Passover is around the corner, and those who celebrate it understand how bad pasta cravings can get during the holiday. It is true that Passover lasts only eight days and I’ve survived without pasta for much longer when dieting, but why is it that when you’re forbidden to eat something you suddenly want it so bad? We’re two days away from Passover, meaning that pretty much all of my kitchen has been thoroughly cleaned and wiped out of anything containing wheat or leaven in preparation for the holiday — except for one box of penne pasta that had to be cooked and eaten before Friday. It ended up as the star ingredient of this decadent, gooey and utterly simple mozzarella pasta bake, which I decided to share with you right before the holidays, just in case you, too, are trying to get rid off that one last box! For those not celebrating the holiday, promise you’ll think about me if you cook this next week?
In Jon’s mind, a pasta bake consists of pasta coated with a thick tomato-and-cream sauce mixed with vegetables and mozzarella cheese. According to him, his mom’s pasta gratin is unbeatable, thus giving him extremely high expectations when I said I’d make a mozzarella pasta bake for dinner. I have to admit that my mother-in-law’s pasta bake is incredible, and, knowing that I couldn’t possibly beat hers, I decided to try something completely different hoping that Jon would be happy with the result.
Instead of jazzing up the pasta with tomato sauce, I decided to use a béchamel sauce. Made from roux, milk and nutmeg, béchamel has a thick, creamy consistency and wonderfully holds pasta together when baked in the oven. It is ridiculously easy to prepare also — despite its fancy French name — and takes no longer than 15 minutes to whip up in a saucepan over low heat. Begin by melting butter in a saucepan, keeping the heat on low to make sure that it doesn’t burn. Gradually add in flour to create a roux, slowly whisking it into the butter until it thickens and turns golden. Add milk, increase heat to medium, and whisk constantly until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Add a pinch of nutmeg and season to taste with salt and pepper. Once the béchamel is ready, stir it into cooked penne pasta and add chopped mozzarella and diced onions for even more flavor. You can even add sautéed mushrooms, olives, sun-dried tomatoes…the sky is the limit when it comes to all the vegetables that I’d easily pack into this recipe! Mix it all together to combine and pour into a greased Pyrex. Bake for 30 minutes at 350°F/180°C until crispy and golden on top and serve immediately. It’s as easy as it sounds!
Jon laughed so hard when he saw my pasta bake, thinking that I just baked cooked pasta with pieces of mozzarella. But once he cut into it, béchamel sauce oozed from the penne, making him realize that I knew what I was doing and didn’t just throw penne and cheese together and try to pass it for a pasta gratin. He was completely surprised to see that I didn’t try to compete with his mother’s pasta bake, and was so proud that I opted for something completely different from what he was used to. The verdict, you may ask? He went for seconds and had leftovers for dinner the next day. I guess it’s a win!
- 10 ounces (300g) penne pasta, uncooked
- 3 ½ tablespoons (45g) butter
- 4 tablespoons (45g) flour
- 2 cups (5dl) milk
- ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Pepper, to taste
- 1 small onion, diced
- 4.4 ounces (125g) mozzarella, cut into small pieces
- Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C and grease a Pyrex.
- In a large saucepan, bring water to boil with a pinch of salt. Add the penne and cook until al dente for the time stated on the pasta package. Drain in a colander and set aside.
- Prepare the béchamel sauce while the pasta is cooking. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Gradually add the flour, whisking between each addition, until the flour is fully incorporated into the butter. Keep the heat and low and continuously whisk to make sure that it doesn't burn. Add the milk, increase heat to medium, and continuously whisk until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat, add the nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix to combine.
- Bring the penne back to the large saucepan and pour the béchamel sauce over it. Add the onion and mozzarella and mix to combine.
- Pour the pasta into the greased Pyrex and bake for 25 to 35 minutes until golden on top. Serve warm.
SUBSTITUTIONS: Feel free to swap the mozzarella for gruyère or any other cheese that melts well
ADDITIONS: Olives, sun-dried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms...whatever your heart desires!
How did your mozzarella pasta bake come out? Share photos of your recipe on Instagram by tagging #savormania