There are certain recipes I obsess over. I have folder marked “Re-Visit” and in it there must be at least five recipes for baked pasta dishes. They all are fundamentally the same. The pasta is cooked and then a sauce is mixed into it, cheese is added to it and tops it and the whole thing goes into a hot oven for 15 or 10 minutes. In my imagination, it emerges with cheese bubbling up from under a crisp brown Parmesan crust. The incredibly rich cream sauce coats the pasta which is laden with the flavor of sausage or meatballs, pork or beef. That’s how I imagine it until reality takes over: Dried pasta sticks up out of a bare covering of cheese. Inside the sauce is non-existent and were it not for the meat, it would hardly be worth eating. This has been going on for years.
Then finally, in the most unimaginable place I found Baked Pasta Nirvana. In this recipe, luscious ripe tomatoes in big chunks are mixed with slices of sweet Italian sausage. The pasta, tomatoes and sausage come together in a creamy béchamel sauce. And an entire layer of Mozzarella, hidden bang in the middle of the dish, pulls on your fork like mozzarella in a pizza commercial. I did use the very last of the fresh tomatoes when I made this dish. But I discovered that canned plum tomatoes, drained of their liquid and cut into large chunks are an admirable replacement and put this dish within reach year ‘round. And where did this amazing dish come from? Why, Departures magazine!