Baked to perfection
Published in FSD Update
Baked pastas provide comfort, high profit margins and great taste.
To ensure you have a delicious baked pasta dish, start with great ingredients. “Have respect for the ingredients and don’t mess with them too much; the simpler, the better,” says Auburn’s Cruz, who makes his pasta from scratch. “There are great fresh pasta products on the market but nothing like homemade; and making pasta is a simple process that can be learned very easily—you just need flour, eggs and salt.” Cruz, who often freezes batches for future use, recommends parboiling the pasta first to ensure proper cooking during the baking process.
If you don’t have the resources to make pasta from scratch, you can also use dry pasta, like UC Berkeley’s Shen does. She recommends boiling the noodles in plain water to limit sodium and shocking if holding the pasta for future use. “Don’t overcook the pasta during the boil—keep it al dente so that when it absorbs the sauce, it still keeps its integrity,” she says.
Similarly, Kowalski cautions chefs to evenly blend all ingredients together so that each portion contains the same flavors and isn’t missing a component of the dish. “We pay special attention to this when we test the recipe and make adjustments as needed before it goes on the menu,” Kowalski says.
Michigan State’s Cruz offers a daily pasta bake using 10 different shapes of pasta to make more than 25 dishes that are rotated in a four-week cycle. He also does extensive recipe testing with his culinary team.
Presentation goes a long way in selling baked pastas, so consider using smaller, individual pans, as Shen does, who bakes pastas in 2-inch hotel pans, ovals, squares and 8-by-10-inch pans with handles. “Smaller pans with different shapes and handles look less institutional and more upscale,” Shen says.
Likewise, Kowalski prepares the pasta before transferring to decorative Bon Chef pans and baking, and Auburn’s Cruz serves his cannelloni in small cast-iron skillets hot from the oven. The added benefit of individual pans is the ability to “keep the pasta piping hot and oozing cheese,” adds Cruz, who plates baked pastas in single-serve oval casserole dishes. The speed of service means Cruz can feed almost 3,000 people for lunch with items that were batch cooked beforehand—all in front of the customer.
However, even if you decide not to portion baked pastas individually, size is still important. “You must ensure the vessel is the proper size, because if it’s too big the pasta will spread out during the cooking process and will not hold the desired shape,” Cruz warns.
“Another important aspect is a nice, golden brown, bubbly top when it comes out of the oven, which really enhances the taste and presentation,” Kowalski adds.