Baked pasta is the fuzzy pyjamas of food. Baked pasta is staying in all day and night, and finding a warm place on your sofa, and not caring about how you look. It’s inviting friends over, but insisting that they too put on their PJs. It’s curating a Netflix queue and opening a bottle of red, and waiting for winter to slowly pass by.
As far as baked pasta goes, I like lasagna, but – true to the East Coast American in me – I love baked ziti. The Italian-American staple is not trying to be anything other than what it is: hearty comfort food capable of feeding a crowd. It is made with ample amounts of red sauce and cheese, often sausage meat or beef mince, and baked until melty, bubbling and over-the-top good. This version isn’t quite traditional. Ziti isn’t readily available in the UK., but penne is a close substitute. In addition to the classic ricotta, it adds an unseemly amount of mascarpone – and burrata, which I can never, ever get enough of. Instead of adding dried oregano to the sauce, I also like swapping in za’atar, which is still piney but a little earthier. Top it all with Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil leaves, which add the perfect pop of freshness and of contrasting green.
Back to that bottle of red: Pheasant’s Tears Shavkapito 2018 might not quite be your typical lazy sofa pick either. This bottle of 100% Shavkapito (a grape once favoured by Georgian kings) hails from Kakheti in Eastern Georgia, and is made in qvevri: earthenware vessels that are buried in the earth and have been a hallmark of Georgian winemaking for millennia. Many assume qvevri wines will be funky and out-there, but this one certainly sidesteps that assumption.
Instead, this rich, inky, opaque wine feels like a classic winter sipper – it could almost be a Northern Italian red. It’s bold and brawny, with enough bite and grippy tannins to give it power. On the palate, it mingles cherry and real earthiness, plus whiffs of burned wood. It’s a winter wine and benefits from food; the tomato sauce almost lightens it and draws out a bit more of its fruit and floral flavours. Have both together, and you can feel OK about maybe never leaving your house again.
Four-Cheese Baked Penne Pasta
Loosely adapted from Bon Appétit
For the tomato sauce:
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons tomato purée (tomato paste)
1 teaspoon crushed chillis (red pepper flakes)
3 400g cans whole plum tomatoes in juice
1-2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons za’atar
Sea salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
For the pasta:
Sea salt, to taste
300g fresh ricotta
100g shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
Fresh basil leaves, to garnish
1. First, make the tomato sauce. To a large saucepan, add the olive oil and place over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onion and cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent. Season with a pinch of salt. Add the garlic and cook for 2- 3 minutes more, or until the raw smell has cooked off. Add the tomato puree (tomato paste) and crushed chillis (red pepper flakes), and cook for another 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently, or until the mix has turned a dark brick-red.
2. Add the cans of whole plum tomatoes and their juice, and use your spoon to crush the tomatoes. Season with additional salt and pepper, and add the sugar and za’atar. Turn the heat to low and simmer for roughly 30 minutes, stirring every now and then. Season to taste. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. Preheat your oven to 180° Celsius (350° Fahrenheit). In a very large bowl, add the ricotta, mascarpone and half of the burrata, and mix until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Boil a large saucepan of water and salt generously. Add the penne and cook for five minutes, or until very al dente; it will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and add the pasta to the bowl with the ricotta mixture. Stir until the pasta is evenly coated. Add three- quarters of the reserved tomato sauce, and stir through gently; don’t over-stir, as it’s best with some creamy streaks left in it.
5. Pour the mixture into a large, roughly 13”x 9” Pyrex baking dish. Tear the remaining burrata and scatter bits over the pasta mixture. Top with the remaining sauce and sprinkle the Parmigiano Reggiano shavings over evenly.
6. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until bubbling and beginning to darken on top. Transfer to your grill and turn the heat to high. Cook for approximately 5-7 minutes more, or until the top layer is pleasingly mottled with char. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for five minutes.
7. Divide the pasta between bowls and garnish with torn basil leaves. Serve.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer and wine hound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen. Don’t miss out on Claire’s wine and food pairings, which go out every month in our Natural Wine Killers subscription boxes.