We had a version of this dish while we were away and just loved it. Naturally, we had to make our own version, not because we thought we’d make it better, but because it’s a terrific dish and it seemed easy! Easy’s good, especially when you’re busy with other things. Oh, and, while the version we ate earlier had been simply Baked Spaghetti, we thought that we’d translate that into Italian and call it Spaghetti al Forno.
We didn’t really follow a recipe for this dish; it’s simply spaghetti sauce and pasta baked in in a casserole dish. And, no, you don’t even need to boil the pasta in advance; just use more liquid in the sauce, use angel hair pasta in place of spaghetti, and let it soak in the sauce for a few hours before baking. We, however, scratched up a batch of fresh basil pasta (use our basic pasta recipe, but add about a teaspoon of dried basil to the flour) that we cut into spaghetti.
We’re always learning and passing it on to you. For this dish, we made fresh pasta and let our casserole stand for about an hour before baking. Slight mistake, as the pasta turned a bit gummy. Next time we’ll either bake immediately, let our pasta dry before adding it to the casserole, or use commercial dried pasta.
When we make a dish that relies heavily on the tomatoes, we use San Marzano tomatoes, specifically the Cento brand. Yes, they’re more expensive, but they really taste better, more like fresh tomatoes, so we recommend them to you, too.
Walnuts: they may seem odd, but they’re so good as pizza toppings that we added them to the sauce. It gives the sauce a chunky texture, but keeps it light.
We don’t specify the type of cheese, since we think that any good melter will work here. Mozzarella and Parmesan would be traditional, but we changed ours up with some Colby Jack cheese, which was quite good.
Procedure in detail:
Crush tomatoes. There really is no better tool for crushing tomatoes than your fingers. So, place the tomatoes in a 2-quart casserole dish and get in there with your (clean, of course) hands. Crush the tomatoes and ferret out those bits of tough cores. There might also be pieces of tomato skin; pull those out. Discard (or save for flavoring stock) those tough bits.
Add seasonings. Add the onions, salt, pepper, red pepper, oregano, basil, and walnuts. Give everything a good stir to combine completely and get those pesky dried herbs mixed in. We find that sometimes they float on top of the sauce, but a good stirring will fix that.
Add pasta. Add the pasta and toss, gently if using fresh pasta, to coat. Make sure that all the pasta is submerged under the sauce, because any pieces that remain above the sauce won’t cook. They’ll remain hard and dried and crunchy, which is probably not what you’re after in a pasta dinner.
Top with mushrooms and cheese. If you’re using mushrooms — we’ve known a few people who don’t like mushrooms, which we don’t really understand, but accept as fact — spread the slices around the surface and toss lightly to coat and submerge under the sauce. Finally, sprinkle the cheese in an even layer across the top. At this stage, you can cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to bake, although, if you use fresh pasta, you should bake immediately.
Bake. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the covered casserole in the middle of the oven and bake for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling throughout and the cheese is melted. If desired, remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of baking to brown the cheese.
Stand. Let the casserole stand on a cooling rack for about 10 minutes before serving. That will give it time to firm up just a bit.
This dish isn’t much to look at when it’s served — it’s a spaghetti casserole, after all — but, for something so easy, it surely is good. The sauce thickens nicely in the oven, the onions and mushrooms simmer into the sauce, making it taste as if you spent hours making the sauce on the stove. Our only issue was the fresh pasta; as described above, it took on a gummy texture from standing in the sauce for an hour or so before baking. Four stars.