Baked pasta is classic comfort food and easy to make. But it's important to follow two basic rules.
First, the pasta should not be cooked more than an hour before baking and serving, or it will lose its toothsome bite.
Second, it is importantissimo to undercook the pasta in the boiling water so that the finished dish still has real texture. If the package instructions indicate that the pasta should be cooked for 10 minutes, cook it for five minutes. You want the noodle really al dente when removed from the boiling water, because it will cook in the oven for another 20 minutes.
This dish can be made just as easily with any shape of pasta. I start with a simple filling of veal, lamb and prosciutto cotto, egg and herbs. Fill (or coat, depending on the pasta shape) the partially cooked pasta with the filling, cover with tomato-based sauce, top with cheese, then bake.
After 25 minutes in the oven, if it's not quite crispy golden brown on top, throw it under the broiler for some color.
This is the kind of dish that can live in your fridge for a few days. Carve off a little bit every night then throw it back. It works just as well on day three.
Manicotti Baresi al Forno
Recipe reprinted from "Molto Batali" (ecco, 2011)
Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 as a main.
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds ground veal
2 pounds ground lamb
2 (16-ounce) packages manicotti pasta
1 pound prosciutto cotto, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 large eggs
1 cup plus 1/4 cup plus 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 cups fresh ricotta, drained
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups tomato alla vodka sauce (for quick results, try my Mario Batali pasta sauces)
Bring 8 quarts of water to a boil in a large pasta pot. Set up an ice bath nearby.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Brush the sides and bottom of a 9- by 13-inch lasagne pan with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.
In a 14-inch saute pan, heat the remaining 1/4 cup oil over medium heat. Add the veal and lamb, and cook until lightly browned, carefully separating the meat with a wood spoon so it crumbles evenly. Remove the pan from the heat, drain off the fat, and allow the meat to cool.
Add 2 tablespoons salt to the boiling water. Carefully add the manicotti tubes to the water and cook for 2 minutes less than the package instructions indicate. Drain and submerge the pasta in the ice bath. When it has cooled, drain again and set aside.
Place the cooled meat mixture in a large mixing bowl, and add the prosciutto cotto, eggs, 1 cup of grated cheese, the parsley, ricotta and breadcrumbs. Mix gently but thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Using a piping bag or a small spoon, carefully stuff the filling into the pasta tubes. Place half of the stuffed pasta tubes in the oiled lasagne pan, arranging them in an even layer across the bottom. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the vodka sauce over the tubes, and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the remaining grated cheese. Place the remaining stuffed pasta tubes over the first layer, like a pile of logs, and spread the remaining sauce over them. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese.
Bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown and crispy on top. Remove, and allow the manicotti to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
(Mario Batali is the owner of Babbo, Lupa, Otto and other renowned restaurants. His latest book is "Molto Batali," published by Ecco.)