Too many baked pasta dishes turn out dry because the sauce lacks a creamy, binding consistency. This recipe answers that dilemma by dressing the pasta generously in bechamel sauce before layering with eggplant and a savory lamb ragu. The fontina cheese melts and forms a golden crust on top.
Baked Penne with Lamb, Eggplant and Fontina
2 eggplants, about 1 lb. (500 g.) each, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (12-mm.) dice
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
5 Tbs. (3 fl. oz./80 ml.) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary, or 1 tsp. crumbled dried rosemary
3 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 lb. (500 g.) ground lamb
1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml.) dry red or white wine
3 Tbs. tomato paste
2 cups (12 oz./375 g.) peeled, seeded and chopped fresh or canned plum tomatoes, with juice
1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml.) low-sodium beef broth
1 cup (8 fl. oz./250 ml.) bechamel sauce (recipe follows)
1/4 lb. (125 g.) fontina cheese, shredded
Kosher salt for cooking pasta
3/4 lb. (375 g.) penne
Place the eggplant in a colander in the sink and toss with 2 tablespoons sea salt. Top with a flat plate, then with a heavy can, and let drain for about 40 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). In a large bowl, toss the eggplant with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, then divide between 2 rimmed baking sheets. Roast until the eggplant is soft and nicely colored, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with sea salt and set aside. Leave the oven on.
While the eggplant is roasting, in a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Add the onion, garlic, rosemary and parsley and saute until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Add the lamb and continue to saute, stirring to break up any clumps, until nicely colored on the outside but still a little pink on the inside, about 12 minutes. Drain off the excess fat from the pan and return to medium heat. Add the wine and saute until evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, add the tomatoes and their juice, and season with sea salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour, adding the broth as needed to prevent the sauce from drying out. Remove from the heat.
While the sauce is cooking, make the bechamel sauce (below). Remove from the heat and stir in all but 3 tablespoons of the cheese. Cover and set aside. In a large pot, bring 4 qt. (4 l.) water to a rapid boil. Check the package directions for the cooking time, and then add 2 tablespoons kosher salt and the pasta to the boiling water, stir, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is half-cooked. Drain and rinse, then return to the pot. Add the bechamel, toss to coat evenly, and set aside.
Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch (23-by-33-cm.) baking dish. Smear about one-third of the lamb sauce over the bottom of the dish, and layer with half of the pasta and half of the eggplant. Top with half of the remaining sauce. Layer with the remaining pasta and eggplant, and top with the remaining sauce. Scatter the reserved cheese over the top. Cover the dish with aluminum foil, place in the oven, and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until the surface is nicely colored and bubbling, about 5 minutes. Let stand for 10-15 minutes before serving. Serves 4.
2 1/2 cups (18 fl. oz./560 ml.) milk
4 Tbs. (2 oz./60 g.) unsalted butter
3 Tbs. unbleached all-purpose flour
Generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Fine sea salt
In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk until small bubbles appear around the edges of the pan, then remove from the heat. While the milk is heating, in a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the flour, stir vigorously with a wooden spoon to remove any lumps, and cook, stirring continuously, until aromatic but not brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for 3-4 minutes.
Return the pan with the flour to low heat and slowly drizzle in the warm milk, whisking constantly. (If lumps start to appear, either you are adding the milk too quickly or the heat is too high.)
When all of the milk has been added, raise the heat to medium and bring to a boil, whisking constantly and making sure to reach the bottom and sides of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, and simmer gently, whisking often, until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and evaluate the consistency of the sauce. If lumps are still visible, pour the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof bowl. Use right away, or cover, pressing plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce to prevent a skin from forming, let cool, and refrigerate for up to 5 days. To reheat, warm the sauce in a pan over low heat, and whisk in warm milk to thin as needed. Makes about 2 cups (16 fl. oz./500 ml.).
Find more pasta recipes and step-by-step techniques in Williams-Sonoma The Pasta Book, by Julia della Croce.