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Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs

Not too long ago when I had time to read other people’s blogs, one of my favorites was Smitten Kitchen. There is something about the little bit of a story she tells along with the clear directions. lovely photographs and cooking hints that appeals to me.

In my newfound organizational spree I was cleaning out a box of papers (junk) last week and came across this Smitten Kitchen recipe that I’d printed out ages ago to try for myself. It was already 2:15 in the afternoon and I’d already bought other stuff to make for dinner, but once I’d read through the recipe again I knew I had to try it that night. I ran to the store to get what I needed, and am proud to say we were sitting down to eat it by 5:30, and that’s with the kids coming home from school, train pickups, homework help, etc. So don’t let the word “tiny meatballs” or “bechamel sauce” deter you from trying this dish. Perhaps it’s the lingering cold weather, but it was the absolute perfect meal for yesterday.

Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Marcella Hazan. Adapted yet one more time by Crafty Farm Girl, 2011.

Serves 8 but I think Americans would say this serves 6-8, depending on how hungry they are.

This is not a tomato-based baked pasta dish. It’s done with a light white bechamel sauce. Smitten Kithchen upped the sauce from Marcella’s original recipe, and I lowered it a little, as I knew too much of it would have my kids protesting (surprisingly, they are not big mac and cheese fans). I also increased the quantities for the meatballs, as I knew those would be the most popular part of this dish. This is still a subtle baked pasta.

There’s a lot of room for tweaking here: If you’re certain you won’t be happy without a veritable oozing of cheese, you could tear up some fresh mozzarella and toss it in with the dish before you baked it. If you cannot bring yourself to eat this unless it contains one form of vegetable matter, I imagine a bit of cooked spinach, steamed broccoli bits or even eensy cubes of roasted carrot and parsnip would work in here.

For the meatballs:
1/3 cup milk
2 slices good white bread trimmed of its crust
2 pounds ground pork (I used a mix of beef, lamb & pork)
2 teaspoon chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan)
1 large egg
Black pepper in a grinder
1-1/2 cup flour, spread on a plate
Vegetable oil for frying

For the bèchamel:
4 cups milk
6 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

To finish:
1 pound rigatoni
3/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup milk

Make the meatballs: Heat the milk, but don’t let it simmer. Tear pieces of the white bread into it and let it soak for 5 minutes, and then mash it up with a fork. Put it, along with the meat, into a large mixing bowl.


Add the garlic, parsley, grated cheese, egg, salt, and pepper. The original recipe called for mixing this all with a fork, but I cannot imagine ever making meatballs without mashing it together with your hands so you can really see and feel that everything is evenly mixed and distributed. So, wash your hands well. Combine all the ingredients with your hands until they are evenly mixed.

Pinch off a small lump of meat, about the size of a large raspberry, or maybe a blackberry, and roll the lump into a ball in the palm of your hands. I used a tiny ice cream scoop I have to measure the meatballs out. (Hazan says if you are good with your hands, you can try making 3 balls at a time. I am not coordinated enough to accomplish this feat.) When all the meatballs have been shaped (a process that took less time than I had expected), roll them in the flour, 15 to 20 at a time. Place the floured meatballs in a strainer and shake it smartly to dispose of excess flour.

Put enough vegetable oil in a skillet to rise 1/4-inch up the sides of the pan and turn on the heat to medium high. When the oil is hot, put as many meatballs in the skillet as will fit without overcrowding. Brown them until they form a nice crust all around. When one batch is done, transfer it with a slotted spoon to a platter covered with paper towels to drain and do the next batch until all are done.

Make the bèchamel: Heat the milk over low heat in a saucepan until it forms a ring of pearly bubbles, but do not let it break into a boil. In a larger saucepan, melt the butter over low heat, add the flour and stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or flat whisk until combined. Now here I differed from the original recipe as I cooked the flour and butter mixture, whisking constantly, until it had a little color, creating more of a roux. This will add more flavor to the sauce. Add 2 tablespoons of milk at a time to the flour and butter mixture, stirring steadily and thoroughly, then repeat through 8 additions. Now do not panic while you are doing this. It will get really ugly before it comes together. Keep whisking and adding the milk, and around 2/3 of the way through you will end up with a beautiful creamy sauce. At this point, you can add the milk in 1/2 cup increments, stirring constantly to keep it smooth. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg and stir the sauce until it thickens. Next time I might even add a bit of chicken stock to the milk to give the sauce even more flavor.

Assemble the dish: Cook the rigatoni in a pot of well salted water. Drain when still al dente, and combine immediately in bowl with two-thirds of the bèchamel, half the grated cheese, and all the meatballs.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Heavily butter a 9×13 baking dish. (Original recipe calls for a 12-inch springform, which I am sure would be lovely but is not the commonest U.S. cake pan.) I chose to use individual casserole dishes for serving. Spread the rigatoni and meatball mixture in the pan, leveling it off with a spatula. Pour the milk over the dish, the spread the rest of bèchamel on top, and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese.

Place in the uppermost level of the preheated oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until a golden brown crust forms on top.

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  1. I love your website and all the wonderful things you post. The recipes are great. You have so many now, do you have an index? Did I miss it? Yummmm…


  1. […] her home, but it wasn’t until the next night when I was setting the table for dinner – Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs that she’d helped me make that afternoon — that I realized how nice it was to be setting […]

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