We made it back to Italy safe and sound and our trip thankfully went very smoothly. No hassles with luggage, no flight delays, and even our new little pup Zoe behaved like a complete angel on her first transatlantic flight. Unfortunately, we arrived in Umbria just as the weather broke, and it has been very cool and windy since we arrived three days ago. Our farmhouse sat unheated all winter, so it is actually cooler inside than it is outside. Today I am sitting in front of a roaring fire trying to warm up, while looking out at grey skies and pouring rain. The past three days, my husband and I have gone room to room cleaning our farmhouse from top to bottom, so we can now relax and feel like we are once again “home.”
I had planned to schedule some recipes ahead of time, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the blog for a week or two once I arrived in Italy, but though I had good intentions, life got in the way. I like to close down my kitchen a few days before we leave for our six month stay in Italy, so I have time to scrub everything inside and out. This
forces encourages me to prepare meals using up leftovers in our fridge, freezer or pantry for a couple of weeks. The week we were leaving I realized that I had a nice piece of guanciale, and a lot of small pieces of various types of cheese, so I decided to fall back on one if my favorite pasta al forno (baked pasta recipes). Guanciale is an Italian cured meat prepared from pork cheeks, similar to pancetta, but with its own distinct flavor. For me, this is Italian comfort food. What is better than a dish of pasta bubbly hot from the oven coated in a cheesy, creamy sauce and topped with a golden brown crumb crust?
This recipe is one that I have made for years, often using up leftover cheese and pasta bits, as it is a great dish to use up small amounts of dried pasta leftovers sitting in your pantry. You know the bags or boxes of pasta that are not enough pasta to create a complete meal, but you just hate to throw them out? The only thing you need to remember is that the various pasta shapes you use all should have similar cooking times. To keep the pasta from getting mushy after it has baked, I only boil it for half the recommended cooking time since it will continue to cook in the oven. For this type of pasta, I prefer to use short dried pasta shapes such as rigatoni, fusilli, or penne.
This dish is so easy to pull together starting with a basic béchamel sauce. Once the sauce is made, I stir in about three (or four for real cheesy pasta) cups of various grated or shredded cheeses until they melt and create a thick, cheesy sauce. It works best if you have some cheese that is semi-soft or creamy. In this version photographed, I used grated Pecorino Romano cheese, Gorgonzola Dolce, Asiago, and a small piece of Taleggio cheese. I then fry up some diced pancetta or guanciale until golden brown though you could also use small cubes of diced cooked ham if you like. You can also stir in a cup of peas, or even some lightly blanched broccoli florets cut into small pieces, or simply skip the addition of meat for a vegetarian version.
Deborah Mele 2016
- 1 Pound Dried Pasta (See Notes Above)
- 3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
- 3 Tablespoons All-purpose Flour
- 3 Cups Whole Milk
- 3 to 4 Cups Mixed Grated Or Shredded Cheese (See Notes Above)
- Salt & Pepper
- 1 Cup Diced Guanciale or Pancetta
- 1 Cup Panko Breacrumbs
- 2 Teaspoons Finely Chopped Parsley
- Salt & Pepper
- 2 Teaspoons Olive Oil
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
- While the water is heating, in a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.
- Once the butter has melted, whisk in the flour until smooth.
- Cook the flour mixture a minute or two, then slowly whisk in the milk.
- Season with salt and pepper, and continue to cook over medium low heat, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the cheese, and continue to cook over low heat until the cheese has melted, and the sauce is smooth.
- In a frying pan, cook the guanciale or pancetta over medium heat until cooked through,and lightly browned, about 7 to 8 minutes.
- Drain, and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. and lightly grease a 13 x 9 inch baking dish (or individual casserole dishes as shown).
- Cook the pasta for half the recommended cooking time, then drain and return to the pot.
- Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta, and stir to mix well.
- Stir in the guanciale or pancetta.
- Pour the pasta mixture into your prepared pans.
- In a small bowl, mix the topping ingredients with your fingertips until blended, then sprinkle on top of the pasta.
- Bake about 20 minutes, or until the pasta is bubbly and golden brown.