When you’re halfway through a bout of solo parenting (as I currently am), nothing breaks up the monotony like a mum-and-kid playdate. Bonus points if it’s another solo-parenting mum who is also craving social interaction, a change of scene, and some quality adult conversation.
Yesterday Miss B and I met up with our pals LB and Mr W for an afternoon outing to see Despicable Me 2 (even more minions!). When we made the plan, I’d invited them back here afterwards for some playtime and dinner afterwards. Knowing I’d want to be able to concentrate on the conversation, I opted to get most of the prep out of the way before we left for the movies, and made a pasta bake.
Creamy pasta bake
For this concoction, I used a combination of ingredients that I frequently make as a pasta dish, with some adaptations to make it work in baked form (mainly a roux sauce rather than a pan sauce).
1 lb/450 g short pasta of your choice (I used gemelli)
1 Tbsp/.5 oz/15g butter
4 slices bacon, chopped,
1 shallot, peeled and chopped
¼ cup/2 oz/60 ml white wine
1 bunch spinach, washed and roughly chopped
2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 g butter
4 Tbsp/1 oz/30 g flour
¼ cup/2 oz/60 ml white wine
1 cup/8 oz/240 ml stock or similar (I was out, so used the pasta cooking water)
1 cup/8oz/240 ml pouring cream
2 oz/60 g cheddar cheese
pinch cayenne pepper
2-3 handfuls of shredded parmigiano reggiano cheese
2-3 Tbsp of grated pecorino romano cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, then add pasta and cook until just edible and still very al dente (8-10 minutes). Drain, reserving 1-2 cups of the pasta water. Return to the pasta pot (minimizing washing up!) and mix in 1 Tbsp of butter to keep from sticking. Set aside.
While the pasta cooks, you can get on with the mix-ins and sauce.
Mix-ins In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until it begins to brown and crisp, 5-7 minutes. Once you start to see signs of browning, add the shallot and continue to sauté, stirring frequently. When the bacon is looking crisp and the shallots have softened, add the wine and stir briskly to scrape up all the good stuff that will be stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Add the spinach and leave to wilt for another 5-7 minutes, stirring regularly.
Sauce Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, then add flour and stir together with a whisk to make a roux.* When the roux has cooked sufficiently, add wine and continue stirring. Add remaining ingredients in the order listed, stirring frequently to bring everything together. Bring just to boiling point and let simmer for a bit to thicken the sauce up. Make sure the cheese melts and finish off by salting to taste.
Assembly Lightly grease the inside of a casserole dish (I used an oval 2.8-liter which held this amount of food perfectly). Empty skillet of mix-ins into the waiting pasta and mix together, then pour over half the sauce and mix again. Pour the whole mixture into the prepared casserole dish and spread out to even depth. Pour in the rest of the sauce.
This is the point where I covered the dish with foil and put it in the refrigerator for 3 hours. When we got back from the cinema, I cooked it as follows.
Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Remove casserole dish from fridge, but leave covered. When oven is preheated, put in casserole and leave to cook for 30-40 minutes, until beginning to brown and bubble on the edges. At this point, remove foil, add topping cheeses, and return to oven for 10-15 minutes.
Let stand for 10 minutes before serving if possible. Generously served 2 adults and 2 children, with probably another 4 servings left over.
* See here for an in-depth discussion of making roux-based sauces and gravies.