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The "No Recipe" Recipe for Cheesy Baked Pasta

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Learn how to make cheesy baked pasta without a recipe!

Learn how to make cheesy baked pasta without a recipe!

Easy Peasy

As winter approaches and the weather turns cold and blustery, our thoughts turn to warm bowls of comfort food. Savory stews, thick soups, and hearty casseroles warm our stomachs and our souls. Gooey, cheesy baked-pasta casseroles are certainly at the top of the list of favorite wintertime meals, but many home cooks shy away from them. "They're too hard, they're complicated, they take too much time!"

I have glad tidings of great joy. Not only are cheesy pasta casseroles a snap to make, but they can also be a great way of using up leftovers hiding in your refrigerator and pantry. Best of all, with just a few simple guidelines you can put together a pasta dish without a recipe. Here’s what to do. First . . .

Step 1: Select and Cook Your Pasta

What Type of Pasta Should You Use?

Fresh pasta tastes wonderful (almost like homemade), but unless you are fortunate to live near an Italian deli (or have the time to make your own) you probably have just a few varieties from which to choose. So, I'm going to assume that you are using dry pasta.

There are so many choices (and that's the fun part!) I won't list all of the possibilities (we don't have that much time). So, let's just make a list of the ones that you probably should not use in a baked pasta casserole.

Pastas to Avoid for Baked Dishes

  • Thin pasta shapes: angel hair, vermicelli. These are just far too delicate. They will reduce to mush.
  • Long pasta shapes: spaghetti, lasagna, fettuccini, linguine. Not impossible, but the long strands can be a bit unwieldy. Why not stick with a short-length pasta instead?
A variety of pasta shapes

A variety of pasta shapes

Great Pasta Options for Baked Dishes

Here Are a Few Pastabilities

Cavatappi (fusilli)

Conchiglie (seashells)

Farfalle (bowties)

Fiori

Gemelli

Gnocchi

Macaroni

Orecchiette

Penne

Radiatore

Rigatoni

Ziti

How to Cook Your Pasta

Cooking pasta is not rocket science, but it is a bit more than simply boiling water. Many "chefs" (on television cooking shows) encourage you to salt your cooking water "like the ocean."

Please don't.

My friends at the food lab Serious Eats tested how much salt you should put into your pasta-cooking water. Do you really know how salty seawater is? Would you believe 35 grams of salt (3.5 percent or 2 tablespoons) in 1 liter of water?

Trust me, you don't want to do that. Daniel Gritzer at Serious Eats experimented and found that 1 percent (or about 1 1/2 teaspoons) per liter is the sweet spot. But, don't just grab your salt shaker and measure out that amount. Did you know that not all salts are created equal?

Sea salt, table salt, Diamond kosher, and Morton kosher all measure differently because they each have different size grains. "Dan the Man" did the math for us:

  • Fine sea salt: 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • Table salt: 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • Morton coarse Kosher: 2 teaspoons
  • Diamond crystal Kosher: 1 tablespoon

Cook your pasta according to the directions on the package but subtract 3 minutes from the estimated cooking time. Why? The pasta will finish cooking in the oven.

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Step 2: Prepare Some Add-Ins

Macaroni and cheese is good, but macaroni and cheese with meat and/or vegetables is great. There are so many possibilities, and those stir-ins can be the perfect way to utilize some leftovers hiding in the refrigerator. Three cups of goodies is a good amount.

Of course, any meats or vegetables that you add must be pre-cooked (raw meat will not sufficiently cook in the casserole, and hard vegetables will still be crunchy).

Add-In Options

Use any combination of these to get 3 cups of add-ins

MeatsVegetables

Cooked crumbled bacon

Cooked spinach (excess moisture squeezed out

Cooked crumbled chorizo

Frozen peas

Cooked crumbled Italian sausage

Lightly sautéed butternut squash

Diced cooked ham

Lightly steamed broccoli

Diced cooked meatloaf

Sautéed mushrooms

Diced cooked turkey

Oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

Diced roast beef

Streamed green beans

Pulled pork

Canned black beans, rinsed and drained

Shredded rotisserie chicken

Steamed cauliflower

Oil-packed tuna, drained

Diced fresh or canned tomatoes, drained

Step 3: Make a Sauce

I know I said there was no recipe, and truly there isn't. You just need to keep in mind a few numbers. The amount of pasta that you cooked (the dry weight) is the amount of cheese that you will use. Three-fourths of the cheese will be used to make the sauce and the remaining 25 percent will be sprinkled on top. You'll need some half and half too, 1.5 times the amount of pasta. Confused? Here's a table to help you out.

