Note: I first made this baked tomato sauce from Nancy Harmon Jenkins in 2007, after being tipped to it by Luisa Weiss, who’d found it nearly a decade earlier in The Best American Recipes 2000. But despite finding it to be “one of the best tomato sauces I’ve ever eaten,” I didn’t make it again for some time. I blame the fact that I was on a homemade pasta kick at the time and the idea of this being dreamiest with homemade fettuccine got permanently linked. So, when I made this — a friend reminded me that she loves it and I realized it had been too long — in the summer 2017, I was shocked to realize that the reality of this dish is exactly the opposite: this is a 25-minute dinner and one of the better ones in the category.
It goes like this: pour a glug of olive oil in a 9×13-inch dish. Halve a pound of ripe cherry tomatoes and arrange them cut side-up. Stir together some plain breadcrumbs (2007 Deb tells you they should be fresh*; 2017 Deb wants you to know that panko works great here), that you season with garlic, sharp cheese, salt, and pepper and sprinkle them over. Drizzle with more olive oil and bake this for 20 minutes. While it bakes, boil a pound of pasta. By the time it’s al dente, the tomatoes are bubbling with concentrated flavor and lightly browned on top. Mash them lightly with a fork, toss in the drained pasta — that’s right, the baking dish is your assembly pan and serving dish, hooray — a bit more olive oil and fresh basil, turn to coat it all evenly with that same fork and dinner is made.
This method yields the sweetest, most complex sauce. A perfectly reasonable reaction to trying this is to swiftly realign all of your food priorities to a single one: accumulate cherry tomatoes so you can make this as often as you wish (weekly at minimum) for as long as tomato season lasts.
* “I insist that you use fresh breadcrumbs here — that sawdust from a can probably won’t cut it. But fortunately, that’s as easy as grabbing a single cheapo bakery roll from your grocery store, slicing it into discs, drying it in the oven for 10 minutes or so (hey, you’re preheating the oven anyhow) and pulsing it in the food processor. Even the flavor of the most generic roll is miles ahead of the stale, pre-packaged alternative.”
Fusilli with Baked Tomato Sauce
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound very ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1/3 cup plain dry bread crumbs, panko works great here
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 pound dried fusilli (corkscrew) or farfalline (butterfly) pasta
- 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, torn or sliced
In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheeses, and garlic and toss with a fork to mix well. Sprinkle the bread-crumb mixture over the tomatoes, making sure that each cut side is well covered with the crumb mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then the 1 more tablespoon of the olive oil. Bake until the tomatoes are cooked through and the crumbs are starting to brown on top, about 20 minutes.
While they bake — as in, right away — bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until one minute shy of done. (If you can, try to time the pasta so it finishes cooking about the time the tomatoes are ready to come out of the oven.)
When the tomatoes are done, add the basil and use a fork to stir and lightly mash the tomatoes into a rough sauce. Drain the pasta and immediately transfer it to the baking dish. Add the last 2 tablespoons olive oil and mix well. Serve at once, right in your baking dish.