Creamy Baked Noodles with Eggplant and Cheese

MAKES: 4 servings

TIME: About 11/2 hours, largely unattended

Inspired by the classic Greek casserole pastitsio, this recipe combines the concept of lasagne with macaroni and cheese, by baking a layer of vegetables between two layers of rich noodles. It’s impressive enough to take to a party but simple enough for a weeknight supper when you have a little extra time.

Any (one or all) of the components the eggplant stuffing, the chamel, or cooking the noodles can be done up to several hours in advance. Just cover well and refrigerate until needed, then assemble the dish cold; you’ll need to add 10 minutes or so to the baking time. If you double the recipe, the mixture fits perfectly in a large rectangular baking pan, deep gratin dish, or tube pan.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 pound eggplant, peeled if you like and cut into 1-inch cubes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small red onion, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and cloves

Cayenne or hot red pepper flakes to taste

2 cups chopped tomato (canned are fine; use a little of their juice)

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

8 ounces ziti, penne, elbows, or other cut pasta

2 tablespoons bread crumbs, preferably fresh

11/2 cups milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Greek kefalotyri if you can find it

Put the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the eggplant, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally and adding a little more oil if necessary, until the eggplant is softened and browned all over, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

Add more oil to the pan if needed to coat the bottom and return it to the heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 2 minutes. Stir in the spice and cayenne, then the tomato. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Return the eggplant to the pan, taste and adjust the seasoning, then set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Preheat the oven to 350В°F.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Cook the pasta until barely tender, not quite done enough to eat. Drain well; put the pasta in a large bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the melted butter and 1 tablespoon of the bread crumbs. Set aside. Use 1 tablespoon of the melted butter to grease a large square baking pan or small casserole.

In a small saucepan or microwave, heat the milk until small bubbles appear. Reheat the remaining butter over medium-low heat in its saucepan. Add the flour to the melted butter and stir almost constantly with a wire whisk until the mixture turns golden, about 5 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly; cook, whisking, until the mixture thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the nutmeg and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Stir a couple of tablespoons of the hot sauce mixture into the beaten eggs, then a little more. Pour this mixture back into the sauce and stir. Add most of the Parmesan or (reserve some for sprinkling later) and stir again.

Put half the pasta in the baking dish; cover with half the eggplant mixture. Cover with the remaining pasta, then the remaining eggplant and all the cheese sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and the remaining bread crumbs (another little grating of nutmeg here won’t hurt either). Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top turns golden brown. Let rest for a few minutes before cutting and serving.

Variations

Creamy Noodles with Mushrooms. For a meatier texture: Replace the eggplant with any fresh mushrooms.

Creamy Noodles with Sliced Eggplant and Tomatoes. A little easier and especially great in the summer, when tomatoes and eggplant are in season: Preheat the broiler and put the rack 4 inches from the heat source. Omit the onion and garlic. Use 1 pound of fresh tomatoes, and instead of chopping the eggplant and tomatoes, cut them into thin slices. Brush the eggplant on both sides with some of the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and arrange it on a large baking sheet. Broil until browned (just a few minutes), then turn and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the spices; broil the other side until browned. Proceed with the recipe, using the eggplant and tomato slices instead of the eggplant-tomato sauce.

Creamy Potatoes with Eggplant and Cheese. Even creamier: Instead of the pasta, use 1 pound all-purpose potatoes. Follow the recipe through Step 2. Instead of Step 3, scrub the potatoes well, put in a large pot, fill with cold water, and salt it. Boil the potatoes according to the directions. When cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes and cut them into large cubes. Proceed with the recipe, skipping Step 3 and substituting the cooked potatoes for the pasta in Step 4.