A baked red-sauce and cheese pasta dish with a thick crunch and béchamel sauce.
Typical kid foods are composed of simple and delicious flavors, which is why I think you might be fibbing if you said there wasn’t something off the kid’s menu that you occasionally crave. Mine is Pasta Crock. You may not be familiar with this dish, but it’s a dinner that remains the most highly coveted by my siblings and me because it is a trifecta of texture, flavor, and appearance. The word crock in the name refers to the crunch sound that your teeth make with each bite of this cheesy, baked pasta. This dish is my mom’s tried-and-true version of pasta al forno with a bit more cheese to give it that crispy bite. With a light red sauce and a creamy béchamel to balance out the crock-factor, it is everything a kid could want.
Although my mother was the household chef, my older sister was the visionary behind Pasta Crock. My family lived in Italy for some time before coming to the USA. While there, my mother perfected all the most authentic recipes. My sister’s formative years were spent in Rome and were full of classic Italian flavors, so when she got to America, she knew what she liked (and what she didn’t like!). Dining out or eating dinner at someone else’s house often provoked a cheeky “fa schifo!” indicating that she was less than impressed by their cooking, and usually her complaints were that American dishes had too much “stuff” in them. When all else failed, my sister would request “la pasta croccante,” which means crunchy pasta. Eventually, when English became our primary language at home, we shortened this to Pasta Crock. In my sister’s culinary opinion, the crunchier the better, which meant adding more cheese and fewer vegetables in the sauce, an ideal combination for a 7 year old.
Although my siblings and I have grown and our palettes have evolved, this recipe stays precisely the same. Who doesn’t crave more-cheese-and-fewer-veggies sometimes? In a family of five kids, bickering was inevitable. Family dinners could be tense. How do you settle on a meal that satisfies everyone’s cravings on any particular night? But when Pasta Crock was on the table, the sound of our teeth crunching on baked pasta would break up the thick air of silence, and all was right again.
Makes 8 servings
This is my family’s recipe for Pasta Crock. A few important notes: do not let onions turn brown, this will make sauce bitter (cook for no more than 5 to 7 minutes). Crush the tomatoes with your hands. My mother always said using your hands is important (I think it adds in your love).
- One (28 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
- 1/4 cup chopped basil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- Salt, to taste
- Ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 lb rigatoni
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, plus more for finishing
- Pinch grated nutmeg
- 1/2 lb mozzarella, shredded
- Place the tomatoes in a large bowl. Use your hands to crush the tomatoes until no large pieces remain.
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and basil, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is rich and flavorful, about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 9 minutes (or according to the directions on the box). Strain and set aside.
- Heat the milk in a small saucepan over low heat. Keep warm over the lowest heat, being careful not to boil or burn.
- Melt the butter in a separate saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until the flour is evenly coated and begins to leave a film at the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes. Remove
- from the heat and immediately whisk in the warm milk until smooth.
- Return the pot to low heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the salt, cheese, and nutmeg, and whisk until smooth. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Using a food mill, immersion blender, or food processor, blend your reserved tomato sauce, working in batches, if needed.
- In a large bowl, combine the tomato sauce, cooked pasta, and mozzarella cheese. Toss to combine. Pour into a large casserole dish and spread the bechamel in an even layer over top. Sprinkle with parmesan.
- Bake until the top layer is bubbly and golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool for ten minutes before serving.
Francesca Patterson is a student at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.