Al Dente from the Oven

20 December 2006
Al Dente from the Oven

When noodles and sauce comingle in a hot oven, the reward is a baked dish that adds a seasoned spin to pasta offerings.

This article first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>

By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor

Baked pasta dishes bring to mind everything from high-school athletes carb-loading on lasagna to the elaborate timpano showcased in 1996's restaurant-centered film "Big Night." From cafeteria lines to fine-dining tables, these baked favorites satisfy many occasions and audiences.

They also have a soul-satisfying heartiness to which plates of noodles tossed with trendy sauces often aspire.

"What we're seeing is customers going back to rustic, home-style treatments of pasta," says Bud Boswell, corporate chef and director of purchasing for Boston's The Gourmet Pizza. "It's getting away from pine nuts and goat cheese and doing traditional, old-fashioned types."

The Dallas-based chain developed two such dishes, Baked Cheese Ravioli and Garlic Shrimp Al Forno, as limited-time offers this year. After trailing only lasagna in pasta popularity, the items will become permanent on Boston's menu in 2007. Their success boils down to broad appeal: Boswell notes that while his Asian-inspired noodle dishes sell well in some areas, baked pasta dishes are slam dunks across the nation.

Fine-dining restaurants, just the places that brought pine nuts and goat cheese to the forefront, also are delivering the home-spun appeal of baked pasta dishes. At Sage Restaurant in Boston, Executive Chef and Proprietor Anthony Susi makes individual servings of lasagna from six sheets of thin, house-made pasta layered with braised rabbit, onions and chopped tomatoes. "The reason we do them individually is so we can bake them to order," Susi says. The timesaving virtue lies in assembling the lasagnas ahead of time.

Baked pasta dishes also are ideal solutions for feeding large groups. In spite of the more worldly preferences they sometimes exercise, hungry university students seem primed for noodle casseroles. At The University of Georgia, Athens, lasagna and baked pastas such as manicotti and macaroni always are on the menu. To keep things fresh, the university uses different sauces, including fresh basil and spicy red. The University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) also makes different lasagnas for various days of the week, which vary from classic Bolognese to roasted-vegetable vegan lasagna.

Regardless of what goes into the dish, one secret to baked success is achieving harmony between sauce, noodles and cheese or breadcrumb topping. Sauce can't be too watery or too thick. Noodles need to hold up to longer cooking times while retaining a toothsome bite. Breadcrumb or cheese toppings, if used, should add nutty taste and a pleasing texture differentiation. This takes adjustments and experimentation with different cheeses, sauces, and noodles.

Firm and Fresh

At Trattoria del Lupo, Wolfgang Puck's Italian outpost at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Executive Chef Mark Ferguson is a fan of baked pastas that retain their bite. He prefers using fresh pasta in order to avoid a too-soft dish.

"There's egg in fresh pasta. Fresh goes from soft to firm and stays firm because of the protein in the dough," he explains.

For his spaghetti tart, structure comes via fresh, house-made pasta that he prepares with semolina flour in order to mimic the taste of dried pasta. The difference is in the pasta's protein content: Ferguson uses egg. He partially cooks the pasta, puts it into a greased mold and places a hard-cooked egg at the center. Tomato-and-egg sauce is poured over the top. Once baked, it's inverted onto a plate and sliced in half to expose the egg. "Taking simple things and making them look high-tech is part of the game," Ferguson says.

Béchamel sauce, useful for its binding properties, is another classic addition to some baked pasta dishes. At Coco Pazzo Cafe in Chicago, béchamel plays a critical role in the restaurant's classic lasagna Bolognese.

It also helps with appearance: Sage's Susi makes cannoli filled with braised veal breast and butter-Parmesan sauce, and tops it with béchamel before baking it in a terra-cotta pot. Béchamel can carry flavor in a baked pasta too. UCSC Executive Chef Dwight Collins adds the liquid used to reconstitute dried porcini mushrooms to the béchamel he uses for mushroom lasagna.

And nearly every chef has created a version of the American classic macaroni and cheese. Chef Albert Visanu Chivacharem of ASIA Los Feliz in Los Angeles, prepares beurre blanc sauce with sake into which he folds truffles, blanched garlic, cheese, lobster and cooked penne. "The sweetness of the sake blends everything together," he explains.

Advantage Kitchen

Baked pastas offer some undeniable benefits. Relatively easy for line cooks to pick up during busy services, baked pastas also aid chefs with their ability to retain heat.

Coco Pazzo Cafe's classic lasagna Bolognese, which comprises house-made pasta sheets and meat ragù in addition to béchamel, is cooked in batches and kept warm, covered with plastic wrap followed by aluminum foil during service to keep the top of the lasagna from forming a skin. Generous slices are served with tomato cream sauce and garnished with basil.

"From a kitchen standpoint, it's great for consistency," Chef Chris Macchia says. The restaurant, which has menued the dish for 10 years, serves from 30 to 50 lasagna orders each day.

Gnocchi Lessons

Gnocchi are great baked and also wonderful lightly dressed with sauce. Yet there's one thing certain about gnocchi: No one makes them quite the same.

  • You say potato: Russet or Yukon gold, it's all about preference. Chef Anthony Susi of Sage Restaurant in Boston always turns to russets while Chef Donato Scotti of La Strada in Palo Alto, Calif., favors golds. Perhaps the difference lies in the details. Susi boils russets peeled and cubed while Scotti boils unpeeled Yukons whole. Susi's most important tip? Waiting for the russet potatoes to reach room temperature before adding egg and flour.
  • Better with butter: Scotti adds a touch of browned butter to gnocchi that will be paired with meat. Chef Bryan Voltaggio's gnocchi at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C., gets a luxurious dash of clarified butter.
  • Streamlined service: Gnocchi can lose its shape quickly if left raw. Scotti, Susi and Voltaggio cook off the little dumplings before service and reheat to order.
  • Alla Romana: Roman-style gnocchi swaps potatoes for semolina. Chef Chris Macchia of Coco Pazza Café makes semolina dumplings with milk that he bakes in a mushroom-truffle sauce.
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