The reason I call this baked pasta dish "Cauliflower Ears" is that in addition to including cauliflower, it generally also includes oricchietti -the pasta shaped like babys' ears. But, when, as today, there is only penne rigate, that will do nicely too.
This is one of my favorite suppers to make for comfortable company.
It is quite simple to fix, and tastes like more than the sum of its parts. It has the number one spot on my all time list of recipes requested by guests. It comes, nearly unaltered, from Cucina Simpatica, a slim cookbook by the founders of Al Forno, in Providence, Rhode Island- where I had probably the best restaurant dinner of my life.
I was in Providence for the graduation of my daughter, a/k/a redfox some 8 or 9 years ago. As she had been very clever, and covered herself with glory and was my pride and joy, and adorable, and so on, I had her pick the restaurant of her choice for a celebratory dinner. (Wasn't that noble and generous of me? Such sacrifices are what motherhood is made of.) It didn't take her long to come up with Al Forno. Knowing my flesh and blood, I was confident that I wasn't going to wind up at Pizza Hut, but I had no idea it would be so entirely fabulous. I was so wowed that despite having turned out my pockets for the meal, I bought the cookbook on the spot.
While the cookbook was not as splendid as the restaurant, it had a number of very good recipes, and it was worth it for this one alone. The instructions are altered only in that it is adapted for a more feeble home stove. (Also, as I have misplaced the book, I may be not be remembering all the details exactly, at this point). . This is how I've been making it:
Preheat your oven as ridiculously hot as it will get, unless you have a real restaurant stove or an Aga or something, in which case, I envy you, but cannot presume to instruct. Butter or oil a large shallow gratin type pan that can take some real heat. A le creuset sort of thing would really be best- but I haven't got one that is around 9"X14", so I risk a high fired porcelain one fairly regularly.
Bring a pasta pot full of water-preferably one with a strainer basket- to a boil while you chop up a cauliflower into bite sized bits. When it comes to a boil, add a generous amount of salt, the cauliflower, and a pound of pasta ears, penne, or some other nice sauce holding pasta shape, and cook until the pasta is toothsome, but not flabby.
While the pasta is cooking, mix in a big, big bowl:
1 large size can of pear tomatoes in puree
1/2 cup ricotta
1/2 cup grated provolone
1/2 cup grated pecorino
1/2 cup cream or half and half
1 finely minced jalepeno pepper
salt and pepper
generous pinch red pepper flakes
It will be pretty and pink. When your pasta is done, drain the pasta and cauliflower, and add to the bowl. Mix it all up, and pour into your buttered dish. Sprinkle with another half cup grated pecorino, mixed with some panko breadcrumbs. Spray all over with olive oil spray and or dot with butter, and put it in the oven.
Here is the only tricky bit. I have made this in different ovens and with slightly different shallow pans, and it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 40 minutes to be done. So you must know what you want, and have a tolerant family and/or friends who will wait, if necessary. What you want is for the whole thing to be boiling hot, and for the top to be very crusty and quite brown in some places, so that there are quite a few very crunchy bits. These are really good, as is the softly chewy middle. I have tried for a representative surface close up here, but to tell you the truth, the real thing seemed darker brown in places. Also, overall, it is pinker.
Leftovers, if any, reheat nicely, but if your dinner guests are also sleeping at your house, you or they may eat any remains cold later on, while standing by the fridge. This meal lends itself to freelance snacking.