Amount of Dry Pasta (by weight)Amount of CheeseAmount of Half-and-Half*

8 ounces

8 ounces (use 6 in the sauce and save 2 for the top)

12 ounces

12 ounces

12 ounces (use 9 in the sauce and save 3 for the top)

18 ounces

16 ounces

16 ounces (use 12 in the sauce and save 4 for the top)

24 ounces

Good Melty Cheeses for the Sauce

  • Cheddar
  • Fontina
  • Gruyere
  • Monterey jack
  • Mozzarella
  • Pepper jack

How to Make the Cheese Sauce

Heat the half and half* in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Grab a whisk and begin to stir the cheese into the simmering pot. Go slowly, just a handful at a time. If you try to hurry the process the temperature in the pot will drop and your cheese will form a clump at the bottom. Make sure each addition of cheese is melted before you add another handful. Season the finished sauce for taste.

What If You Don't Have Half-and-Half?

Perhaps you don't want to run to the grocery store for just one item, or you live in a place where half-and-half is unheard of (my friends in Europe, for example). Here are several things that you can do to replace 1 cup of half-and-half:

  • 1/2 cup whole milk plus 1/2 cup light cream
  • 3/4 cup whole milk plus 1/4 cup heavy (whipping) cream
  • 2/3 cup fat-free milk plus 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 4 teaspoons melted butter plus enough whole milk to equal 1 cup

Suggested Seasonings

Salt and pepper is the obvious choice, but there are other items on your pantry shelf that can add a pop of flavor.

Cheese and Seasoning Pairings

If You Use This CheeseAdd This Seasoning

Cheddar

smoked paprika

Fontina

several teaspoons of Dijon mustard

Gruyere

dash of nutmeg

Monterey Jack

dash of hot sauce

Mozzarella

several tablespoons of basil pesto

Pepper Jack

chopped black olives

Step 4: Stir It All Together

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. Butter the bottom and sides of an oven-safe casserole dish; stir the cooked pasta, sauce, and add-ins all together and spread evenly into the dish.
  3. Cover with foil and bake until it begins to bubble around the edges, 15 to 20 minutes should do it.
  4. Remove from the oven and remove the foil.
  5. Top with the reserved cheese.

Step 5: Add the Crunchy Topping

There are so many possibilities. Since you will be baking (broiling) these in the oven, this is the perfect opportunity to use up those stale crackers, chips, or dry cereal crumbs in the bottom of the box.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of crumbs (suggestions shown below)
  • 2-4 tablespoons of unsalted melted butter or olive oil (use just enough to moisten)

Instructions

  1. Add the crispy topping.
  2. Place under the broiler and bake about 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown on top. Don't walk away from the oven. This isn't the time to take a phone call or place a load of laundry into the dryer. Stay right there are watch your dish. It can go from brown to burned in a matter of moments.

Crunchy Topping Options

Possible Crunchy Toppings

Seasoned Italian bread crumbs

Panko bread crumbs

Potato chips

Frito corn chips

Tortilla chips

Butter crackers

Saltine crackers

Cheese crackers

Cheetos cheese puffs

Oyster crackers

Unsweetened dry cereal

French-fried onion bits (the topping for green bean casserole)

Pretzels

Doritos chips

 

Flavor Combination Suggestions

Type of CheeseMeat or Cheese Ad-InsTopping

Cheddar

Tuna or Pulled Pork

Panko

Fontina

Ham or Meatloaf

Potato chips

Gruyere

Ham, Turkey, or Rotisserie Chicken

Pretels

Monterey Jack

Roast Beef

French-fried onion bits

Mozzarella

Italian Sausage

Seasoned Italian bread crumbs

Pepper Jack

Chorizo

Frito corn chips or Dorito chips

© 2019 Linda Lum

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