As someone who grew up in the Bay Area, I on’t think of myself as a baked pasta expert. I love them, and one of the first recipes I developed at Bon Appétit was a tuna casserole, but I haven’t made many baked pastas since. Healthyish editor Amanda Shapiro had a goal for this recipe from the beginning: to use squash to create a creamy sauce, then add it to the pasta instead of a lot of cheese. It’s the epitome of healthy winter comfort food, and it’s perfect for feeding a crowd.
I started with butternut squash-stuffed shells covered in tomato sauce and Parmesan. It was good but super tomato-y, so food director Carla Lalli Music suggested we cut out the tomato and focus 100% on the squash. Once I took out the tomato, I changed the recipe completely. First, I made a squash purée. I cooked down some onions, garlic, red pepper flakes, cubed butternut squash, and chicken stock, then blended it with a cup of Parmesan. I made it a little spicy to distract from the lack of dairy fat—I added a good amount of red pepper flakes and black pepper for two types of heat. The Parmesan is the only cheese, but you’d never guess it from how super-creamy this pasta turns out.
Instead of shells, I went with paccheri, which is a big, tubular pasta that collapses on itself after boiled. Once the pasta was very al dente—like three minutes shorter than what the package suggests—I began layering the pasta and squash puree. I baked it, covered, until the pasta was cooked through, then took off the foil and cranked the heat until the sauce was bubbling and really crisp. For even more crunch, I made a deconstructed pesto crumble to put on top: toasted, coursely chopped hazelnuts (walnuts would also work), salt,oil and torn basil all tossed together. The mixture warms through when scattered over the pasta, creating a crunchy, herby topping for the baked creamy pasta. While i was definitely skeptical about the idea of this dish, it quickly became a favorite among our editors. And while I doubt I’ll ever be an avid baked pasta guy, if I’m going to make one, this is it.