Serve hearty pasta dishes on chilly January days

Photo by Ann Cipperly

By Ann Cipperly

Lasagna, manicotti and other hearty pasta dishes provide warm, comforting meals on chilly January days. Almost everyone in the family will welcome flavorful pasta on the menu. Pasta dishes can be prepared and frozen to keep a supply of dinners made ahead.

After Don and I married, we lived in an Italian neighborhood in south Philadelphia.  There was an Italian market across the street from our apartment. Each morning, loaves of Italian bread were delivered to the market without being in a bag or covered. This was a surprise to me, as I had not seen uncovered bread while growing up in Opelika.

From my kitchen, I could hear Italian ladies gathering at the market in the mornings. After getting their fresh bread, they would stand outside and chat. I always wondered if the ladies were discussing recipes, as I could not understand the Italian language.

I would speak to the ladies when I saw them in the market. They would smile back. I think I was known in the neighborhood as that skinny girl from Alabama who talked funny.

Along with the market, there were small delis and restaurants on street corners throughout the neighborhood. While cheese steak sandwiches are well known in Philadelphia, in south Philly the Italian hoagie was a popular choice.

These were made with slices of ham and provolone cheese on an Italian roll topped with sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce that had been tossed in olive oil, chopped onions and oregano.

One of the restaurants in south Philly served a really good manicotti. Don’s mother made excellent manicotti and also lasagna with small meatballs.  Don’s parents lived in Rome, Italy, for six months, and after that prosciutto and honeydew became one of her favorite appetizers.

Manicotti can be prepared quickly with the shells stuffed with a mixture of ricotta and shredded mozzarella. It can be topped with a plain tomato based sauce or a meat sauce with ground beef or Italian sausage, or a combination of both.

My grandchildren also like manicotti topped with an alfreado sauce. Manicotti can also be prepared using crepes, and cooked fresh or frozen spinach can be added to the filling.

When making manicotti and lasagna, I will double the recipe and freeze one. They are great dishes to have on hand for busy days and for inviting friends over. You only need a salad and crusty bread to complete the menu. Talenti Gelato is an easy dessert to pick up at the grocery store.

Tiramisu is the perfect ending to an Italian meal. Tiramisu means “pick me up,” named for the caffeine in the coffee used in the recipe. You should be able to find mascarpone cheese, or you can substitute a combination of cream cheese, sour cream and heavy cream, which works well.

When making pasta dishes, I often use whole wheat pasta and sometimes brown rice pasta. The brown rice version is available at local markets with organic foods instead of the pasta aisle. My family can’t tell the difference between whole wheat and brown rice pasta from regular pastas.

Fresh pastas are also offered, and they cook in just a few minutes. I have made fresh pasta a few times, but not lately, as there are so many good varieties available as well as sauces.

When using jarred sauces, I look for a brand that says it does not have sugar added. I cook onions and garlic in olive oil to add to jarred sauces to enhance the flavor.

Years ago our son Robert was chef at Hogan’s restaurant in Auburn. They offered Italian dishes with the vodka sauce over penne being a house specialty. Robert would sometimes make the sauce at home. As a chef, he did not stir the sauce, preferring to “toss” the sauce in the pan, leaving the stove messy. Of course, chefs don’t clean up.

Robert became a food service director, working with chefs and cooks, and lives in Tampa with his wife AJ, who is the national director of memory care for a chain of assisted livings. When we visit, we drive over to St. Pete for our favorite Italian market, Mazzaro’s Italian Market.

This market is huge and offers so much more than the small Italian store across from our apartment in Philadelphia. We will purchase bread, fresh pastas filled with cheese, sauce and meatballs for a quick meal at Robert and AJ’s condo. We savor the meal on the balcony while enjoying the Tampa skyline.

Look over the following recipes and treat your family this coming week to a comforting pasta dish. Children and teens will especially enjoy the baked spaghetti dishes with cheeses. Bake an extra dish for the freezer, and be ready to offer hospitality in the new year.

Ann Cipperly can be contacted at


Easy Lasagna
Can use Italian sausage instead of ground beef or a combination of both or omit the meat in the sauce. If not using meat, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil. It is easy to double the recipe to have one for the freezer.
1 box lasagna noodles, cooked
1 lb. ground chuck or ground round
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt to taste
1 large jar pasta sauce*
Brown meat in skillet with onion, adding garlic near end of cooking time. Drain grease. Salt to taste. Add jarred sauce.
Two 15 oz. containers ricotta cheese
Two 8 oz. pkg. shredded mozzarella
Parmesan cheese
Spread small amount of sauce in 13 by 9-inch baking pan. Add a layer of noodles. Top with one container of ricotta cheese, one pkg. mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
Repeat layer, ending with sauce. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
Note: Can make ahead and store in refrigerator until ready to bake or freeze.
*For a homemade sauce, brown meat with onions and garlic, and then add 1 can tomatoes, 8 oz. tomato sauce and small can tomato paste, stirring. Then add a teaspoon of oregano and salt to taste.  Simmer over low heat for an hour.

