It’s my belief that anything tastes more delicious if shaped into a cake and sliced into wedges. Yes, baked ziti stuffed into a casserole dish is good — but sometimes I need my dinner to feel as whimsical and joyful as a layer cake draped in flowers and candles. So, I ask myself, will it cake?
Turns out that baked pasta will happily become cake. (After all, what could top the timpano — a drum-shaped pasta behemoth stuffed with hard boiled eggs and meatballs — assembled by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub in the culinary classic Big Night?) The trick is to use a hollow tubular pasta, like ziti or rigatoni, which you’ll arrange into a springform pan and layer with globs of tomato sauce and cheese, which the noodles will absorb like thirsty straws. A ribbon of blanched greens seasoned with olive oil and parmesan runs through the whole thing, adding freshness and color.
You could easily add your own layer cake twists, like stirring a little crumbled sausage or anchovies into the pasta sauce, or adding a sneaky layer of soft roasted root vegetables tossed in pesto. Decorate your final masterpiece just as you would a layer cake — for me, a fluffy crown of fresh basil adds a sweet, triumphant touch — and, honestly, I’ll eat this over actual cake any day.
Pasta Layer Cake
30 minutes active time; 45 minutes inactive time
1 10-ounce box frozen spinach (or 1 bunch fresh spinach or kale)
1 pound tubular pasta (like ziti or rigatoni)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmesan
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 tsp chili flakes (optional)
1 24-ounce jar of tomato sauce (like Rao’s spicy Arrabbiata)
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1 8-ounce bag shredded low-moisture mozzarella
½ fresh mozzarella ball (about 4 ounces), sliced into thin rounds
1 bunch fresh basil
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
If using thawed frozen spinach, wring out as much excess water as possible using your hands or a cheesecloth. If using fresh kale or spinach, bring a large pot of water up to a boil, add a tablespoon of kosher salt, and blanch for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove greens with tongs and rinse under cold water.
Bring the water back to a boil and cook the pasta until very al dente (about 8 to 9 minutes for rigatoni, or 4 minutes less than the box directions). Strain the pasta and rinse with cold water.
Drizzle a little olive oil on the bottom and sides of a cheesecake-sized springform pan. Chop the spinach or kale finely, then transfer to a small bowl. Add ¼ cup parmesan, one egg, the rest of the olive oil, and stir until smooth. Add a big pinch of salt and black pepper and set aside. (If you’d like to make it spicy, add a teaspoon of chili flakes).
Combine the tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes in another small bowl (the crushed tomatoes perks up jarred sauce and makes it the perfect consistency for a juicy cake).
Line the bottom of the oiled springform pan with the cooked pasta; stand each piece up straight, like candles. (Start by lining the edge of the pan, where the springform walls allow the pasta stay upright). Continue to add pasta until the entire bottom is covered.
Spoon half of the tomato sauce on top of the pasta; gently rap the cake pan against the counter to let the sauce fall into all the pasta crevices.
Add half of the shredded mozzarella cheese on top, then top with the remaining grated parmesan. Spoon the seasoned greens on top of the cheese, then arrange the remaining pasta on top, in a pinwheel shape or in rows.
Finally, spread the remaining tomato sauce on top, then top with the rest of the grated mozzarella. Finish the cake with the sliced mozzarella. (At this point, you could transfer the cake pan, well-wrapped, to the freezer where it will hold for up to a month).
Place the springform pan on a baking sheet or casserole dish (to catch any leaking sauce), then transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is bubbly and golden brown.
Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes, then run a butter knife around the sides of the pan to loosen and carefully remove the springform collar. Decorate the cake with an entire bunch of basil so it looks bountiful and smells fragrant. Slice into wedges and serve.
Natasha Pickowicz is a Brooklyn-based chef and writer, best known for her pastry pop-up Never Ending Taste and her community bake sales, which placed her on the Time100 Next list. Natasha’s debut cookbook, which weaves baking recipes with stories of her family, social justice, and food history, comes out this spring. You can pre-order here, if you’d like.