Nowadays, as much as he and his wife Terry enjoy the Bel Paese's fares, and fine cuisine in general, they are lazy cooks and find it easier to eat out in their area's restaurants, rather than staying in for a homemade meal. Lately, however, they were introduced to Blue Apron, and things have changed.
What I am thankful for is that the popular company has re-fueled my dad's and his wife's passion for cooking new dishes with seasonal ingredients, at home.
I can just see them bickering over the stovetop. Priceless.
Today my little boy is home from school with the flu, and I wish I could rely upon a similar service to have dinner delivered to my door. Just as that thought crosses my mind, my mom phones me to say she's having her portiere (doorman) drop off some leftovers for us. Knowing how I'm juggling work, unfolded laundry and house cleaning, with a moaning, juice-demanding, DVD-hypnotized, temperature-spiking little person in the other room, my mamma comes through with her own crafted delivery service. God bless her.
What she sent was a favorite comfort food of mine: pasta al forno. Baked pasta dishes are creamy, savory, warm, velvety embraces, and a key childhood sensory reminder. As an excellent fridge-cleaner, pasta al forno also can employ vegetables and salumi on the verge of their expiry, assorted bits of cheese, eggs, mushrooms, and anything you may like thrown in for good measure.
There are a gazillion pasta al forno recipes out there (including the evergreen mac 'n' cheese) but nothing beats my family's classic, made with simple béchamel and Fontina cheese, which is an Alpine cow's milk cheese typical of the Valle d'Aosta region, and which melts beautifully.
Ingredients for 6 servings
50 g (1/4 cup or half stick) butter + more for coating and garnish
2 fistfuls toasted breadcrumbs
50 g (1/4 cup or 6 tbsp) all-purpose flour
500 ml (2 cups) chicken, beef or vegetable broth, boiling
150 g (5 oz) Fontina cheese, grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
500 grams ribbed, ruffled or spiral pasta (any shape able to "grab" the sauce)
2 slices of ham, finely chopped (optional)
2 fistfuls Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
Preheat oven to 230°C (450°F). Grease a large baking dish and coat it in toasted breadcrumbs.
Start by making your béchamel: melt half a stick of butter on medium-high. Once melted but not bubbling, add the flour, and cook, whisking frequently, 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until toasted and fragrant. Slowly whisk in the broth and cook, stirring frequently, 2 to 4 minutes, or until thickened (the hotter the liquid – some prefer to use milk instead of broth in béchamel – the creamier the outcome). Add the grated Fontina cheese, stir until melted and fully combined.
Season with salt and pepper to taste, and remove from the stove.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil. Drop in the pasta and cook it for half the time it says on the box. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and drain the pasta, adding it to the pot of Fontina béchamel sauce. Stir in the chopped ham and mix until thoroughly combined, adding some saved pasta cooking water, if necessary. The blend should be creamy, not runny.
Transfer the mixture to the greased baking dish, evening out the surface.
Dust with plenty grated Parmigiano Reggiano and dot with a few flecks of butter.
Bake in the oven 5 to 7 minutes, or until a golden crust forms. Remove from the oven, and let stand for at least 2 minutes before diving in. Any leftover pasta al forno can be reheated in the oven for a few minutes and dusted with more Parmigiano, if need be.
I added a few almond slivers to the leftovers mamma had delivered, and saw a huge smile creep on my little boy's face.
Image 2 courtesy of salepepe.it