Quick and Easy Manicotti
Can also use shell pasta for smaller servings.
1 box manicotti noodles, cooked
1 batch homemade sauce with or without meat or 1 jar pasta sauce of choice
Two 15 oz. containers ricotta cheese
Two 8 oz. pkg.  (4 cups) shredded mozzarella, divided
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
2 tsp. dried basil or parsley, optional
Salt to taste
Extra Parmesan cheese for topping
For filling, blend together ricotta cheese, 3 cups mozzarella, Parmesan cheese, basil and salt to taste. Fill shells.
Cover bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking pan with a little sauce. Place filled manicotti over sauce. Pour remaining sauce over noodles. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup mozzarella cheese and extra Parmesan cheese over top. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
Note: Can make ahead and store in refrigerator until ready to bake or freeze.

Hogan’s Vodka Pasta
Chef Robert J. Cipperly
1 stick butter
4 Tbsp. flour
Minced garlic
1 tsp. chicken base, optional
Prosciutto, cut into strips
1/2 lb. sliced mushrooms
2 to 3 oz. vodka
1 cup or more heavy cream
1 can Italian plum tomatoes, drained and crushed
Fresh chopped parsley
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Penne pasta, cooked
Blend flour into butter. Place butter in skillet and stir until melted. Add minced garlic and chicken base, stirring.
Add prosciutto strips and mushrooms; sauté.
Add vodka and flame (if you don’t have long matches, Robert suggests lighting a spaghetti noodle). Be careful.
When flame dies out, add cream and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Add parsley and Parmesan; stir to blend. Don’t add salt without tasting, as the prosciutto and Parmesan will add saltiness.
Pour over penne or pasta of choice.

Italian Vinaigrette
Francine Mancuso Parker
Serve on any green salad or drizzle over sliced tomatoes and mozzarella.
1 cup quality extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, mashed
Salt and pepper
6 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 green onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. minced celery leaves
1 small firm Roma tomato, finely chopped
Combine oil with garlic, stirring well. Add other ingredients and whisk until well combined. Refrigerate. Let come to room temperature and remove garlic before serving.

Gina Giordano Fromhold
2/3 cup sugar
3 cups whipping cream, divided
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
1 Tbsp. all purpose flour
1 tsp. vanilla
16 oz. pkg. mascarpone cheese*
3/4 cup cold espresso or strong coffee
3 Tbsp. Marsala, cognac, brandy or coffee liqueur
7 oz. pkg. dried ladyfingers
3 Tbsp. confectioner’s sugar
1 Tbsp. cocoa
Combine sugar, 2 cups whipping cream and next 4 ingredients in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened. Cool. Beat in mascarpone.
Stir together espresso and Marsala. Dip ladyfingers into mixture; place in a 13 x 9-inch pan. Pour mascarpone mixture over ladyfingers.
Beat remaining 1 cup whipping cream with an electric mixer. Gradually add confectioner’s sugar, beating until soft peaks form. Spread over mascarpone layer. Cover and sprinkle with cocoa. Chill at least 2 hours. Makes 10 servings.
*If you can’t find mascarpone, substitute two 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, ½ cup sour cream and 4 Tbsp. whipping cream; mix until blended.

