Baked Pasta: A Childhood Favorite

Baked pasta holds a special place in my heart, reminiscent of cherished memories from my childhood. It wasn’t a dish we had frequently, but I distinctly recall requesting it on more than one occasion, especially to celebrate birthdays. Lighter and simpler than lasagna and many other cheese-laden baked pasta dishes, this recipe holds a special significance for me. Its essence lies in a delicate balance of butter, cheese, and a light béchamel sauce, all baked to perfection.

The family recipe draws inspiration from Ada Boni’s “Talisman of Happiness” and incorporates a touch of cooked ham, which can be substituted with quality cooked ham or thickly sliced cured ham. For cheese enthusiasts, the Neapolitan version offers a tantalizing twist with diced mozzarella. With just a few minutes in the oven, it’s ready to serve—a surprisingly quick process when you think about it. While the water boils and the pasta cooks, you prepare the béchamel sauce, mix everything together, bake, and voilà! In less than 35 minutes, it’s ready to be enjoyed.

In Italy, a pasta format called “ziti” is traditionally used, resembling long, hollow tubes. My mother used to cook them whole, but breaking them into smaller pieces is more common. Don’t worry about being 100% accurate—opt for a short, elongated pasta like penne or macaroni. With baked pasta, you need not fret about achieving the perfect al dente texture, but it’s still a good idea to slightly undercook it so it doesn’t become too soft when baked. However, as with all cooking, personal preference reigns supreme.

Time: 35 minutes

Difficulty: Can you grate cheese? Then you’re set!


Serves 4-6

  • 500g short pasta such as macaroni, penne, or ziti (if available)
  • 70g butter
  • 150g cooked ham
  • 1 mozzarella (optional)
  • 150g grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
  • 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs

For the béchamel sauce

  • 30g butter
  • 30g flour
  • 500g milk


  1. Cook the pasta: Boil the pasta in plenty of lightly salted water.
  2. Prepare the baking dish: While the pasta cooks, place the butter in chunks, ham in slices, mozzarella in pieces (if using), and two or three tablespoons of grated cheese in a baking dish.
  3. Make the béchamel sauce: In a saucepan, melt 30g of butter. Once melted and slightly foamy, add the flour. Mix well and let it cook for a bit without allowing it to brown. Add the 500g of milk all at once (cold or at room temperature, not hot). Mix well with a whisk and let it thicken, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat.
  4. Preheat the oven: Set the oven to 200°C (392°F).
  5. Drain the pasta: Cook it until very al dente—about a minute or two less than the usual cooking time. Then, toss the pasta in the baking dish with the butter and ham.
  6. Add the béchamel: Pour the béchamel sauce over the pasta and mix well, forming a layer about three fingers thick.
  7. Top with cheese and breadcrumbs: Finish by covering the pasta with a mixture of grated cheese and breadcrumbs, in a ratio of two to one.
  8. Bake: Bake for about 10 minutes until a golden crust forms on top, then serve immediately.

Now, let’s delve deeper into each step of this beloved recipe.

Step 1: Cooking the Pasta

The foundation of any pasta dish lies in the pasta itself. For this baked pasta recipe, the choice of pasta is crucial. While in Italy, “ziti” would be the traditional choice, you can easily substitute it with other short, tubular pasta such as penne or macaroni. The key is to ensure that the pasta is cooked until very al dente, as it will continue to cook in the oven later.

Fill a large pot with water, ensuring there’s enough to fully submerge the pasta. Adding a generous pinch of salt to the water will enhance the pasta’s flavor. Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat before adding the pasta. Stir the pasta occasionally to prevent it from sticking together and cook it according to the package instructions, but aim to cook it for a minute or two less than the recommended time to achieve that perfect al dente texture.

Step 2: Preparing the Baking Dish

While the pasta is cooking, it’s time to prepare the baking dish. This step involves layering the ingredients that will form the base and add flavor to the baked pasta.

Choose a baking dish large enough to hold the cooked pasta and allow for easy mixing. A rectangular or oval dish works well for this recipe. Begin by placing the butter in the dish, cutting it into small chunks to ensure even distribution. Next, arrange the cooked ham slices over the butter. If you’re opting for the Neapolitan version, now’s the time to add the diced mozzarella, scattering it evenly across the dish. Finally, sprinkle a generous amount of grated cheese over the other ingredients. This layering ensures that every bite of the baked pasta is packed with flavor.

