When it comes to comfort food, there is nothing that I find as satisfying as a big bubbly casserole of baked pasta. My husband unfortunately isn’t quite as fond of baked pasta as I am, mainly because he likes his pasta VERY “al dente.” In fact, we have an ongoing discussion almost on a daily basis about how long to cook pasta.
I have learned over time, that when making a baked pasta dish, to drastically undercook the pasta before combining it with the sauce before baking. Although the pasta still isn’t as firm as my husband would prefer, the pasta retains its shape and texture and is far from mushy.
This pasta dish combines an entire head of roasted cauliflower, some tasty bacon bits, and pasta shells in a creamy, cheesy sauce that is topped with a crumb mixture flavored with even more grated cheese along with some chopped hazelnuts. The roasted cauliflower adds a subtle earthiness to the pasta that is delicious, but since the cauliflower is almost indistinguishable from the pasta once baked, it is an excellent way to encourage children to eat cauliflower without even realizing that they are doing so.
I added bacon because anything is better with bacon, but you could use diced ham in place of the bacon, or just exclude it and create a vegetarian dish. For recipes such as this one, I usually use up all the leftover pieces of cheese in my refrigerator, but you should use a melting cheese such as fontina, gruyere, or asiago.
This pasta dish is one that can be prepared ahead of time, refrigerated, then baked when needed. Just remember to take the casserole out of the refrigerator long enough to allow it to come to room temperature before baking. I have also froze this dish, but find the pasta seems to absorb more of the sauce for some reason when frozen, so I usually make extra sauce when freezing casseroles such as this one.
- 1 Head Cauliflower
- 3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
- 6 Strips Thick Cut Bacon, Diced
- 4 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
- 1/3 Cup Al-purpose Flour
- 4 Cups Partly Skimmed Milk
- 2 Cups Grated Melting Cheese Such As Gruyere, Fontina, Or Asiago
- 1 Cup Grated Pecorino or Parmesan Cheese
- 1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
- Salt & Pepper
- 1 (500 gram) Package Pasta Shells or Macaroni
- 1 1/2 Cups Coarse Breadcrumbs
- 1/2 Cup Grated Pecorino or Parmesan Cheese
- 2 Teaspoons Finely Chopped Parsley
- 1/4 Cup Chopped Hazelnuts
- Salt & Pepper
- 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
- Cut the cauliflower into bite sized florets, and toss with olive oil.
- Spread the cauliflower onto the baking sheet and season with salt and pepper.
- Roast the cauliflower until lightly browned and fork tender, stirring every so often as it cooks, about 20 minutes.
- Cook the bacon in a frying pan until lightly browned and beginning to crisp, about 8 minutes.
- Set aside.
- Heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and cook until melted and bubbly.
- Whisk in the flour and cook a minute or two.
- Slowly pour in the milk, whisking continually until smooth.
- Cook the sauce over medium heat, whisking often, until the sauce begins to thicken.
- Stir in both the cheeses, mustard, salt and pepper and reduce the heat to a simmer.
- Continue to cook, whisking often until the cheese has melted and the sauce is thick.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
- While the sauce is cooking, heat a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
- Cook the pasta half the recommended time, then drain.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Toss the pasta with the sauce, cauliflower, and bacon bits and then spoon into a lightly buttered oven-proof casserole dish.
- In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients, then spoon the topping over the pasta.
- Bake the pasta 20 minutes, or until bubbly and lightly browned, covering with foil if the crumbs become too brown.
- Serve hot and enjoy!