I've had "pasta bake" on my list of recipes to make since the very beginning of my culinary journey. So what has been stopping me after all these years? I'm not really sure! Perhaps I was still in search of the "ultimate" version or a super-chefy secret ingredient. But a few weeks ago I found myself strapped for time with a barren cupboard, and friends already on their way over for dinner. And this amazing five ingredient casserole was born.
I usually keep a variety of dried pastas on hand, but for some reason shells were all I could find in the depths of the pantry. An abundance of end-of-season heirloom tomatoes sat helpless on the counter, so I whipped up Marcella's famous sauce. Leftover mozzarella and prosciutto stared at me from the cheese drawer, the last ingredients remaining from pizza week. I threw them together in a casserole dish and apologized to my buddies in advance for the lack of culinary adventure. Then I added an arugula salad to add to the excitement.
Except that, for once, this hodgepodge pasta dish was anything but boring. In fact, it was exceptional; we all agreed that it should be in regular weeknight rotation. I tested the recipe again for my parents last night, just to make sure my hunger didn't get the best of me the first time around. My dad declared it the BEST pasta dish he'd ever eaten. Well, I don't know about all that—pear tortellini in Italy will always win out for me—but who am I to question my father?
Easy Pasta Bake
1 (16 ounce) package pasta shells, or similar shape
4 ounces prosciutto or pancetta
3 cups good-quality tomato sauce, I prefer this or Rao's
1 (8 ounce) ball fresh mozzarella, chopped or pulled into bite-size pieces
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a large baking or casserole dish.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and cook shells until al dente. Strain, reserving a cup of pasta water, and return the noodles to the pot.
Meanwhile, sauté the proscuitto in a skillet over medium-high heat until crisp and golden brown. Let cool and crumble into small pieces.
Stir the prosciutto, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and 1 1/2 cups of the shredded mozzarella into the cooked noodles. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into prepared baking dish and top with the remaining shredded mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes, or until bubbling and light golden brown. Serve with garlic bread and a big green salad.
To reheat, cut the casserole into large squares. Pour about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of leftover pasta water into the seams and around the edges. (This allows moisture to steam the casserole instead of drying it out. The slices will "cook" themselves back together and the water will evaporate.) Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350°F until hot and bubbly.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)