The words crunchy and pasta don’t normally go together. But if you are one of those souls who can’t get enough of the crispy bits on the edge of a baked macaroni and cheese, or find yourself just hoping for that good thick crust of crackling rice on the bottom of the pot, then you have two words to be excited about. Capellini Gratin.
It’s been some time since I’ve cooked from one of Frank Stitt’s cookbooks. Recently, I picked up Bottega Favorites. It’s Stitt’s Southern roots spin on Italian cuisine, a combination that is quite wonderful. Neither cuisine shies away from flavors that are at once comforting, simple and rich. And as I was flipping through, I stopped mid page turn when I saw what I initially thought was a panful of perfectly caramelized hashed browns. After a quick double take, I realized that there were no potatoes in the pan… simply a tumble of angelhair pasta in a parmesan cream sauce baked to a lovely golden crust. Oh, wow. Crunchy pasta, it’s what’s for dinner.
I’ve now made this dish twice this week. The first time, it was just ok. Following the recipe, I made a thin layer of pasta in a casserole dish, hoping for more crispness than richness, and topped it with some lovely fried shallot. I may have skimped a bit too much on the cream, and the result was tasty but a bit more crunchy than I think was intended. As Cole nibbled away on hers (going back for seconds), I could hear every crackly bite.
This morning, I had a brain storm. What if, instead of baking the gratin flat, I made little rounds in a muffin tin. Each round would be surrounded in crispness, and be a bit easier to manage than the flat squares. And this time, I’d make sure there was enough creamy goodness in each little bite-sized gratin. The result? Heavenly. Topped off with a bit of freshly made chervil gremolata or pesto (thanks Twitterverse for the chervil pesto ideas!), these are a perfect little late winter, early spring treat.
Of course, now I have all sorts of other ideas for these little pasta nests. How about topping them with little fried quails eggs and crisp pancetta? Or, maybe stuffing each one with a little hidden chunk of Camembert?
Frank Stitt’s recipe was simply seasoned with salt & pepper… I can’t resist adding nutmeg to any gratin, and a little piment d’esplette gives just the tiniest bit of zing.
1 lb capellini
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano or Peccorino
1/2 t freshly ground nutmeg
a pinch of piment d’esplette (or paprika)
Lightly butter your baking dish of choice, and preheat the oven to 425F.
Cook the capellini according to the package directions until al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, stir together a slurry of the cream, half of the grated cheese, and the spices. Using a pasta spoon, scoop the pasta out of the water and into the cream mixture. Stir well to coat each strand… if it seems too dry, add it a bit of the pasta water. Let it sit for a couple of minutes.
Transfer the pasta to your baking dish. If you are using a muffin tin, fill each almost to the top with spirals of bunches of pasta. If you are using a baking sheet, just spread evenly. Now, if you still have some liquid in the bowl, pour enough on so you can just see it starting to show through the top layer of pasta. If you are out of liquid, get a bit more cream, and top it off. If you want a crunchier pasta, don’t fill it quite as high. Then, top off with the rest of the grated cheese.
Bake until the top is golden and bubbly. Let the gratin cool for 5 to 10 minutes to firm up before serving. Garnish with fresh herbs, fried shallots, or a little pesto. Yum!