Cheesy Baked Penne

Since April showers are acting more like January snow, it seems some cozy comfort food is in order! Well, alright then. Baked pasta it is!

Pasta al forno (“baked pasta” sounds even better in Italian) is a glorious comfort food that’s perfect for a family meal or entertaining. If you’d like, much of the work can even be done in advance so all you have to do is bake when you’re ready to enjoy.

Creamy and cheesy, this pasta al forno recipe by Michele Scicolone, cookbook author and Italian culinary pro (which appeared in Real Food), gets extra zest from the flavors of smoked ham and robust provolone cheese.

Heck, even if the weather weren’t going to be like January, I’m all for creamy, cheesy pasta. Pop open a bottle of Pinot Grigio or Chianti and dream of May flowers. Buon appetito!

Cheesy Baked Penne

Serves 6

4 c. milk
4 Tbsp. (½ stick) unsalted butter
¼ c. all-purpose flour
¹⁄8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 lb. penne, mostaccioli rigati, or elbows
1 c. frozen peas
8 oz. smoked ham, chopped
4 oz. provolone, diced
1 c. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

To make sauce, heat milk in a medium saucepan until small bubbles form around the edges.

In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir well. Cook, stirring, until thickened and smooth, about two minutes. Very slowly begin adding hot milk in a thin stream, whisking constantly. (Sauce will look lumpy at first, but will smooth out as you continue to add milk.) When all of the milk has been added, stir in nutmeg and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Raise heat to medium and bring sauce to a simmer. Cook 2 minutes more. Pour sauce into a bowl. Use immediately, or place a piece of plastic wrap on surface to prevent a skin from forming and chill. (Can be prepared up to 24 hours before using.)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a shallow 2½ quart baking dish.

Bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta and 2 tablespoons salt. Stir well. Cook until pasta is tender yet still firm to the bite. Drain well.

Toss pasta with sauce. Stir in peas, ham, provolone, and ¾ cup of the grated cheese. Scrape mixture into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup grated cheese. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake 25 minutes. Uncover and bake until sauce is bubbling around edges and center is hot, about 10 minutes more. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrition Info, Cheesy Baked Penne (per serving): CALORIES 711 (232 from fat); FAT 26g (sat. 15g); CHOL 78mg; SODIUM 1327mg; CARB 80g; FIBER 5g; PROTEIN 38g

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Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her school-age son, who used to eat beets and Indian food, will one day again think of real food as more than a means to a treat—and later share this with his younger brother.