I have a theory that the majority of people fall into one of two categories: “crust haters” and “crust lovers”. By crust I mean any sort of crust, sandwich bread crust, pizza crust, pie crust, and of course, the most delicious crust of all crusts (in my opinion); BAKED PASTA crust.
I, for one, am a huge fan of the crust that forms on the edges of a huge tray of lasagna hot from the oven. I always asked my mom to cut me the “crust pieces”, or corner pieces of any sort of casserole or dessert prepared in a square or rectangular pan.
My love of crust doesn’t stop at pasta, it extends to rice dishes as well. I love a good crust on the bottom of a rice dish. That hardened portion where the sauce or seasoning and rice meet in a concentrated chunk of crust is pure heaven on earth.
Many people, however, are not fans of crust. These people would make their mother cut the crust off of sandwiches as children, always request the center piece of lasagna or square pizza without crust, and faithfully cook their rice just to the point of doneness in order to avoid forming a dreaded crust. I’ve even seen sandwiches for kids in the frozen food isle that are marketed as being “crustless”. Wow, what a time to be alive for a “crust hater”, huh?
I have a recipe today that will please both crust lovers and haters alike. The recipe is for Pasta al Forno, a classic Italian dish made of rigatoni or ziti pasta or similar tubular varieties, hard boiled eggs, melty gooey cheese, and any other add-ins you prefer. Some common additions are diced Italian ham, olives, hard boiled eggs, and two or three types of cheese (ricotta, parmesan, provolone). It is all held together by a delicious tomato sauce and baked in the oven. Now, for you “crust haters”, you’ll want to bake this covered for the entire oven time so as to form minimal crust. Depending on where you lie on the “crust lover” spectrum, you can bake this uncovered for the entire baking time, or first cover it to melt the cheese and then uncover it for some portion of the baking time. My recipe is somewhere in the middle; I bake it covered for 15 minutes, and uncover it for another 15 minutes. You can adjust this sequene to your personal preference.
I first got the idea to make this dish when I watched an Italian movie called “Mid-August Lunch” or “Pranzo di Ferragosto”. It’s a very funny Italian film from 2008 about a middle-aged man who ends up spending the Italian Ferragosto holiday (August 15) with a bunch of kooky, high-maintenance old ladies, and cooking Pasta al Forno. I’d definitely trade in a few hours of my time with some kooky old ladies to taste some of the delicious baked pasta they made. And they even made a point to mention the importance of forming that delicious Pasta al Forno crust.
Crusting Optional Pasta al Forno
Serves 6 main dish
• 10-12 oz. ziti rigati (or similar tubular pasta)
• 18-20 oz. tomato sauce (either store-bought or homemade works)
• 2 ½ cup mushrooms, sliced
• 3 hard boiled eggs, yolks fully cooked
• ¾-1 cup pitted black olives, drained
• 1 ½ cup Mozzarella cheese, diced into small cubes
• 1 large tomato, diced
• ½ tsp. red pepper flakes (reduce to ¼ tsp. if you prefer food less spicy)
• ½ tsp. “no salt seasoning”
• 1 large garlic clove, minced
• 1 ½ tsp. oregano
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Olive oil, as needed
• Optional (but not really optional): parmesan or shredded mozzarella for topping
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cook the pasta in a pot of boiling, salted water on the stove until just cooked al dente. Drain and set aside.
2. Chop the mushrooms and mince the garlic. Add to a sauté pan and cook with oil of choice. Season with salt and pepper as the mushrooms cook and reduce in size. You can also put the eggs on the stove to boil them at this time as well.
3. To the sauté pan, add in your pasta sauce and stir. Add in your diced tomato and black olives and season again with salt and pepper. Let cook for 1 minute and add into the oregano, red pepper flakes, and “no salt seasoning”. Stir to mix everything well and continue to cook on medium heat for ten to fifteen minutes.
4. Assembling: Add your cooked and drained pasta to your sauce and mix thoroughly to coat all of the pasta. You can do this more easily by transferring your drained pasta to a large pot and adding the sauce in (I learned this the hard and saucy way). Chop your hard boiled eggs into thin slices or chunks, whichever you prefer. Add a layer of sauce-coated pasta to your casserole dish. Sprinkle over it some of your diced mozzarella, followed by some hard boiled egg pieces. Add in the next layer of pasta and sprinkle again with mozzarella and egg pieces. Continue in this fashion until you finish with a layer of pasta. Top with additional shredded mozzarella or parmesan cheese.
5. Loosely cover with foil and bake at 400°F for 15 minutes. Then carefully remove the foil so not to rip off any delicious melted cheese and allow the pasta to bake for another 15-20 minutes. You should achieve a delicious pasta-cheese crust during this time that is the true selling point of your Pasta al Forno (if gooey melted cheese and pasta weren’t enough of a selling point). The longer you leave it in there, the harder the crust gets, so take care not to overdo it (you don’t want the pasta to revert to pre-cooked hardness level or burn).
6. Remove from oven, dip a gigantic spoon into the dish and watch in amazement as your gooey cheese ribbons drizzle out of the casserole dish and onto your plate like kites trailing in a sunny blue sky.
Notes: Use hard mozzarella, not fresh (white ball form). You can add in any other types of vegetables or meat that you like or make the tomato sauce a meat sauce. You can also layer in more types of cheese such as ricotta or parmesan. This dish is very flexible and easily adapted for meat-lovers or vegetarians.