Pasta ai Quattro Formaggi, the classic Italian pasta dish with four cheeses and laden with cream, is a great idea in theory. In practice, however, it often turns into an inedible mess: tasteless, heavy, overcooked and greasy. We in India, have taken to Italian food with great gusto. Why? Well, that’s easy. The dishes we love from the Italian kitchen (and there are several which haven’t even hit our shores yet) are generally creamy, cheesy, tomato saucy and vegetarian.
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If you think about it, thin-crust pizza with a spicy topping isn’t a million miles away from masala papad. Pasta is now a universally accepted main course, again with a lot of vegetarian options. Due to the industrious zeal of Italian and Indian entrepreneurs, we now have several Italian products—pasta brands, cheeses, sauces and so on, all readily available. And we have our own brands making similar Italian sauces (at lower prices), also going great guns. And, although I hate to admit it, the avalanche of pizza chains has definitely helped the cause. Even if the offerings are Indianized to suit the local palate (and why shouldn’t they be), they have certainly made the idea of eating Italian acceptable to the Indian family.
Besides pizzas then, it is undoubtedly your cheesy, creamy pastas, unctuous lasagnes and the ubiquitous “baked dishes” which are among the top favourites here. Most trendy metro folk have now progressed from “baked something in white sauce” topped with unmeltable Amul cheese (most often the buffet centrepiece), to a bake using Italian pasta topped with melted cheddar.
So, making a perfect cheesy pasta without making the whole lot an overcooked mess is a talent. Having a son highly addicted to both cheese and pasta means that I have been trying to perfect this task for years. Firstly, the cheese. You don’t need to use expensive Italian cheeses. Mozzarella should be reserved for pizzas. It is too bland for a pasta. Marscapone and ricotta do nothing for flavour or texture. Asiago and taleggio again are too bland and make the pasta gluey. Fontina, a nice melty cheese, is perfect, coupled with Parmesan for punch. I replace fontina in India with cheese spread. Don’t laugh. It’s lighter than a whole lot of processed cheddar and gives you an instant melted cheese without the need to use too much cream. You then add your Parmesan at the end for flavour. You can also add a little white sauce instead of cream, which stops the cheese from becoming greasy. Add the cheeses to this so that you get a cheese sauce which is silky and smooth. Also, remember to half-cook the pasta since it is going to cook a lot more in the oven. If you don’t want to bake the pasta, then it is perfectly acceptable to eat it as is. The crumble topping contrasts well with the creamy pasta and helps balance the richness of the sauce.
Creamy Baked Three Cheese Pasta
For the crumb topping:
3-4 slices of one-day-old white bread with crusts
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
For the cheese pasta and sauce:
1 cup cheese spread
½ cup Parmesan cheese
½ cup natural cheddar cheese
500g penne (De Cecco is the best brand available in India and stays firm even if you overcook it by mistake)
1 tbs salt
2 tsp butter
2 tsp flour
1 cup cream
¼ tsp black pepper
For the topping, put bread in a food processor or grinder and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer to a small bowl, stir in Parmesan, salt and pepper. Boil three litres of water, add 1 tablespoon of salt and throw in the pasta. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat and whisk flour into the butter until no lumps remain. Gradually, whisk in cream and bring to a boil. Simmer for one minute and stir in the salt and pepper. When pasta is half-cooked (it should be opaque and slightly underdone at the centre), drain, leaving the pasta slightly wet. In a bowl, mix the hot pasta with the cheese spread, the cheeses and the cream mixture. Stir well and transfer to a baking dish. Sprinkle with the breadcrumb mixture pressing down lightly. Bake in a preheated oven on 250°C for about seven to 10 minutes until the topping is golden brown. Serve at once.
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