This dinner was inspired by Martha Stewart and the need to use stuff up (namely, half a brick of cheddar cheese). A while back, I discovered the rigatoni “cake” at Martha Stewart dot com. The idea was too clever not to try, so I used my own red sauce recipe and followed the assembly instructions successfully. The end result: a delightful looking cake of tall pasta tubes with cheesy topping. Sliced in giant wedges, it just begged for candles and a round of Buon Compleanno. It’s the kind of recipe that delivers . . . provided you are patient and attentive to details.
Tonight, I decided to try a cheesy version. I made two individual portions in a pair of mini-springform pans for dinner and prepared the rest in a smaller baking dish to freeze for later. With a little garnish of bacon and tomato salad on the side, this comforting meal is sure to satisfy. We had some tilapia and white wine to go with. Next time, I think I’ll skip the fish and make a bigger salad.
The process might seem complicated, but it’s really easy and fun to do. Kids could definitely help with the recipe, and the results are really special. Dinner was awesome, and I can’t wait to do it again.
Tips For Success:
- Rigatoni: Don’t overcook the pasta. To make sure the tubes don’t collapse, boil them approximately 8 minutes so they are slightly underdone. Tossing the noodles with oil and parmesan helps the pasta stick together and stand up in the baking dish. Pack them in the dish gently so the tubes don’t close. Can’t fit all the tubes? Use the leftovers to make tomorrow’s lunch or a midnight snack.
- Cheese Sauce: The sauce must be thick enough to cling, but thin enough to pour. Inexpensive cheddar, American cheese, or Velveeta will make the creamiest sauce, but many combinations of cheese will work nicely, so there’s a little room to experiment according to your taste.
- Crust: Fancy Mac & Cheese deserves a delicious crust. Seasoned bread crumbs, cheese, potato chips, cornflakes . . . however you like it. A tasty crust helps protect the pasta ends from hardening during baking. To prevent cheese sauce leaks: sprinkle a little crust mixture on the bottom of the pan before you assemble the pasta.
- Baking: A springform pan makes the perfect shape and best “cake” presentation, but I’ve also used a rectangular glass baking dish (cut squares for serving). Put the baking dish on a cookie sheet to prevent spills in the oven. Be sure to let the baked pasta cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.
Stand Up Mac & Cheese
It’s all about the technique . . . and that yummy cheese sauce! I managed to make the sauce in the time it took to boil water and cook the rigatoni. If you aren’t confident about juggling two tasks at once, make the pasta first and assemble it in the baking pans, then focus on the sauce. Use a springform pan for the prettiest results and easy slicing. A regular baking dish with high sides will do, though.
Cook the Pasta
- Cook 16oz rigatoni (~450g) in boiling salted water about 8 minutes (a little underdone).
- Drain pasta, rinse briefly in cold water (to stop cooking), and drain well.
Assemble the Pasta:
- Toss cooled pasta with 1 Tbs olive oil, S&P, and 1/4 cup grated parmesan.
- Grease a 9″ springform cake pan (or whatever pan you’re using)
- Arrange the pasta tubes (standing on end) in the baking pan. Tilt the pan slightly as you build the rows of tubes, so they don’t fall over. Pack tightly but gently, so tubes stay open to hold the sauce.
Add The Cheese:
- Make the Cheesy Bechamel Sauce (recipe below).
- Spoon the cheese sauce over the pasta, allowing it to run between and into tubes. Don’t worry about completely filling the tubes.
Make The Crust:
- Combine about 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs with 1 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp paprika, and S&P. Toss with 2 Tbs olive oil and 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese.
- Sprinkle topping over rigatoni, pressing into place.
- Cover the pan with foil (a little olive oil on the foil helps keep it from sticking).
- NOTE: You can stop at this point and refrigerate or freeze to bake later.
Ready, Set, Bake!
- Preheat oven to 400°
- Bake 15 minutes, then remove foil.
- Bake another 10-15 minutes until crust is lightly browned.
- Let rest at least 15 minutes before serving. Run a knife along the side to loosen pasta, then remove the outer ring of the springform pan and cut in slices.
- Garnish with real bacon bits and fresh tomato slices.
- NOTE: If baking from fridge/freezer, use 350° oven and bake ~ 45 minutes, then remove foil and bake (or broil if pasta is well heated) until topping is lightly browned.
Cheesy Bechamel Sauce
Fat plus flour equals a roux, the beginning of any good gravy or thick sauce. Cook and stir, cook and stir. Watch over your sauce as it cooks, and stir constantly.
- In a heavy saucepan, melt 2 Tbs butter with 1 Tbs olive oil over medium heat.
- Add 2 Tbs flour and stir a minute or two, then add 2 cups cold milk, stirring briskly to combine.
- Season with S&P, 1 tsp mustard, a dash of granulated garlic, a little fresh grated nutmeg, and a dash of worchestershire sauce.
- Stir frequently as the mixture returns to a boil, then lower the heat a bit and cook until it begins to thicken (stir constantly).
- Cook a few minutes more until it reaches a saucy consistency, then turn off the heat and stir in 2 cups grated cheddar and 1/4 cup grated parmesan until sauce is smooth.