It probably wasn’t my brightest idea to make this dish when I had no one available to help me and I’m still recovering from hand surgery. However, the fact that I could proves that it is not too difficult. This recipe is based on one from the Extra Virgin Cookbook by Gabriele Corcos and Debbie Mazar. It is actually pretty flexible and could even be made as a vegetarian entree if you preferred. The presentation has that wow factor that turns relatively mundane ingredients into a dish that you could be proud to serve to company. Just add crusty bread, a green salad and a good bottle of red wine. Please consider the ingredients as a jumping off point for your own creativity. And one real advantage of this dish is that you can prepare the elements separately as befits your schedule and then assemble them when you are ready.
Baked Pasta in Eggplant: Pasta Incaciata
Yield: 8-12 servings
Softened butter for greasing the pan
2-3 eggplants (about 3 pounds total weight)
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons dried seasoned breadcrumbs (I used crumbs that had Italian seasonings, but you could use plain and add your own oregano and basil)
4 Tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano, Asiago or Parmigiano cheese plus more for topping
1 pound fresh, uncooked Italian sausage (sweet or “hot”), removed from its casing
3 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup full-bodied red wine (use whatever you will be drinking for dinner)
About 4 cups of Red Sauce (Either a good quality bought sauce or make the Butter Roasted Tomato Sauce). You do not want the pasta to be drowning in sauce or it will never hold together.
1 pound ziti or penne, cooked al dente according to package instructions
1 pound of fontina or fresh mozzarella cheese, shredded, plus more for the topping
EVOO or Grapeseed Oil
Aquafaba (optional – see note below under frying eggplant)
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste (Go easy on the salt since the cheese is very salty.)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
- Generously grease a 9-inch spring-form pan with the softened butter. In a small bowl combine 1/4 cup of the dried breadcrumbs with 2 Tablespoons of the grated Pecorino Romano. Scatter the mixture evenly over the sides and bottom of the pan, discarding any crumbs that do not adhere to the butter. I only ended up using about half of this mixture but used the rest after I added the eggplant.
- In a large skillet, brown the sausage, breaking it up so that you end up with crumbled meat rather than big chunks. There should be enough fat in the meat that it doesn’t require any additional oil, but if you are concerned about it sticking or burning, add a little EVOO. When it begins to brown but is not completely cooked through, add the garlic and parsley and continue cooking until the meat is cooked through and the garlic is fragrant. (If you seem to have a lot of excess fat in the pan, carefully drain most of it off before the next step.) Now add the red wine and cook until the wine has become almost syrupy. Add the red sauce, simmering for about 5 minutes, while mixing everything through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Mix the sauce and the shredded cheese through the cooked pasta and then set the mixture aside. This part even be made a day ahead.
- Trim the ends off of the eggplants and cut them lengthwise into 1/4-inch planks. Generously salt the eggplant pieces and allow them to sit for 30 minutes. This will remove any bitterness that you might get from the seeds of bigger eggplants. After 30 minutes, rinse the pieces very well under cold water and dry each piece with paper towels.
- In a large skillet, heat 3-4 Tablespoons of EVOO or Grapeseed Oil. (NOTE: I found that if I brushed each piece of eggplant with a bit of aquafaba that I had lightly whisked with a fork until frothy, that the eggplant used much less oil.) Place the eggplant slices into the hot oil and cook until browned, turning once so both sides are done. Transfer the cooked slices to a baking sheet lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. You can lightly salt and pepper the eggplant slices to taste if you wish.
- When you are ready to assemble the eggplant “cake” take one slice of eggplant and place the wider end in the middle of the prepared pan. Carefully bring the piece of eggplant up the side of the pan so that the narrowest part of the eggplant overhangs the top of the pan. Continue doing this with all of the eggplant pieces, slightly overlapping where necessary so you have total coverage. You might need to place a smaller piece over the bottom of the pan to cover any gaps and excess pieces will be used on the top once you have added the filling. Sprinkle any excess bread crumb mixture over the eggplants on the bottom of the pan.
- Carefully pour the pasta into the pan, mounding it slightly. If you have any excess, it can be baked separately for another dinner or frozen for a later use.
- Gently fold the overhanging strips of eggplant over the top of the pasta. Use and extra eggplant slices to fill in any gaps. You want total coverage.
- Cover the top with plastic wrap and place a large plate on top with a weight. I used 2 bricks that I keep for this purpose but you could use canned vegetables. The plate should be sitting on the pasta. Keep this weighted for at least 4 hours but I did it overnight in the fridge. (Okay, to be honest, it was cold enough outside that I actually placed it on my terrace. We are high enough up that I don’t have to worry about any critters.)
- When you are ready to bake the “cake” preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the weights and the plastic wrap. Sprinkle the top with any additional grated Pecorino Romano, shredded fontina and 2 Tablespoons of seasoned breadcrumbs. Drizzle lightly with EVOO. Cover the “cake” loosely with foil and place on a baking sheet. You might want to cover the baking sheet with foil since there likely will be some oil seepage. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the top is browned and bubbling. Remove from the oven and allow it to rest for about 20 minutes Carefully open the latch on the pan and remove the outer ring of the spring-form. Slice wedges as you would a cake and serve. But first allow your guests to ooh and ahhh!