Right after giving birth to my first daughter I was bombarded with a myriad of problems resulting from the delivery and anesthesia. The baby was healthy, but I wasn’t doing so hot. My mom was coming to help, but I had a few days to get through once my hubby went back to work before she could come. So there I was, sick with a newborn and totally clueless as to how to survive. Nothing sounded good to eat, I felt like I had an elephant sitting on top of my head, and I was a human pacifier.
After one particularly long day of Gilmore Girls reruns, sporadic napping, smelling of the plague and eating nothing but microwave popcorn and pineapple juice, I got a knock on my door. A friend from church was holding a hot casserole dish and had her own one week old curled up in the Baby Bjorn. A saint, right? That meal she brought over that night, 6 years ago, has forever won a place in my heart. I needed it that night, more than she knew and probably more than I even knew. It restored my energy, fed my body and soul, and filled my house with aromas sweeter than those permeating from me.
You can probably guess that this pasta al forno is what was brought to me that night. It’s creamy, saucy, super flavorful, and might be one of the most perfect comfort foods ever. This recipe comes straight from the saint that carried it to my doorstep. She spent 18 months in Italy as a missionary and told me that it was one of the dishes she learned to make while there. In Italian “al forno” references food that has been cooked in the oven, so pasta al forno is simply pasta cooked in the oven. This recipe pairs a meaty tomato sauce with creamy béchamel, mozzarella cheese, and rigatoni—what’s not to love?
Let’s make it! Start by browning 1 1/2 lbs of mild Italian sausage until cooked through and drain off the fat.
- 1½ lbs mild italian sausage
- 2 (14.5 oz) cans petite diced tomatoes
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
- 1 (4 oz) stick butter
- ½ C + 2 tbsp all purpose flour
- 2½ C whole milk
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- pinch nutmeg
- 1 lb dry rigatoni, cooked
- 2 C mozzarella cheese, shredded
- Brown sausage until cooked through and drain off excess fat. Stir in tomatoes and garlic and bring to a simmer. Cook covered on low for at least 30 minutes, longer if time allows. Stir in basil just before assembly.
- Make the bechamel by melting butter in a medium sized sauce pan. Stir the flour into the butter, adding more flour if needed to create a toothpaste-like consistency. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
- Using a whisk, stir in milk and continue to stir until it comes to a boil and is thickened. Remove from heat and stir in salt and nutmeg.
- In a large casserole dish (9x13" or bigger) place half of the pasta followed by half of the tomato sauce and bechamel. Top with 1 C of mozzarella cheese.
- Repeat the layering one more time with the remaining ingredients.
- Bake at 350° for about 45 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is browned.