Cooking For Others: Baked Pasta Bash


EVENT: Matt’s Birthday Bash
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
TYPE: Festive Weekend Fete
MENU: Al Forno Five Cheese Pasta; Penne Gratin with Sausage, Fennel, and Mushrooms; Romaine Salad with Green Goddess Dressing; Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Icing (Caitlyn)

Unlike some of my friends, Caitlyn’s boyfriend Matt is the last person you would ever think to make a fuss over his birthday. But regardless of whether he willingly submits to the planning frenzy that inevitably ensues in the days leading up to April 17th, our friends have been conditioned to expect nothing less than the best weekend ever. Though 24 is no major milestone—Matt can still legally drive, drink, buy porno, and enjoy some of these things in tandem—it served as an excuse this year for our few friends who’ve yet to move to New York to come to the big city and gear up for the celebration.

To give you some background: Matt’s mother Julie is what you might call a planner. And those of us involved for the four years of successful birthday blowouts during college think she’s pretty awesome at it. Every April, Julie and Peter, Matt’s cheery British stepdad, would summon the troops to their house for a day of bocce, softball, and frisbee on their sprawling, duck-poop covered lawn, followed by a night of board games, Beirut, and expertly mixed cosmopolitans.

Though Julie usually passed out by 11pm (about an hour after I would be discovered comatose on the couch snoring), Peter—who is known for answering any wayward question with the response “well, I’m a longboard man myself”—kept the taboo buzzer blaring long into the night.

Over time, the birthday festivities grew more and more epic: the number of different types of beers doubled along with the air mattresses strewn across the two bedroom house. Every year, we knew the answers to more and more of the Cranium cards, and to counteract our growing knowledge of random facts, Julie’s cosmopolitans grew stronger and stronger too. By junior year, there was an inflatable bounce house in the backyard and a full fledged Easter egg hunt in the surrounding grass.

But carnival games aside, for me by far the best part of Matt’s birthdays was the food. Julie ensured that the tables were always spread with everything under the sun—from chili to gourmet roast chicken to the butteriest butternut squash soup I’ve ever tasted. One year, we were lucky enough to be joined by Brain, a cater waiter who grilled a mean chicken skewer and really knew his way around the makeshift wiffleball field.

So when the old crew decided to come together for the first time since college, Caitlyn and I thought the only thing fit for the big 24th was to attempt to bring the fun to our small New York City apartment, even without the oversized lawns or waiters to help hit homeruns.

I did my part to load the countertops with assorted baked pastas inspired by Matt’s favorite restaurant in Providence, Al Forno; the boys did their job to lick them clean; and Caitlyn transformed our dining room table, which has lacked chairs since we moved, into a Beirut arena which the two of us would later dominate. And though there were no mixings for her famous cosmopolitans, Julie and Peter were there to keep tradition alive, leaving the fuss over this year’s birthday bash to us, but making the fun mandatory.

From my kitchen, where the promise of baked pasta, lawn games, and Matt brings friends back together, to yours,


the birthday boy, eating slowly, loving life


Al Forno Conchiglie with Five Cheeses
Makes 6 servings

This recipe was adapted from Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking by the owners of our favorite Providence restaurant, Al Forno. The dish is still the subject of many a dinner table discussion, as somehow any other baked pasta that involves cream and cheese tends to pale in comparison.


1 lb conchiglie rigate (shells)
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
¼ lb shredded mozzarella
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano (reserve some for garnish)
½ cup fontina cheese, coarsely grated
¼ cup crumbled gorgonzola (I used a little less)
2 tbsp ricotta cheese
½ tsp salt
6 basil leaves, chopped
¼ cup very thinly sliced (length wise) scallion (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt well, and cook the pasta for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside.

Meanwhile, combine cream, tomatoes, cheeses, salt, and basil in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add the pasta and toss to coat.

Spread pasta mixture evenly in a casserole or baking dish. Bake uncovered for 7 to 10 minutes, until the top is browned and the bottom layer of pasta is tender.

Sprinkle with scallions and remaining pecorino and serve immediately.

Penne Gratin with Sausage, Fennel, and Mushrooms
Makes 6 servings

1 lb dried penne rigate
½ lb hot Italian sausage, casings removed
½ lb sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 lb fennel, stalk and leaves removed, sliced
10 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese
12 oz shredded mozzarella

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta until very al dente –it should have a definite bite to it. Drain and allow to cool on a baking or casserole dish.

