Pasta al Cartoccio: Spaghetti Baked in Parchment Paper
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I love Foods of Italy by Giuliano Bugialli and that since I hadn't cooked any recipes from it in a while, I wanted to dive back in to this gorgeous book. First, I made Filet Mignon with Vegetable Sauce. Next, I decided to try a pasta and I selected Pasta al Cartoccio (Spaghetti Baked in Parchment Paper).
One of the main reasons I selected this dish was that I had never experimented with cooking pasta in parchment paper before. I know parchment paper is widely used when cooking fish, as Jamie Oliver demonstrates so frequently on his shows, but I hadn't even heard of it being used with pasta. According to Bugialli, baking the spaghetti in parchment paper allows the pasta to absorb the flavors of the dish while remaining moist but well baked. I was intrigued and excited to test this out.
The recipe below is based on the one found in Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy.
Pasta al Cartoccio
Spaghetti Baked in Parchment Paper
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled but left whole
2 cups canned imported Italian tomatoes, drained
salt and black pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 pound ripe fresh tomatoes
25 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only
30 large black Greek olives, pitted
1 pound dried spaghetti, preferably imported Italian
Heat the 1/4 cup of oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes. Discard the garlic and add the canned tomatoes to the pan. Let simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occassionally. Season with salt and pepper and add the red pepper flakes.
Pass the contents of the pan through a blender or food processor. Return the sauce to the pan and reduce over medium heat for 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand until needed.
Meanwhile, bring a medium-sized pot of cold water to a boil and simmer the tomatoes in it for 3 minutes. Remove the tomatoes and plunge them into a bowl of cold water. Peel away the tomato skin on each. Quarter the tomatoes and seed them. Put the tomatoes into a bowl and let stand until needed.
Coarsely chop 10 sprigs of parsley and finely chop the remaining parsley, keeping the two types separated.
Cook your pasta. Cook it for just a few minutes less than needed to get it to al dente. Bugialli suggests 5 to 10 minutes instead of the usual 9 to 12 minutes, depending on the brand. Remember, you want to undercook the pasta a bit now because it will soon be wrapped in parchment and baked.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and spread out 4 to 6 pieces of parchment paper on your counter. I decided to make 6 servings, so I obviously used 6 pieces.
When the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the bowl with the tomato quarters. Add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil, the olives, the prepared tomato sauce and the finely chopped parsley. Mix all ingredients together well. Here's a photo of my sauce before mixing it with the pasta:
Divide the contents of the bowl according to the number of servings you are making. Place each portion on a piece of parchment paper and close tightly. Place the packages in a baking pan and bake for 15 minutes. Here is a look at three of my parchment wrapped pasta bundles:
Remove the packages from the oven and place each on a warm plate. Open each package and sprinkle some of the coarsley chopped parsley over each serving. Here's how mine looked when I unveiled it:
And here's the final, plated presentation:
This dish is delicious. The spaghetti is moist overall, but occassionally I'd bump into a bite that tasted a little more baked and slighty firmer. This slight contrast in textures was nice. The pasta absorbed the flavors and the sauce beautifully and the fresh tomatoes and parsley gave the dish a really clean, light feeling. It's important to note that this dish isn't swimming in sauce; rather each strand of pasta is lightly coated with sauce and some of the sauce seems to have absorbed into the spaghetti itself. The olives added another delicious dimension to the taste.
Now, all that said, I must also say that this dish did require quite a bit of time and effort for the ultimate result. Don't get me wrong: The dish is superb. It tastes great and looks beautiful. But it did require many pots and pans and a longer time to prepare than many other spaghetti dishes due to the additional baking step. It was a lot of fun to experiment with this recipe and I was delighted with the result, but I must also say I've made other pasta dishes that ended up with as tasty a result with much easier preparation and clean-up. So by all means please try this dish; it's delicious and I think most people would find it quite good. Be warned though that you probably don't want to try it when you're tight on time or if your family is standing by clammoring for food; this is not a dish that can be rushed.