A few months ago, I received an email from a woman who had lost a recipe of mine for Baked Penne with Italian Sausage and Porcini. It had appeared in The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch newspaper way back in 1991. She explained that the dish held special sentimental value to her since she and her now husband had cooked it together on one of their early dates. After emailing a copy to her, I made a note to try the recipe myself, and finally got around to it this past week. I loved the flavors of this casserole—sautéed Italian sausage and porcini mushrooms and a quick homemade tomato sauce paired with penne, all topped with sliced fresh mozzarella.
Several decades later, I tweaked this recipe to fit my lifestyle today. The original dish served 8 to 10, so I scaled it down for 5 to 6. I used 2 cups of heavy cream for the tomato sauce in the original, but upped the tomatoes and reduced the cream to 1/4 cup in the recipe that follows.
Although you should count on about an hour to prep and assemble this dish, you can definitely multitask. While the quickly assembled tomato sauce was simmering. I soaked the dried porcini in hot water, and then added them to the cooked Italian sausage and onions. And, I had a pot of water boiling ready for the penne.
As for ingredients, I’d recommend using a good quality sweet Italian sausage, one scented with fennel. I got mine at a local grocery store. The porcini add great umami flavor to this dish, but if unavailable I’ve included a cooking tip for using fresh baby bella mushrooms.
I love dishes that stand the test of time—this one was as tempting today as it was several decades ago!
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Baked Penne with Italian Sausage and Porcini
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup chopped onion
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 28- ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with their juices, coarsely chopped (See Cooking Tip)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup heavy or whipping cream
Sausage and Penne
1 ounce dried porcini (See Market Tip)
3 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for oiling the baking dish
10 ounces good quality Italian sweet sausage scented with fennel, removed from casings and crumbled
3/4 cup chopped onion
3/4 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (Use 1 teaspoon for a spicier taste.)
12 ounces penne
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
3/4 cup grated Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano
6 to 8 fresh basil leaves , torn for garnish
1.Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil a 3-quart baking dish with olive oil.
2. For Sauce, heat oil in a medium skillet (with a lid) over medium high heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté until softened and just starting to take on some color, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and their juices and chopped basil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until tomatoes are softened about 25 minutes. Carefully, since mixture will be hot, puree it in batches in a food processor. Return to skillet and stir in 1/4 cup cream. Season with 1/4 to1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste. (The sauce can be prepared 1 day ahead; cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat.)
3. For the Penne and sausage, rinse porcini to remove any grit and place them in a small bowl. Cover with 1 cup hot water. Soak until reconstituted, about 15 minutes. Drain well in a sieve, and reserve the soaking liquid. Chop the mushrooms coarsely, and drain reserved liquid a paper towel-lined sieve to remove any grit. Set aside.
4. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage, and cook, stirring constantly, breaking sausage into pieces with a wooden spoon, until sausage is lightly browned, 5 minutes or more.Add onion, and cook until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes or more. Add porcini, the reserved liquid, and red pepper flakes. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste and add a pinch of red pepper flakes if you want extra heat.
5.Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add penne and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Cook until al dente, tender to the bite, according to package directions. Drain well, and place in the prepared baking dish. Toss pasta with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the sausage and mushroom mixture and half of the tomato sauce, then toss to combine. Spoon remaining tomato sauce over the pasta and spread it evenly with a spatula.
6. Arrange mozzarella slices over the sauce. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Cover the baking pan tightly with foil. (Dish can be prepared 3 hours ahead to this point. Refrigerate but bring to room temperature 30 minutes before baking.) Bake pasta 30 minutes, then remove foil and bake 10 minutes more. Remove and cool 5 minutes. Garnish with torn basil leaves. Serve remaining Parmesan in a small bowl. Serves 5 to 6.
Cooking tip: Canned whole peeled tomatoes work better than canned diced tomatoes (which are often hard to puree) for this sauce. Use scissors to cut tomatoes into dice while in the can or remove them and chop with a knife. Do not discard the juices which will be used in the sauce.
Market tip: You can substitute 6 ounces fresh brown (baby bellas) mushrooms for the dried porcini. Clean and chop coarsely, and add to the skillet along with the sausage. Cook, stirring, until lightly browned. Add 1/2 cup beef stock in place of drained liquid from porcini, cooking until it has evaporated.
Copyright Betty Rosbottom 2021