I have always loved pasta al forno. Mammina Loreta would make meat and vegetable lasagnas, ziti al forno (con polpette) and my favorite, penne con fungi e salsiccia al forno (baked penne with mushroom & sausage).
She used classic and simple combinations like these to create a warm and delicious baked pasta in the colder months of fall and winter in New York. Mammina Loreta was not a fan of creamy ricotta but we loved it, so she would make two pans; one with cheese and ricotta and one without (a lighter version I loved too!)
There are many pasta shapes today, some shapes are common all over Italia while others are known for an actual city or specific region the shape was created.
I love schiaffoni, a pasta shape that seems to originate from Naples. This large, smooth macaroni gets it name from the Greek first founders of the Parthenon, who dubbed this pasta… “the slap“. The term is still used in Italia today and stands for a strong open-handed slap. It’s wide cut and deep opening design works beautifully in baked dishes and holds up very well to hearty sauces and bolognese ragu.
Make this baked pasta dish ahead of time or serve immediately after baking (let it cool and rest for about 15 minutes or so.)
I remember during the winter holidays or if there was an occasion of sorts (a death in the family, someone traveling and arriving home late in the evening, or a friend or neighbor visiting), Mammina Loreta always made a few extra trays of these pasta dishes and left them unbaked to store (well-sealed in the freezer.) She would grab one to share during these occasions and prepare a spontaneous wonderful meal, even if she was caught by surprise.
schiaffoni pasta al forno con spinaci, funghi e ricotta
1 16 oz. package of schiaffoni dry pasta
1 package baby bella mushrooms
1 package white button mushrooms
1 large bunch of fresh spinach leaves
2-3 fresh garlic cloves
fresh homemade marinara sauce (sugo)
1 8 oz. container whole milk ricotta
1 tsp. or so ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
grated parmigiano or romano cheese
1 bunch fresh basil leaves
Wash and trim both packages of mushrooms, cut into medium thick slices. Place in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, add a garlic clove cut into chunks, season with salt and pepper and mix well.
Place the mushroom mixture on a large flat baking sheet and broil in the oven under high heat until liquid evaporates and the mushrooms are golden and slightly crispy on edges. Remove from oven, discard the garlic pieces and place in a bowl. Set aside.
Wash, trim and drain the spinach leaves until almost dry. In a large skillet drizzle a good dose of olive oil and add fresh-cut garlic; place on medium heat and allow to sauté until fragrant (do not brown!) Add the spinach leaves and place back on medium heat and stir the leaves until they begin to cook down and mix well with the olive oil and garlic; season with salt and pepper to taste.
Once the leaves have cooked down (about 4 to 6 minutes or so) remove from heat, discard garlic and drain any excess liquid from the spinach. Set aside.
Place a large stockpot of water to boil and generously salt the water. Once it comes to a full boil drop in the schiaffoni pasta and stir. Cook and stir the pasta until just less than “al dente” (do not overcook.) Remove from heat and drain well. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and mix well; set aside to cool a bit.
Note: The key is to keep the pasta noodles on the underdone side as they will finish cooking in the oven and absorb all the wonderful flavors without getting soft and mushy.
Put the ricotta in a mixing bowl and add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well, taste the ricotta to be sure your seasonings are where you want them.
Drizzle some olive oil into the bottom of your baking dish or casserole pan (I love to use my beautiful Le Cruset baking piece for this dish.) Using a clean paper towel, spread the oil to coat the sides and bottom of the pan.
Start your layering process for this dish with your first layer of the marinara sauce, then layer the semi-cooked pasta noodles until the space is filled. Now add another layer of marinara sauce and place some spinach, some mushrooms and finally some of the seasoned ricotta in dollops over the vegetable layers. Sprinkle generously with grated cheese and add some fresh basil leaves to finish your first layer.
Now add more marinara sauce and then the cooked noodles, marinara, spinach, mushrooms, ricotta and then the grated cheese with fresh basil leaves to finish. Repeat this exact same layering process until the last layer which you will top the ricotta with marinara, then generous amount of grated cheese and the remaining fresh basil leaves.
Cover the pan loosely with foil wrap and place in a preheated 400 degree farenheiht oven on middle rack. Bake for approximately 30-35 minutes; remove the foil wrap and continue to bake for an additional 10 to 5 minutes until the cheese on top is golden brown and the pasta is bubbling on the sides.
Remove from heat and let rest for about 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Serve this dish with a medium-bodied red wine, a fresh green garden salad of arugula, romaine lettuce, heart of palm and tomatoes dressed simply with olive oil and red wine vinegar (salt to taste.)
Note: Photography provided by Isabella M. Favale