Pasta gratin is a creamy dish that contains the base ingredients of pasta and a cheese-based sauce. This dish can be created by using different shapes and flavors of pasta, as well as a variety of cheeses. Further customization can be done with the addition of meats or vegetables, and by sprinkling a crumbled topping over the top of the dish before it is baked. Serving suggestions for a pasta gratin meal include garlic bread and salad with vinaigrette.
Macaroni, penne, and cavatappi are examples of pasta shapes that are the best choices for pasta gratin. Short, tube-shaped pastas will be easiest to eat in the dense sauce. The flavor of the tubular pasta can be the standard variety or have a subtle taste such as spinach or mushroom. Pasta options such as spaghetti and angel hair should be avoided as it would not do well in this thick sauce, as should ravioli, which would make the dish too heavy and the cheese within would be too rich.
The base recipe for the pasta gratin sauce contains milk, cheese, and butter that are cooked together until well-combined. Grated or finely shredded cheese will melt the easiest in the sauce. Parmesan, cheddar, or spicy Monterrey Jack cheese can be used alone or in combination for a three-cheese mixture. Experimenting with other cheeses is another option for a more unique dish.
Additional ingredients can customize the pasta gratin and make it a more rounded meal. Cubes of cooked ham or bacon crumbles can be stirred into the sauce for added protein. Vegetables such as diced mushrooms, green peppers, or onions can also be incorporated. These ingredients should be cooked separately, if needed, and then added to the sauce before it is combined with the pasta.
Finishing the pasta gratin requires cooking the pasta according to package directions for an al dente, or slightly undercooked, texture, and then pouring the pasta and sauce into a greased baking pan. Crumbled topping, consisting of either breadcrumbs or crushed crackers, can be sprinkled across the top before the dish goes into the oven. The pasta is mostly cooked, so total baking time will be low enough not to risk burning the topping.
In order to create a complete meal, several side dishes will serve to complement this dish. Completed pasta gratin can be served with toasted garlic bread that can be dipped into the remaining sauce. Leafy green salads with vinaigrette dressing would be light enough to balance the richness of the dish while adding more nutrition. A slightly bitter Italian dessert, such as tiramisu, could then be served to balance out the flavors of the meal.