I should start by saying that this dish is rich — certainly not for those still trying to stick to their New Years resolution. While cream sauced pasta might always be an off-limit item for calorie counters, it’s the Gorgonzola, ricotta and Parmesan cheese that makes this dish especially decadent and delicious. It’s this same indulgent quality that has people lined up around the block at Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, a neighborhood fixture in a small beach town called Capitola, a few miles south of Santa Cruz in Northern California.
I visited Gayle’s for the first time in college on an adventure to find a solid, quality meal and a break from the less-than inspiring food of the dining hall. Craving something comforting more than anything, I felt right at home in front of their massive rotisserie and deli case packed with roasted chickens, slow barbecued ribs, potato salad and sandwiches. The place was bustling with business and food was flying out the door but nothing seemed to be selling faster than the humble looking spinach-gorgonzola pasta. As I remember it, not one customer left without ordering some. So, like any smart food explorer, I did as the locals did and took some to-go. After a few bites, it was obvious what all fuss was about.
Having moved away from Santa Cruz, I’m no longer able to take part in what became a near-weekly trip to Gayle’s for some of their signature pasta. So feeling especially deprived of late, I searched for the restaurant online and was lucky enough to find that they’ve been giving out the recipe to their customers for years. After making the dish at home this past weekend, I’m happy to report that it’s as soul-satisfying as I remember it.
From Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, Capitola, California
This pasta gets its rich flavor from a thick and creamy Gorgonzola cream sauce. Making the béchamel sauce is simple, but make sure you taste the sauce for seasoning before you cool it to ensure that the tangy flavor of the cheese really shines. Seasoning is also important when it comes to boiling the pasta. Make sure to do so in a very large pot of highly salted water to ensure that the shells end up well-seasoned. It is of the utmost importance that you only cook the pasta to the point of being very al dente. I like to err on the side of underdone to ensure the pasta doesn’t fall apart after baking. If shells aren’t your thing, bow tie pasta would be a great substitute in this recipe. For an outstanding and authentic Italian twist, try substituting grilled or sauteed radicchio in place of the spinach for a pleasantly bitter accent to the cheesy sauce. When it comes time to bake the pasta, it’s best to do so in a vessel that will allow the pasta to be fairly well covered with sauce as this will prevent it from drying out. Finally, use as much or as little of the grated Parmesan as you would like to top the dish and give it a crusty brown top.
- 4 cups of milk
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 10 ounces Gorgonzola cheese
- 4 pinches nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 pound large pasta shells
- 2 bunches fresh spinach, cleaned and dried, or 1 package frozen
- 3/4 cup ricotta cheese, well-drained
- 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk until hot but not boiling.
- Meanwhile, combine flour and butter in another heavy saucepan. Stir over medium heat with a wooden spoon or whisk until the mixture has gently bubbled for 2 minutes, being careful not to brown the flour.
- Begin to add the hot milk to the flour mixture a little at a time while whisking vigorously. Continue to add the milk until it is fully incorporated. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 6 to 8 minutes. it will look like heavy cream. Crumble the cheese and add it to the hot béchamel sauce, whisking continuously until smooth. Add the nutmeg and pepper and stir. Remove form heat and let cool.
- Cook the pasta in salted boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
- If using fresh spinach, blanch it 1 to 2 minutes in a little boiling water. Drain it, let it cool, and squeeze all of the water out several times. if you are using frozen spinach, let it defrost in a sieve over a bowl for at least 3 hours. Squeeze all the water out by hand.
- Toss the pasta, Gorgonzola sauce, spinach, ricotta, and garlic in a large bowl until well combined. Taste and correct for salt and pepper.
- Place in a 12 X 17-inch casserole dish and top with the Parmesan. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cheese browns a little. you may make this a day ahead, and before baking, refrigerate well covered.
Makes 6-8 Servings