Baked to perfection

Published in FSD Update

Baked pastas provide comfort, high profit margins and great taste.

Looking for an inexpensive way to offer customers value-added comfort food? Consider baked pastas, which are also “the best way to accomplish better taste and presentation,” says Fernando Cruz, executive chef at The Hotel at Auburn University, in Alabama, who serves braised rabbit cannelloni and meat lasagna. Baked pastas also “make things easier when executing the dish à la minute, as you can preportion the dishes ahead of time, ensuring incredibly accurate yields for every batch.” This also provides operators with increased cost control (read: higher profit margins).

Ida Shen, director of culinary and catering at UC Berkeley, also offers a range of baked pastas, from classic lasagnas and pasticcio to vegan and vegetarian bakes. “Pasta is popular in almost any form, but baked pasta dishes look more put together than a tossed one, as they have a value-added look to them,” Shen adds. “They’re also a great way to market a vegetarian dish and they help in lowering the costs for animal proteins because [you can stretch] the protein.”

Plus, “baked pastas have a comfort factor to them and usually feature cheese as an ingredient, which everyone loves,” adds Mark Kowalski, executive chef of Culinary Support Services at Penn State University, in State College. “We offer a wide variety of lasagnas, stuffed pastas and baked pastas with many different flavor profiles, and we try to incorporate different ingredients into the sauces and the pastas to make them unique.” Kowalski cites baked ziti and butternut squash, bacon and kale three-cheese pasta as most popular.

Baking in hearth ovens

One way to achieve great baked pastas is with a hearth oven. “We have two, which gives us a lot of flexibility,” says Cruz, saying temperature control is paramount. “You have to know your hot spots—hearth ovens cook a lot faster than traditional ovens—so play with the oven and familiarize yourself with it.” Cruz also heeds cleanliness. “You don’t want the surface to have burned flour or cornmeal on it because it can ruin the flavors of other items.”

Similarly, Kevin Cruz, executive chef of Culinary Services at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, makes nearly 1,400 baked pastas, like smoked Gouda mac and cheese and Buffalo chicken pasta bake, in a hearth oven each week.

“The fire adds that little bit of show as it caramelizes the natural sugars in the cheese to create that delicious crisp and color on the top,” explains Cruz, who says the cooler months have the highest baked pasta sales. “Hearth-baked pasta [dishes] are the ultimate comfort food, you can provide them at a minimal cost, and the flickering of the flame in the oven excites the presentation even more.”

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