Many of the early dates with my husband involved a trip to the grocery store. It wasn’t like a romantic movie where the stars leave the store with a wrinkle-free brown bag full of the best food and a bottle of fancy cabernet sauvignon. We were broke college grads buying generic foods on sale and maybe a fresh tomato. We managed to make some decent meals.
One of the biggest successes of the time was this simple pasta bake. It was loosely based on a recipe I found on a random internet search.
The ingredients—pasta, sauce, ground beef, cheese, and cottage cheese—were readily available at any grocery store and the bill was substantially lower than going to an Italian restaurant. It was also simple to make: Parboil the pasta, then toss with the sauce and the cooked ground beef. Layer the pasta in a casserole with dollops of cottage cheese—the recipe called for ricotta, but cottage cheese was easier to find and more affordable—and mozzarella. Then we baked it until bubbly. It was reliable, affordable, and so delicious.
My husband loves pasta, so this baked pasta has always been a winner. Even today, it’s the one dish my family asks me to make for them all the time. It’s our favorite.
How To Make My Favorite Pasta Bake
This will serve six. You’ll need:
- 1 pound rigatoni or penne pasta
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 (24-ounce) jar tomato sauce
- 1 (16-ounce) container 2% or whole milk cottage cheese
- 1 (8-ounce) bag shredded Italian blend cheese
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Fill a large pot with water, add salt, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta for about 10 minutes or 1 to 2 minutes before the cooking time recommended on the package. The pasta will still be firm. Drain the pasta into a colander set in the sink.
In the meantime, heat the oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and cook it, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. If you’d like, drain the excess fat.
Stir in pasta sauce and cook until warm, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to combine.
Pour half of the mixture into a 13×9-inch casserole. Make dollops of cottage cheese on top, then cover with half of the shredded cheese. Spread the remaining pasta on top and finish with the remaining shredded cheese evenly scattered on top.
Bake until bubbly and cheese is melted and lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
5 Tips for Making My Pasta Bake
- Add some vegetables. If I don’t feel like meat, I’ll leave it out and add cooked vegetables. Add up to 2 cups of chopped, cooked vegetables to the sauce. Frozen vegetables can be used too, but thaw and drain before using.
- How much salt to add to the water. I use the rule of thumb of 4 quarts water to 1 tablespoon salt for boiling 1 pound of pasta.
- Swap the cheeses. Other cheeses work well for this pasta bake. Swap ricotta for the cottage cheese. Use half mozzarella and half Monterey Jack instead of the Italian blend. It’s delicious with a sprinkle of feta or a few slices of provolone cheese. Try adding some freshly grated Parmesan too!
- Undercook your pasta a bit. Since the pasta will be cooked twice, it’s better to slightly undercook it during its initial boil. Check it two minutes before you expect it to be done to determine texture. It should still be a little hard.
- Experiment. Try the recipe with a different sauce—Alfredo, pesto, etc.—to see what you like best. Add spices like dried oregano, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, or fresh basil or parsley. For a nourishing twist, use ground turkey instead of ground beef and go with whole wheat pasta.