Comfort yourself and your family with a piping hot baked pasta casserole.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Escape from the weather outside, and take solace in the warmth of your kitchen. Spoon into a hot baked pasta casserole's crisp browned topping, and find a creamy interior of satiny pasta bathed in flavorful sauce. All you need to round out dinner is a green salad or a simple side vegetable.

Even though the components have to be readied, these toss-together casseroles are actually more accommodating to busy schedules than the stovetop pastas, which require last-minute cooking. Simply combine the ingredients, and ease them into a baking dish. Then put them in the refrigerator until you're ready-or you can send them straight to the oven. Once the pasta's baking, the warm respite you seek will just be minutes away.

To invent your own baked pasta combinations, try a mix-and-match approach. Four components comprise the formula: pasta, sauce, basic ingredients, and toppings.

Generally, pasta shapes should be short. Penne, rigatoni, ravioli, and ziti capture sauce and are bite-sized, so they're easy to serve and eat. When you choose a long, thin variety, such as spaghetti, break it in half so it's more manageable for cooking and eating.

Slightly undercook the pasta because it will finish cooking in the oven. This will also help the pasta soak up the tasty sauce.

Simple sauces-embellished with various types of seasonings-provide a backdrop for the pasta and basic ingredients. While it's expedient to use purchased pasta sauce, freshly made sauce can come together in the time it takes to cook the pasta and prepare the other ingredients.

Basic Ingredients
Diced meat, poultry, or vegetables round out the one-dish meal. The choices are wide ranging, as our recipes illustrate. For example, they feature meats such as chicken, shrimp, and Italian turkey sausage. Other options include turkey breast, lean pork, and tuna.

A crusty topping is an essential contrast to pasta. Breadcrumbs, nuts, flaxseed, or crushed unsweetened whole-grain cereals add both crunch and nutrients. Melted cheese renders a rich, satisfying flavor. Whatever you use, make sure the topping browns before you remove the dish from the oven.

Get-Ahead Guide
If time is an issue, assemble the baked pasta dishes the day before you plan to serve them, and refrigerate them until you're ready to bake. Follow these tips from our Test Kitchens for the best results.

• Assemble the casserole, cover with foil, and refrigerate up to 24 hours before baking.

• Dishes with fresh seafood are best assembled and baked at once.

• Add cheese, breadcrumbs, or other toppings just before baking.

• If the casserole was refrigerated ahead, bake it an additional 10 to 15 minutes to heat through and brown the top.