Baked Penne

This old-school style of baked penne—coated with classically spiced red sauce, mozzarella, and Parmesan—is pure comfort food. My nostalgia for it comes straight from Italy, specifically to when my mom made it part of our weekly rotation while we lived in Rome (she learned the recipe from a friend there). It was such a family favorite that she continued to make it even after we moved back to Israel. I’ll always think my mom’s dish is better than anyone’s, including my own, but my version is inspired by hers and floods me with wonderful and vivid childhood memories every time I eat it.

Recipe by Lior Lev Sercarz, from “Mastering Spice” by Lior Lev Sercarz

Serves 4 to 6

Spice Blend
1 tablespoon plus 1⁄2 teaspoon dried garlic slices (6 grams)
1 tablespoon dried rosemary (1 gram)
2 teaspoons dried oregano (1 gram)
1⁄2 teaspoon black peppercorns, preferably Tellicherry (2 grams)

Finely grind together the garlic, rosemary, oregano, and peppercorns.

Pasta
Kosher salt
1 pound penne
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste (2⁄3 cup)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, preferably pearl-size balls or 1 large ball, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, preferably aged, finely grated

Directions

1. To make the pasta: Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. Put one-quarter of the spice blend in a large pot of cold water and generously season it with salt; it should be as salty as seawater. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for a minute less than the package instructs for al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta.

3. Scrape the tomato paste into a 3-quart baking dish. Add the oil, 2⁄3 cup of the reserved cooking water, and the remaining spice blend. Stir until very smooth, add the pasta, and fold until evenly coated. If the mixture seems dry, add more pasta water, a little at a time, until the noodles are evenly coated in sauce.

4. Add the mozzarella and half the Parmesan. Fold to distribute everything evenly, then smooth the top. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan evenly on top.

5. Bake until the cheese melts and the top is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes and serve hot.

And a fun variant

smoky baked penne with olive oil–packed tuna

In this recipe, I channel Southern Italy by mixing tuna with the pasta and the Middle East with za’atar. Tomato sauce spicy with peperoncini and smoky with pimentón gets a generous dose of onion too. Crumbled goat cheese melts into the mixture as it bakes, creating a decadent creaminess.

SPICE BLEND

3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons dried onion slices (15 grams)
3⁄4 teaspoon pimentón (smoked paprika; 2 grams)
1⁄2 teaspoon peperoncini (dried Calabrian chile) or red pepper flakes (1 gram)
11⁄2 teaspoons dried za’atar leaves (1 gram)

Finely grind the onion and immediately mix with the pimentón, peperoncini, and za’atar. Use this spice blend instead of the main spice blend in the baked penne recipe above.

Follow the baked penne recipe, substituting 8 ounces crumbled goat cheese for the mozzarella and adding 1 (5-ounce) can flaked olive oil–packed tuna to the pasta along with the cheeses in step 4.