When I think about Christmas first courses my mind invariably goes to something rich, baked in the oven, with a lot of cheese. It might be because I grew up with the idea that grandma, every Christmas, would make two pans of lasagna. There was a classic lasagna with generous layers of bechamel sauce, cheese and home made ragù, the meat sauce that grandma would cook for hours, simmering it on the stove since the early morning. Then she would make also a white lasagna with the mushrooms she collected in the fall, meticulously cleaned, cut and frozen. It was slightly lighter, white, without meat sauce, but as you can imagine it was bursting with stretchy and stringy melting cheeses.
I liked the idea that the lasagna were not brought to the table in a large bowl, like regular pasta, but directly into the pan in which they were baked, still hot with tempting rivulets of sauce and cheese on the edges, a sign of festive and generous seasonings.
Grandma, mum or my Aunt, depending on who was in charge of serving the first course, would rush into the kitchen and come back holding up a pan with oven gloves. They would make some room on the table – move that bottle of water, bring these crostini back to the kitchen dear – then the would begin to serve generous portions of lasagne to everyone of us. They would always start with us girls, and we had the right to choose: the edge or centre? A difficult choice: the well-browned and crisp edge or the centre, stringy with cheese?
I used to think for a while, I would look at mum, then at the pan, then back to mum, then at the hot pan, and the choice at the end was always: the centre. I looked at my portion of lasagna coming closer and closer, with strings of melted mozzarella and cheese stretching from the pan to my plate. I would grab quickly the cheese, something that rightfully belonged to me, and I would eat it immediately with enormous satisfaction.
Since then, the first course of every Christmas might be lasagne, stuffed fresh pasta or regular pasta, but they must have one specific characteristic: there must be a lot of stretchy and stringy melting cheese.
When Ferrari asked me to create a simple menu for Christmas I immediately decided that the first course, whatever it would be, should have had this key feature: stringy cheese, a lot. So nothing better than Gran Mix provolone e mozzarella to achieve this effect. Then I chose a high quality durum wheat pasta, you have to aim for the best: cook it al dente, then allow the final cooking in the oven.
So we have the durum wheat pasta, and we have the melting cheese. Now we just need something tasty, wintery and pretty quick to make. A vegetarian ragù made with artichokes is the perfect solution. You start with a battuto, a mix of finely minced carrot, celery and onion, then add the chopped artichokes and cook until tender, you pour a glass of white wine and reduce. Promise me to save at least half of the artichoke ragù for the baked pasta, don’t eat it spoonful after spoonful from the pan.
When all the ingredients are ready make layers of pasta, cheese and artichoke ragù in a baking pan and bake for about twenty minutes until you notice a golden and crisp crust, as to be able to finally ask: edge or centre? Which would be your answer?
Baked pasta with artichoke ragout
For the artichoke sauce
- ½ carrot
- ½ celery stalk
- ½ red onion
- 5 artichokes
- 100 ml of white wine
- Extra virgin olive oil
For the baked pasta
- 300 g of dry pasta, penne, rigatoni...
- 50 g of butter
- 300 g of grated provolone and mozzarella
- 100 g of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Begin with the artichoke sauce, which can also be used to dress a simple pasta dish. Make the battuto, a mix of finely minced carrot, celery and onion and cook it over low heat for five minutes with extra virgin olive oil until golden. In the meantime, clean the artichokes, removing the tough outer leaves, and cut them into small pieces. Use also the final part of the stem, if tender: just remove the skin and cut into small cubes. Add the artichokes into the pan and cook for about ten minutes, stirring often. Pour in with white wine and reduce, it will require an additional 8-10 minutes.
- Meanwhile cook the pasta, drain it al dente and pour into a bowl with butter, 150 g of grated provolone and mozzarella and 100 g of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir to melt the cheese.
- Scoop half of the seasoned pasta into a baking pan, cover with a layer of artichoke sauce and a few tablespoons of grated provolone and mozzarella. Scoop in the left pasta and finish again with the artichoke ragout and the grated provolone and mozzarella.
- Heat the oven to 190°C and bake for about ten minutes, until the mozzarella is melting and stringy. Serve immediately and enjoy!
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