Baked Penne with Broccoli and Mozzarella

Baked Penne with Broccoli and Bocconcini

Recently on Pinterest, I saw a pin for a pasta dish with this in the comments: “Another pinner said: Best.pasta.ever. Whenever I make this I get RAVE reviews. SOOO yummy. Make it TODAY. Trust me.” Well, I trusted. I made this pasta last night when I had my step-son and his girlfriend over for dinner. But of course, I made some big modifications – I made it vegetarian (the original recipe calls for Chicken), and I couldn’t find smoked mozzarella. I tweaked other little things here and there as well. Here’s my recipe. You can look at the original recipe from mel’s kitchen cafe here. Also, I’m pinching Mel’s image because I forgot to take a photo of my dinner, if you can believe it! So was it the best pasta ever? Well it was incredibly  good. I was a little conscious of the fact that it likely had more calories than I’m used to, and having just come off a holiday where I indulged in a few too many cream tea’s, I didn’t eat as hefty a portion as I wanted to. But I did regret giving all of the leftovers to my step-son. I don’t know if it was the best pasta I ever had, but it was definitely right up there at the top. I do intend to make this again, especially for company as it’s an impressive dish and can be mostly made ahead of time.

Ingredients:

Topping:
3/4 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Filling:
1 head broccoli, florets only, trimmed into 1-inch pieces
500g pasta (penne or fussili)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup half fat creme fraiche
6 frozen Linda McCartney vegetarian sausages
3-4 balls of bocconcini (small mozzarella cheeses)
1 small jar sun-dried or semi-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped (I used M&S’ semi-dried cherry tomatoes)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400°F / 204°C / Gas Mark 6 and make sure the oven rack is placed in the middle of the oven. Cook the frozen sausages on a baking sheet for 18-20 minutes. When done, remove from oven and slice thickly. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs and butter and set aside. Lightly grease a baking dish and set aside.

In a large pot, bring the water for the pasta to a boil. Stir in one tablespoon salt and the broccoli. The broccoli cooks quickly so stay close! Cook the broccoli for 1 minute, until it is bright green. Quickly remove the broccoli with a slotted spoon to a plate. Return the water to a boil and add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 1-2 minutes less than how you would eat it normally (it will cook a bit more in the oven while baking). Drain the pasta in a colander and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Leave it in the colander and set it aside.

Wipe the pot dry. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and return to medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and thyme; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the flour, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the broth and creme fraiche; bring to a simmer, whisking often. Add the sausage and stir to combine. Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes and bocconcini.

Add the cooked pasta and broccoli to the sauce; stir to combine. Transfer the pasta mixture to the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the bread crumb topping. Bake until the casserole is bubbling and the crumbs are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

*The casserole can be prepared in advance with the following steps: after the broccoli is removed from the boiling water, plunge it into a bowl of ice water and cool completely. Assemble the casserole following the directions in the recipe. After the casserole is spread in the prepared baking pan, let it cool for 5-10 minutes before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating for up to 8 hours. To bake, preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C / Gas Mark 5 and bake uncovered for 30 minutes.

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