I’ve upped the ante on a standard yet irresistibly gooey pasta bake by adding roasted wild mushrooms and creamy, funky fontina cheese.
Roasting the mushrooms, in particular, lends this dish its earthy, heady charm. Mushrooms are mostly water, and cooking them at high heat condenses their flavor, caramelizes their sugars and gives them crunchy edges.
This technique works with any kind of mushroom. Even the plain white button kind available in every supermarket will gain intensity and character when tossed with olive oil and exposed to searing temperatures.
That said, the better and more interesting your mushrooms are to start with, the tastier they will become after roasting.
Wild mushrooms — or the so-called wild ones you can find in many markets that are actually farmed — are an excellent choice in terms of both flavor and texture. Oyster mushrooms (maitake, chanterelles and the like) have lots of nooks and crevices, which allow them to get even more delectably crispy than the more evenly rotund creminis and white buttons. You can also use a mix of different mushrooms.
As for the cheese, I chose fontina for its lusciousness when melted. But other good melting cheeses – Gruyère, Cheddar, Gouda – will work. And the ricotta adds a milky creaminess that rounds out the dish.
You can make this dish almost entirely in advance. You can roast the mushrooms, cook the pasta and even assemble the entire dish up to eight hours ahead. Just pop it into the oven right before serving, adding a few minutes to the cooking time if it’s still cold from the fridge.
Baked Cheesy Pasta Casserole With Wild Mushrooms
Yield: 8 servings; total time: 45 minutes
1 pound mixed wild or cultivated mushrooms, such as oyster, maitake and shiitake
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus a few grinds
2 fresh rosemary branches
1/2 pound orecchiette, farfalle or other short pasta
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fresh ricotta
5 ounces fontina (or any good melting) cheese, grated (1 1/4 cups)
2 ounces Parmesan, grated (1/2 cup)
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 garlic clove, finely grated
Heat the oven to 450. Trim mushrooms and cut into 1-inch pieces. Toss with olive oil, the salt, a few grinds of pepper and the rosemary. Spread on a large baking sheet and roast, tossing once or twice, until golden brown and crisped around the edges, 15 to 18 minutes. Discard rosemary.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for at least a few minutes less than the package directs. (You want the pasta very al dente; it will finish softening in the sauce.) Drain well.
Turn oven up to 500 degrees. In a large bowl, stir together the cream, ricotta, fontina, Parmesan, sage, pepper, garlic and a pinch of salt. Stir in the pasta and mushrooms. Arrange in a shallow 2-quart gratin dish or 9- by 13-inch pan. Bake until cheese is melted and bubbly and browned in spots, 10 to 15 minutes.