In the meantime, cook the sausage in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Using your spatula, break up the pieces of meat as much as you can until fully browned. Transfer to the baking dish.

Using the fat left in the pan, sauté the fennel until translucent. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until golden brown. Add the garlic and sauté for an additional two minutes. Cover the mixture with the heavy cream and simmer over high heat until reduced by half, about four minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Toss the pasta and sausage together with the cream mixture, pecorino, and 1/3 of the mozzarella cheese. Distribute evenly in the baking dish and cover with the remaining cheese.

Bake uncovered until golden brown on the top, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Crispy Romaine Salad with Green Goddess Dressing
Makes 10 servings

I had been craving this dressing for weeks, and just as I seemed to put my finger on what fresh herbs I would need to incorporate, Orangette answered my call by way of her monthly editorial in Bon Appetit magazine. Though I did not follow her recipe in full—mainly leaving out anchovies and some of the additional herbs I didn’t have on hand for the pasta—I wouldn’t have identified the creaminess in most of my favorite green goddess dressings as coming from actual avocado. Now I am convinced that avocado indeed makes the world go round.


20 oz romaine lettuce (6 hearts, or two pre-washed bags)
½ medium avocado
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 garlic clove
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
2 tbsp basil, chopped
2-3 scallions, chopped
½ – ¾ cup olive oil
½ tsp salt (to taste)

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse to combine. Stream in the olive oil gradually and blend until the mixture becomes light and frothy. Taste for seasoning. Toss with the crispy romaine and serve as a light accent to the baked pasta dishes.

Caitlyn’s Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Icing
Makes 15 cupcakes

I’ve made Ina Garten’s (aka the Barefoot Contessa) Chocolate Ganache Cake for several birthdays and it’s always a big hit. Unfortunately, Matt isn’t a fan of full-sized cakes, but he seems to enjoy their less intimidating cup-sized variety. Instead of using the ganache icing from the original recipe, I went with a peanut butter topping, as I’ve had the pleasure of watching the birthday boy consume an entire jar in one sitting during regular hours of the afternoon, and after eating a regular meal prior. As fate would have it, Ina has a recipe for peanut butter icing too – and let me tell you, it’s to die for. The mix and match was a hit, and though I would not let him eat the pint of leftover icing in front of his guests, Matt was one happy birthday boy.


¼ lb unsalted butter, room temp
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 (16 oz) can Hershey’s chocolate syrup
1 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons of brewed coffee to bring out the chocolate flavor and tone down the sweetness

For the Icing:
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter (I went the Skippy route)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temp
¾ teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 and line cupcake pan with paper liners.

Mix the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs one at a time and beat. Mix in the chocolate syrup, vanilla, and brewed coffee. Add in the flour slowly and beat until just combined (over-beating will make the cake/cupcakes too tough).

Divide batter among cupcake pans (abut 3/4 of the way full should do the trick) and bake for 30-40 minutes until a toothpick/knife comes out clean.

Cool for 10 minutes, then remove form the pan and cool completely before frosting

For the frosting, mix confectioners’ sugar, butter, peanut butter, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl, until creamy. Add in cream and beat until the mixture is light and smooth.

Frost each cupcake with peanut butter frosting and enjoy! (You can also garnish with sprinkles or chopped peanuts, if you’re feeling saucy)

Posted in: Cooking for Others
  • Jessie

    That pasta al forno dish looks incredible. Though how can you go wrong with a pasta dish that has two cups of cream, a crispy top, and (my favorite!) combo of tomatoes and cheese?

  • Frankie

    Who won Beirut?

  • lynda lee burks

    Dear Phoebe,

    I’m addicted to Big Girls Small Kitchen. I cheer your dedication to good food and hospitality and friends and family and fun. And I love your stories and love your writing.

    Thank you. Lynda Lee

  • Monique

    check out some of the parties people have done with Al Dente Pasta. I’d love to send you some pasta to try. Let me know what flavors.

  • Peter

    Yes, I am a long board man myself (just back from Hawaii)! BGSK is great, both the recipies and the blog – Julie and I will try the recipes in London, too! Best wishes, Pedro

  • Indonesian Foods

    this is look delicious. i want try at home :)

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