Step 3: Making the Béchamel Sauce

The béchamel sauce serves as the creamy binder that brings all the ingredients together in this baked pasta dish. While it may sound intimidating, making béchamel is a straightforward process that requires only a few basic ingredients.

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until it begins to foam slightly. This foaming indicates that the water content in the butter is evaporating, leaving behind pure butterfat. Be careful not to let the butter brown, as this can impart a burnt flavor to the sauce.

Once the butter has melted and is foaming gently, add the flour to the pan. Use a whisk to mix the flour and butter together, creating a smooth paste known as a roux. Allow the roux to cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning. Cooking the roux helps to remove the raw taste of the flour and ensures that the sauce will thicken properly.

With the roux ready, it’s time to add the milk. Gradually pour the milk into the saucepan while whisking constantly to incorporate it into the roux smoothly. Adding the milk slowly and whisking continuously helps to prevent lumps from forming in the sauce.

Continue to cook the sauce over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until it thickens to the desired consistency. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon and have a smooth, velvety texture. Be patient during this process, as rushing can result in a lumpy sauce or one that’s too thin.

Once the béchamel sauce has thickened, remove it from the heat and set it aside until it’s ready to be added to the pasta.

Step 4: Preheating the Oven

While the béchamel sauce is cooking, take this time to preheat the oven to 200°C (392°F). Preheating ensures that the oven reaches the desired

temperature by the time you’re ready to bake the pasta, allowing for even cooking and a golden-brown crust on top.

Step 5: Draining the Pasta

Once the pasta is cooked to al dente perfection, it’s time to drain it. Using a colander or a slotted spoon, transfer the pasta from the pot to the sink, allowing the excess water to drain away. Be careful not to over-drain the pasta, as a little residual moisture will help the sauce adhere to it later.

Step 6: Assembling the Baked Pasta

With all the components ready, it’s time to assemble the baked pasta. Start by adding the cooked pasta to the baking dish, spreading it out evenly over the layer of butter and ham. Using tongs or a spoon, toss the pasta with the other ingredients in the dish to ensure they’re well combined.

Next, pour the prepared béchamel sauce over the pasta, ensuring that it’s evenly distributed. Use a spatula or the back of a spoon to spread the sauce out, forming a smooth layer over the pasta. The béchamel sauce will add creaminess and richness to the dish, binding the ingredients together as it bakes.

Step 7: Adding the Cheese and Breadcrumbs

No baked pasta dish would be complete without a generous topping of cheese and breadcrumbs. In a small bowl, combine the grated cheese and breadcrumbs, using a ratio of two parts cheese to one part breadcrumbs. This mixture will form a golden-brown crust on top of the baked pasta, adding texture and flavor to each bite.

Sprinkle the cheese and breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top of the assembled pasta, ensuring that it covers the entire surface. The cheese will melt and bubble in the oven, forming a deliciously gooey layer, while the breadcrumbs will crisp up, creating a satisfying crunch.

Step 8: Baking the Pasta

With the assembled pasta ready to go, it’s time to bake it to perfection. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven and bake the pasta for about 10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and bubbling. Keep an eye on the pasta as it bakes to prevent it from burning, rotating the dish halfway through if necessary for even browning.

Once the pasta is done baking, remove it from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes before serving. This brief resting period allows the flavors to meld together and ensures that the pasta is safe to handle. Then, dish it out onto plates or into bowls, serving it piping hot and ready to enjoy.


In just a few simple steps, you’ve transformed humble ingredients into a delectable baked pasta dish that’s sure to delight family and friends alike. From cooking the pasta to preparing the béchamel sauce to assembling and baking the dish, each step plays a crucial role in creating a flavorful and satisfying meal.

Whether enjoyed as a comforting weeknight dinner or served as the centerpiece of a celebratory meal, this baked pasta recipe is sure to become a favorite in your household. Feel free to customize it with your favorite ingredients or variations, making it your own special creation.

So gather your ingredients, preheat your oven, and get ready to savor the deliciousness of homemade baked pasta. Buon appetito!

Baked Pasta: A Childhood Favorite
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