Very Special Lasagna
Mary Samford shared this recipe years ago, and it is still a favorite.
8 oz. lasagna noodles
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 cup onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 lb. tomatoes, chopped, seeded and drained (or use canned tomatoes)
1 1/2 tsp. seasoned salt
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley or 1 tsp. dried
1 tsp. dried basil or 2 Tbsp. fresh chopped
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Béchamel Sauce
1/2 cup butter
4 Tbsp. flour
1 cup warm milk
1 cup chicken broth
1 cube or 1 tsp. chicken bouillon
1/8 tsp. salt
Ricotta Filling
1 egg
1/2 lb. ricotta cheese
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
4 oz. grated mozzarella cheese
4 oz. grated Monterey jack cheese
Cook noodles in boiling salted water until al dente (firm to the bite). Drain and keep noodles in cold water until ready to assemble.
Sauté ground beef, onion and garlic in olive oil until meat is no longer pink. Add remaining sauce ingredients, and cook at a fast simmer until sauce is thick, about 30 minutes. Skim off fat. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
To make Béchamel Sauce, melt butter and add flour, stirring with a whisk for one minute. Slowly add warm milk and chicken broth; bring to a boil while still whisking. Add chicken bouillon and salt. Set aside
For the Ricotta Filling, beat egg in a bowl; add remaining ingredients and stir well with a fork.
Combine all three cheeses.
In a lightly greased 13 by 9-inch pan or two square 8 by 8-ioch baking dishes, layer a little meat sauce, half of the noodles, half of the remaining meat sauce, half of the béchamel, half of ricotta and half of cheeses. Repeat layers. Dot with butter.
The dish may be covered and refrigerated until ready to bake or frozen.
Bake at room temperature at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly.

Spaghetti Casserole
Can double ingredients for two 13 by 9-inch dishes.  I doubled the recipe and used three 8×8 dishes plus two small, square individual Corning Ware dishes.
Annette Lovett
1/2 lb. vermicelli noodles or angel hair pasta (1/2 of a 16-oz. pkg.)
8 oz. sour cream
1 jar (1 lb. 10 oz.)  Ragu spaghetti sauce (your choice of flavor)
8 oz. small curd cottage cheese
8 oz. bag shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
1 lb. ground beef (chuck, round, sirloin, your choice)
Spray a 9×13 glass casserole dish with Pam.
Brown and drain the meat.
Cook pasta according to package directions.
While pasta cooks, add spaghetti sauce, cottage cheese and all but 1/3 cup of mozzarella cheese to the meat.  Mix well.
Drain noodles and mix in sour cream.  Spread noodle mixture in the bottom of casserole dish.  Spread the meat mixture on top of the noodle layer.  Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup of the mozzarella cheese on top.
Bake at 350 degrees uncovered for 30-40 min, making sure cheese does not get too dark on top. Cover with foil if it starts to brown too much. Can double ingredients for two 9×13 dishes.  I doubled the recipe and used three 8×8 dishes plus two small, square individual Corning Ware dishes.

Meatballs and Spaghetti with Italian Sausage and Mushrooms
Meri Payne
1(46-oz.) can tomato juice
1(29-oz.) can tomato sauce
1(6-oz.) can tomato paste
4 Tbsp. oregano
5 Tbsp. sweet basil
3 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 pkg. fresh sliced mushrooms
1 pkg. Italian sausage
Meatballs (recipe follows)
In a large pot, combine tomato juice, sauce and paste. Fill
empty tomato paste can with water; add to the mixture. Stir in
basil, oregano, garlic powder and mushrooms. Remove sausage from
casings; brown and crumble. Drain off grease and add to sauce.
Bring sauce to just below a boil on medium heat; then turn down to
a low simmer for a couple of hours.  Add cooked meatballs and continue to simmer 30 minutes. Serve with linguine or any cooked pasta.
1 lb. ground beef
1 Tbsp. oregano
1 Tbsp. sweet basil
2 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
Combine ingredients and mix well. Make 1-inch diameter meatballs. 
Brown in skillet, turning them occasionally. Make sure they’re
cooked through before adding them to the sauce.

Spaghetti Pie
Gail Swarthout
6 oz. spaghetti
2 Tbsp. butter
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 well-beaten eggs
1/2 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. Italian sausage, sweet
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 medium green pepper, chopped
8 oz. can whole tomatoes
6 oz. can tomato paste
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. leaf oregano
1 clove garlic, crushed
Few twists freshly ground black pepper
1 cup small-curd cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Cook spaghetti according to package directions and drain. While hot, mix spaghetti with butter, Parmesan cheese and eggs. Butter a 10-inch pie pan with 2 inch rim.
Spread spaghetti over bottom and up sides of pan with back of spoon to form “crust.”
Cook sausage and crumbled ground beef over moderate heat until it loses red color. Add onion and green pepper during last 5 minutes of cooking time. Drain grease.
Cut tomatoes in small pieces. Add tomatoes and their liquid,
tomato paste, sugar, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper to meat mixture. Cook until hot.
Spread cottage cheese or ricotta over bottom of “crust.” Spoon meat mixture on top of cheese. Bake uncovered in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese in center of pie. Bake 5 minutes (until cheese melts).
Let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes. Cut into wedges.
Serve with green salad and toasted garlic bread.


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