You know how I’m always mentioning that I use lots of stuff from real life in my books? Yes, I mash it up with so many other things that my real-life stuff isn’t generally recognizable to anyone who knows me. But in REAL WORLD, everyone who’s ever been fed by me will definitely recognize my baked rigatoni.
I couldn’t help it! This is a recipe that must be shared far and wide across the land. My entire family makes it now. I get calls from young cousins in college, asking for the recipe, and it is top of my Most Requested list of delivery options to sick friends. So when I wanted to write about Reese making a meal for Tom that embodied all the love and comfort he had to offer, I knew he’d be making rigatoni.
If you’re a holiday music person like me, you can also listen to this awesome playlist of holiday music I made. I had this one going the entire time I was writing REAL WORLD.
If you’ve got the ebook, this recipe is already yours, because I included it in the back. But I don’t want to deprive anyone of the chance to enjoy the world’s best baked rigatoni, so with no further ado, here it is:
My family and friends will recognize the baked rigatoni both Reese and Tom make in REAL WORLD. It is my go-to dish for feeding people, bringing to friends who are sick, or just making for those weeks when I can’t possibly manage anything more complicated for my family than microwaving a bowl of pasta for dinner.
The recipe is based on one I found in Real Simple magazine, with a bunch of tweaks I’ve made over the years. Just block out of your mind how much heavy cream and cheese you are adding to the pan. It’s worth it, trust me.
If you want to make a vegetarian version, skip the sausage. It’s still delicious. I don’t think a vegan version is possible, alas.
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
6-8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (original recipe called for 4 cloves, but I go waaaaay overboard with garlic)
1 28-ounce can & 1 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes, undrained (I get “no salt added” cans if they’re available)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 1/4 teaspoons dried oregano
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoon sugar
16 ounces rigatoni
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Parmesan
1 package (5 links) of hot or sweet Italian sausage, cook’s choice! (I’ve also made this with turkey sausage & it was yummy.)
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden, approximately 1 minute. Add the tomatoes (don’t drain the juice), red pepper, oregano, salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Stir in the cream and 2/3 cup of the Parmesan.
Meanwhile, cook the rigatoni until it’s al dente. Don’t overdo it because it’ll cook further in the sauce. No need to salt the water, if that’s something you normally do.
Also meanwhile (this is doable, I promise!), cook the sausage. First, peel off the casings. Then pinch the sausage into bite size pieces and cook them in a pan over medium heat until there’s no pink. Drain and mix into the sauce.
Add the drained rigatoni to the sauce and toss to coat. (Usually, I only manage to fit about half of the rigatoni in the saucepan before I start spilling when tossing/stirring. You can put the rest in the casserole dish and mix it more there.) Pour into a 2-quart casserole and sprinkle the rest of the grated Parmesan. Bake for 20 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!
You can assemble this dish in advance and do the final baking right before you want to serve it. Just remember to take it out of the fridge and bring it to room temperature before you cook it, or add extra time to the baking if you’re starting with a cold casserole dish!
(Unlike almost any other pasta dish, this one reheats beautifully in the microwave without getting dry. Be greedy with your leftovers—don’t send them all home with your guests! You’re going to want to eat this the next day, too.)