I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.
How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.
No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.
Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.
This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?
Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired
- Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
- Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
- Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
- While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
- As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
- When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
- In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
- If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.