A stress-free way to feed a crowd

I can feel the warm winter sun shining through beveled leaded glass windows and see the resulting rainbows of color scattered over the table. I can picture 12 family members and a dear friend seated around my table that is pulled out as far as it...

I can feel the warm winter sun shining through beveled leaded glass windows and see the resulting rainbows of color scattered over the table. I can picture 12 family members and a dear friend seated around my table that is pulled out as far as it can go in the huge dining room in my big old house. I remember my brother eating lots of the Cheese and Sausage Pasta Bake that I had made to feed a bunch.

I smile as I remember a couple of plates with little hills of broccoli pushed to the side. Food has a way of doing that, doesn't it? One dish or one bite can hold so many memories, especially at this time when we gather with family and friends to celebrate, dining on food that we enjoy together year after year.

Cheese and Sausage Pasta Bake is my adaptation of a recipe I clipped from a Bon Appétit magazine many years ago. It's hearty and rich with flavor, can feed a crowd, can be made ahead and can be stored in the freezer. The little bit of extra time it takes to prepare is worth all the fussing and time it saves later. It's perfect if you're going to have a house full of family and friends staying with you over the holidays.

I like to get all the ingredients prepared, setting them aside in individual bowls until I'm ready to toss them all together. You can add a little spice to the dish by using hot Italian sausage. I like to use a pound of hot and 1½ pounds of mild. A quick dunk in boiling water gives carrots and broccoli just the head start they need to be perfectly tender after baking - not too mushy and not too crunchy. Your biggest challenge will be finding a bowl large enough to toss all the ingredients together. I use a big enameled bowl that is our family's sausage-mixing bowl. A large roasting pan would also work.

Cheese and Sausage Pasta Bake is in my freezer. My table will be extended in a much smaller dining area. There will be some faces missing from around the table since the first time I served Cheese and Pasta Bake. But there will also be new faces as we gather to celebrate the holidays with our sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. And, I'm quite sure I'll find some little hills of broccoli as I clear the table.


Cheese and Sausage Pasta Bake
12 slices bacon, chopped
2½ pounds Italian sausage
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on diagonal
1 bunch broccoli, washed and cut into small florets
24 ounces tricolor fusilli or rotini pasta
1 (6.5-ounce) package creamy garlic & herbs spreadable cheese, room temperature
½ cup milk
1 cup chicken broth
8 ounces (2 cups) grated Monterey Jack cheese
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 (5-ounce) container grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Salt and pepper

Cook bacon in large heavy skillet over medium heat until crisp, stirring occasionally, abut 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towel-lined plate. Add sausage to drippings in pan. Stir until sausage is browned and cooked through. Transfer sausage to paper towel-lined baking sheet. Pour all but 3 tablespoons drippings from skillet.

Add onion to drippings in skillet. Cook until onion is tender. Stir in Italian seasoning and fennel seeds. Set aside.

Bring two large pots of water to a boil. Sprinkle a little salt into each pot of boiling water. Add carrots to one pot of boiling water and cook 2 minutes. Add broccoli and continue to cook for 2 more minutes. Scoop carrots and broccoli from water and set aside. A hand-held strainer or large sieve works well for this.

Add 12 ounces of pasta to each pot and cook according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 6-quart casserole dish if you're going to feed a crowd, or two (9-x13-inch) baking dishes if you want to freeze one for another time.

Place creamy spreadable cheese in a very large bowl. Gradually whisk in milk. Stir chicken broth into the mixture. Add pasta, vegetables, bacon, sausage, onion and herb mixture, Monterey Jack cheese, tomatoes and 1 cup of Parmesan cheese. Toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer pasta mixture to prepared baking dishes. If going into the oven immediately, sprinkle the top with remaining Parmesan cheese. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Full batch can serve 16-20 people, depending on how hungry they are.

Tips from the cook


--This casserole can be made a day ahead and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for about an hour before baking.

--If you decide to freeze the unbaked casserole, let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then set it out at room temperature for about an hour before baking. Sprinkle the pasta mixture with Parmesan cheese just before putting the dish into the oven.

--I find Alouette spreadable garlic and herbs cheese in the gourmet cheese section of the deli at some grocery stores. I've also used Philadelphia Brand garlic and herb spreadable cream cheese with good results, but can't always find it in the grocery store. Any brand that is spreadable and seasoned with garlic and herbs will work in this recipe.

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