Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Torta di Pasta al Forno: A Comfort Food Classic

An Italian comfort food classic, Torta di Pasta al Forno is essentially oven baked pasta made in the form of a cake, crowned with mild creamy mozzarella and homemade tomato or meat sauce, lovingly served at family gatherings and special celebrations. The beauty of this dish is that every pasta al forno is unique, with every nonna having their own special recipe. In southern Italy, baked pasta usually feature vegetables like eggplant and peppers, as well as meats cured in the region such as soppressata, prosciutto and sausage, whereas northern Italy is all about heartier ingredients, where meaty ragùs reign supreme. Inspired by a Paccheri Bolognese that we were served in Emilia Romagna by our hostess and friend Countess Maria Teresa Vespignani Boselli, I brought home a bag of dried Paccheri with visions of reproducing her delicious recipe, but that was before I discovered this spectacular Torta di Pasta al Forno recipe by Marisa Molomo. The large tubes of pasta are parboiled, tossed with a little olive oil then arranged standing upright in a springform pan. Topped with thick and meaty homemade Bolognese, the sauce fills each of the plump pacccheri and is then crowned with plenty of grated mozzarella, another layer of Ragù and then finished with a handful of rich and flavourful Parmigiano-Reggiano. Baked for 30-40 minutes until the mozzarella has melted and the torta has formed a gorgeous crust, it is then carefully released from the springform pan, allowed to cool slightly and served with a triumphal entrance and a chorus of culinary kudos.

Homemade Bolognese 

Parboiled Paccheri pasta tubes, drained and tossed with a little olive oil

A spoonful of sauce is ladled into a greased parchment lined springform pan

The parboiled paccheri are arranged upright in the pan

Half of the bolognese is poured over the pasta, ensuring that the sauce fills each of the pacccheri

Grated mozzarella is sprinkled on top with half of the parmesan

The remaining bolognese is then ladled on top of the cheese layer

The remaining parmesan cheese is sprinkled on top, then baked at 375°F for about half an hour until the torta forms a delicious crust and the mozzarella has melted completely

Torta di Pasta al Forno
Serves 4

1 lb pasta paccheri

6 cups warm homemade bolognese sauce
1/2 lb mozzarella, coarsely grated
2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, coarsely grated
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sprigs of fresh basil, for garnish

Grate both the mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano with a grater with large holes, then set aside in separate bowl and cover with cling film. Boil the paccheri in abundant salted water cooking it half the time specified on the package — the pasta will bake again, so no need to over do it. Drain the pasta, place in a large bowl, and quickly toss with a little olive oil to coat. Stir in 1/2 cup of Parmigiana and set aside.

Butter an 8 or 9-inch diameter springform pan and line the base with parchment paper. Pour in a little bolognese sauce to lightly cover the bottom of the pan, then arrange the paccheri standing upright in the pan, starting from the outer circle of the pan working towards the centre. Don't overcrowd the pan, for the noodles will expand while baking. Pour half of the bolognese sauce over the pasta so that the sauce fills each of the tubes, gently tapping the pan as necessary to ensure the sauce settles nicely inside each of the paccheri. Sprinkle the surface with grated mozzarella and then half of the parmesan cheese. Pour the remaining bolognese sauce over the cheese layer and finish with the remainder of the parmesan.

Place on the lower rack of a preheated 375°F oven, with a baking sheet underneath to catch any drips, and bake for about 25-35 minutes, until the "torta" forms a delicious crust and the mozzarella has melted completely. Turn the heat of the oven down to 325°F and bake for another 15 minutes, if necessary, watching so that the top does not burn. Remove from the oven and allow to set for 15 minutes before serving. Better yet, let the torta set overnight and reheat the next day. This helps prevent the torta from falling apart just after baking.

When ready to serve, run a thin knife along the inside wall of the springform pan to loosen the torta away from the pan walls, then slowly and carefully, remove the springform ring. Run a long knife between the bottom of the torta and the bottom of the pan, and place on a decorative serving plate, removing the parchment if possible. A sprig of fresh basil on the top of each serving makes a nice presentation. Slice, serve, and mangia!

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