I love pasta bake more than is reasonable: I would struggle to think of a dish that brings the same level of comfort even from first thought. From the moment I consider making one, I am already reassured: confident in the knowledge that it is a dish which will deliver everything that is required for culinary succour.
This isn’t your average student pasta bake: slow-cooked ragu, a topping cooked at a hot temperature until blackened and blistering in places; a time investment that means delayed gratification, but for the most part can be left to its own devices, to simmer, to bubble, to bake. Saucy and deeply savoury, hot and packed with carbs: it can’t fail to please.
This recipe has magical powers: it can quell hangovers, make you forget broken boilers, fix January blues, and draw recalcitrant teenagers from their rooms.
I don’t pretend for one moment that this dish tends towards authenticity; this is the pasta bake of my 1990s childhood in northern England, peered at through oven doors, the smell winding up staircases. But it is loosely based on the Greek pastitsio, a baked pasta dish made with minced lamb and topped with a dairy-based sauce.
The skin of a pasta bake is more fought over in my household than even that of a rice pudding or roasted chicken. Made here not with béchamel but with something closer to a savoury custard: greek yoghurt bound with eggs and studded with mature cheddar and crumbled feta, that melt and meld together to produce a gently wibbling, luscious topping.
Makes: Supper for 4
Takes: 45 minutes
Bakes: 30-45 minutes
2 tablespoons oil
2 ribs of celery
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon tomato paste
400g Lamb mince
200ml Lamb stock
100ml red wine
1 bay leaf
400g tinned tomatoes
700ml Greek yoghurt
100g extra mature cheddar
1. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium-high heat and add the lamb mince. Cook until the mince is browned, stirring to get an even colour all over. Set to one side.
2. Pour away any fat or liquid that has accumulated in the pan from the lamb. Add the second tablespoon of oil to the pan and turn the heat down low. Finely dice the onion, carrot and celery and cook until soft, but not coloured, about 10 minutes. Mince the garlic, add to the pan, and cook for another three minutes. Stir the tomato paste through the vegetables, return the meat to the pan, add the tinned tomatoes, red wine, bay leaf and lamb stock. Bring to a gentle boil, and leave to simmer for 45 minutes, until the liquid has reduced and thickened into a ragu consistency. Remove the bay leaves.
3. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions, and drain thoroughly. Stir the pasta through the lamb ragu and spoon into a large, oven-safe dish.
4. Beat the eggs with a fork, and stir through the greek yoghurt. Grate the cheddar and crumble the feta and stir through the yoghurt mixture. Spoon this on top of the pasta.
5. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes until the top is burnished and glossy.