You may have noticed I do quite a few baked pasta dishes. This is because they're economical, can easily feed a crowd, able to be made ahead and who can't resist some form of pasta, sauce and cheese? They're a perfect dish to bring to someone who needs a meal or to feed a crowd when you're hosting.
This is a recipe that has gone over quite well with our gang and is a snap to put together. I almost always have ingredients on hand to do some variation of it. The staples are the usual: pasta, marinara and mozzarella but with a tangy surprise of a layer of cream cheese (I will maintain that few things are not improved by the addition of a little--or lot--of cream cheese). This time, I used turkey Italian sausage, sliced mushrooms and roasted red peppers and it was a particularly delicious combination (feel free to modify the mix ins based on your own individual tastes--sauteed onion and bell pepper would be great, shredded rotisserie chicken, olives, artichoke hearts, chopped spinach, you get the idea...). Also, there's a variation at the bottom that allows you to cut down on the prep time even more if you are able to make it ahead!
Crowd Pleasing Pasta Bake
1 20 oz. package turkey Italian sausage, casings removed (or 1 pound ground beef or turkey)
1 16 oz box shaped pasta (penne, rotini etc.)
1 jar of your favorite pasta sauce
8 oz fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/2 cup roasted red peppers, thinly sliced
1 8 oz package cream cheese (I used 1/3 less fat Neufchatel), softened to room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream (I used reduced fat)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
In a large skillet, brown sausage or ground meat over medium high heat, stirring frequently to break up into small pieces. When fully cooked, drain if necessary and set aside. Prepare pasta according to package directions, making sure to drain it when it is still very firm (a bit harder than you would want to eat it). Drain, return to cooking pot and set aside. Add pasta sauce, mushrooms, red peppers and cooked sausage into pot with cooked pasta. Stir until well combined. In a small bowl, stir together cream cheese and sour cream until smooth and well combined. Lightly grease a 9x13 pan with cooking spray. Pour half of pasta mixture into bottom of baking dish. Spoon cream cheese mixture over pasta spreading as evenly as possible. Top with remaining pasta mixture. Sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until pasta is heated through and bubbling. Remove foil for last 10 minutes of baking to allow cheeses to brown.
Variation: A shortcut if you're preparing the night before, do not cook pasta. Add 1 1/2 cups water to pasta sauce and continue assembly directions as above. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake for additional 10 minutes.