Pasta al Forno

Sunday, February 5, 2012

This recipe is one of those that I came across while going through my recipe collection where I said to myself, "Oh yeah, I forgot about that. That was good. I need to make that again." And so, I did. And it was better than I remember it - flavorful and decadent without being over the top or rich.

I first made this pasta a couple of years ago to recreate a favorite restaurant dish that consists of orecchiette pasta (which translates to "little ears" in Italian) baked in a leek and Gorgonzola cream sauce, covered with a crispy breadcrumb and Parmesan topping. My version has all the same robust flavors, but is certainly not as rich. I skip the cream sauce and instead simmer milk, cream and blue cheese with sauteed leeks. Besides being delicious, this pasta is also really easy to make. And this is something that can be made up ahead of time and baked later in the week. You could make a simple salad and cut up a crusty baguette while the pasta bakes in the oven. Plus individual gratins bake up super quick, so dinner will be on the table in no time. Of course you could make one large baked pasta dish, however there is something kind of special about having your own little gratin or ramekin. Besides that, the pasta stays nice and warm when kept in its baking dish and you would certainly be cheated on some of the crispy breadcrumb topping if you had your portion of pasta served out of a larger communal casserole dish.

The recipe below is written exactly as I made this the first time. Of course this time I made a few adjustments based on what was in my fridge and only made a half recipe, which I kind of now regret. I used 2% milk instead of the whole milk and cream, as well as Saint Agur blue cheese instead of the Roaring 40s. I definitely recommend getting good quality blue cheese. With only a few ingredients in this dish, quality is of the utmost importance. And though the pasta was still delicious with the 2% milk, I do suggest adding the bit of cream. Whole milk is not a necessity, but I wouldn't go any lighter than 2%.

Leeks and blue cheese are elegant and sophisticated and dainty gratin dishes make this dish even more romantic. I think this would be the perfect meal to make for a cozy Valentine's Day dinner. Don't you?

Baked Orecchiette with Roaring 40’s Blue Cheese, Cream and Leeks

Serves 6-8

This recipe makes 8 smaller portions or 6 larger ones. The choice is up to you based on what else you plan to serve.

1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1-2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound orecchiette pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
4-5 large leeks, tops removed, chopped
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 pound (8 ounces) blue cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Set aside 6-8 small gratin or soufflé dishes or 1 large casserole dish and preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

To make the breadcrumb topping, combine the dry breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper in a small bowl. Add 1-2 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil – just enough to moisten the breadcrumbs but not enough to make them soggy. Set aside.

In a large sauté pan heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped leeks and season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stir occasionally, until slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes.

When the large pot of water has come to a rapid boil, add two tablespoons of salt and the orchetti pasta. Cook until al dente, according to the package’s directions.

When the leeks are slightly caramelized, reduce the heat to low and slowly pour in the cream and milk. Add the salt and pepper and gently stir the cream and milk until it comes to a simmer. Turn the heat off and stir in half of the cheese. When the pasta is al dente, drain and add to the pan with the cream (or toss together in a large heat proof bowl). Toss together; then divide the pasta evenly amongst the individual gratin dishes. Use your hands to crumble the remaining blue cheese atop the pasta. Finally, top each pasta dish with a 6th/8th of the breadcrumb mixture. Place the gratin dishes on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Allow the pasta to sit 2-3 minutes before serving.


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