bake a little lower and longer to warm it to the center.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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