How to Make a Baked Penne Pasta with Vodka Sauce

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Start to Finish: 60 to 90 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Difficulty Level: Beginner

Update the standard baked pasta recipe with the spicy, creamy kick of homemade vodka sauce. Although you can make this dish with jarred sauce, creating your own vodka sauce requires minimal time and effort while allowing you to control the seasonings and customize the spice level to please your palate. Combine the sauce with perfectly undercooked penne pasta -- the key to avoiding a mushy casserole -- and shredded mozzarella for gooey goodness that is baked to pasta perfection. Top the dish with fresh mozzarella for the perfectly melted, creamy topping. The vodka sauce recipe was adapted from Food & Wine.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound cooked penne pasta
  • Vodka sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh mozzarella, diced
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup pancetta or bacon, cooked (optional)

Vodka Sauce

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 ounces diced pancetta or bacon
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste

  • One 35-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 2 to 3 sprigs of fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Pinch of sugar (optional)

Directions

Make the Vodka Sauce

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.

Add the pancetta or bacon once the oil is hot. Saute it for approximately two to three minutes before adding the garlic, shallot and crushed red pepper. Continue sauteing the mixture until the pancetta is golden and crisp and the garlic and shallot are lightly browned and fragrant.

Deglaze the pan by adding the vodka and stirring it with a wooden spoon to remove any crisp, browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the tomato paste, cooking it for approximately one minute before adding the crushed tomatoes, basil, parsley, salt and pepper.

Simmer the sauce over medium-low to low heat for approximately 30 minutes until it's thickened.

Taste the sauce with a clean spoon. Season it with salt and pepper again to taste.

Remove the sprigs of basil and stir the cream into the sauce. Simmer the mixture for another five minutes.

Cook the Pasta

Place a large pot filled with water on the stove and bring it to a boil over high heat. Add the penne to the pot, stirring it frequently during the first two minutes to minimize sticking.

Tip

  • Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt to the water once it's boiling to give the pasta more complex flavor.

Boil the pasta for approximately five minutes before draining it. Although most packaged pasta calls for 10 to 12 minutes of boiling, Bon Appetit recommends cooking the pasta to a semi-raw state to compensate for the continued cooking it will undergo in the oven while the dish bakes. This is essential to achieving the best texture from your baked casserole.

Assemble the Casserole

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lightly grease the sides and bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Toss the hot, drained penne pasta with the vodka sauce and shredded mozzarella.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and top it with the fresh mozzarella.

Bake the casserole for approximately 30 minutes, or until the pasta reaches your desired tenderness and the cheese is melted.

Preheat the broiler and place the baked penne with vodka sauce approximately 6 inches from the heating element. Broil the casserole for two to four minutes until the top is bubbling and golden.

Warning

  • Watch the pasta carefully while it's under the broiler to avoid burning the top.

Remove the casserole from the oven and allow it to rest for five to 10 minutes before serving it.

Optionally, sprinkle the top with fresh basil and crispy bacon or pancetta.

Tip

  • Chiffonade your basil into pretty ribbons by stacking the leaves, rolling the stack into a cigar-like shape and slicing it crosswise with a sharp knife.

Variations

Lazy Lasagna

Make a filling by combining 2 cups of ricotta, two eggs, 2 cups of shredded mozzarella, 1/2 cup of Romano or Parmesan, 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Layer the ingredients in your baking dish as follows:

  1. Add 1/3 of the vodka sauce to the bottom of the dish
  2. Top it with half the cooked penne
  3. Spread half the filling mixture over the penne pasta

  4. Add another layer of sauce before repeating the layering process, finishing the assembly with one final layer of vodka sauce.
  5. Bake the casserole, covered, for 35 to 40 minutes at 375 F. Remove the foil and bake it for another 10 minutes, until it's bubbly.

Just Add Chicken

Many traditional baked pasta dishes incorporate meat into the mix. Before baking the penne with vodka sauce, stir in cubed, cooked chicken breasts or rotisserie chicken to boost the protein and make this cozy, comforting casserole even heartier. Alternatively, cut chicken sausages into coins, brown it in a pan and stir that into the casserole.

Load Up On Veggies

Cut the richness of this dish by boosting its veggie power. Stir in spinach, mushrooms, sliced artichoke hearts or sliced zucchini before baking the casserole.

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