We've been turning to a lot of comfort-style meals with the chilly weather finally coming upon us - pasta dishes are a notable one for us (and can you believe I wouldn't touch the stuff growing up? Man I totally missed out!) so tonight's dinner of this Smoked Cheese Pasta Bake fit the bill. While we cooked a pound of whole wheat penne, we warmed up some leftover chunky marinara sauce from the freezer. I seasoned the sauce with a bit more salt, pepper and crushed red pepper - then tossed in some chopped frozen (but thawed!) spinach. Once this has a chance to warm up and the flavors begin to meld, the penne is mixed in and we started making a tangy cheese mixture. Sour cream, shredded smoked mozzarella and fresh basil are combined to form a creamy sauce that we layer in between the pasta when we assembled the dish. Fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (which I didn't find too sharp this time... hmm!) is finally scattered on top and then this bakes until bubbly. I love how the top layer gets a little crispy, but the underneath layers still remain moist. The middle cheese layer has a mild, but detectable, smoky hint to it - I thought it could have used a bit more of the smoked mozzarella though. Filling and hearty, this is also a great way to sneak in some spinach to those spinach-haters out there - while the spinach does not totally melt away, it does not have a strong taste at all here.
*Bonus Tips -
The smoked mozzarella can be a little tough and messy to shred - if you have issues, you can freeze the cheese for about 15 minutes and it firms up just enough to be a lot easier to shred.
I've grown tired of squeezing the thawed spinach in a towel to remove the excess water - I've started using our potato ricer instead awhile ago and have not messed up another towel since!
Smoked Cheese Pasta Bake