Pasta baked in the oven with oodles of cheese is one of my favourite things in the world. It stems from my mother’s amazing Pasta al Forno (which you will note I refer to regularly). She would make it for us when we all still lived at home and she wouldn’t be around at dinner time as it could be left in the oven to feed us all while she was out. I remember madly rushing home when I knew it would be waiting hoping I could beat my brother and farther to a corner piece which always tasted the best and was the crispiest!
I recently found a packet of dried lumaconi pasta at a wonderful gourmet growers market near Scotty’s place. Lumaconi are pasta in the shape of giant snails (see right) and are so large they are best served stuffed and baked (much like you would canneloni). I got rather excited when I found them as I always love an opportunity to make a baked pasta dish. So, I bought them without hesitation and planned the dish I would make Scotty that night for dinner. Sticking with tradition, I thought the best thing to do would be to stuff them with spinach and ricotta.
While some people suggest not pre-cooking the pasta before filling and baking, I always recommend that you cook the pasta in boiling salted water first so it is still al dente enough to fill. That way, when you are baking it in the oven, you just have to heat through and cook the cheese till bubbling and golden.
BAKED LUMACONI WITH SPINACH AND RICOTTA
1 packed dried Lumaconi pasta
1 bunch spinach, chopped
500g ricotta cheese
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 large bottle tomato passata
1 brown onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 large handfuls basil leaves torn into small pieces
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 large handfuls grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saucepan then add onion and 2 cloves garlic and saute until soft. Add the whole bottle of tomato passata along with salt and pepper and 5 large roughly torn basil leaves then bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down and simmer for about 20 mins. Making a pasta sauce is really all about the taste. While the sauce is simmering, I keep tasting it until the acidity of the raw tomatoes cooks out of the sauce.
Once pasta sauce is simmering bring a large pot of salted water to the boil then add dried Lumaconi pasta and boil until tender but still al dente. Once cooked drain water and return to the pot with a drizzle of olive oil.
Heat a tbsp of olive oil in a heavy pan and fry the chopped spinach with crushed garlic and dried chilli until well wilted. Once wilted, remove from heat and place in a mixing bowl to cool. Once cool, add ricotta and freshly ground nutmeg to taste then season with salt and pepper. Mix well until the spinach and ricotta is well combined.
In a square baking dish place a few large spoonfuls of pasta sauce in the bottom till you cover the base of the dish. Then, taking the lumaconi pasta one by one, fill with roughly a tablespoon of the filling and place in the dish in neat rows. Repeat with all pasta shells and when finish finely slice the remaining basil leaves and add to the top of the shells with the parmesan.
After that, pour the remaining tomato sauce over all the shells, add the cheddar cheese to the top and bake in a 180 degree Celsius oven until the cheese is golden and the filling heated through. Serve with a rocket and fennel salad and enjoy!