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10 easy, cheesy baked pasta dishes for the holidays

Baked pasta can be meaty or vegetarian but is always warm and cozy.
/ Source: TODAY

A baked pasta dish can be a lifesaver around the holidays. Cheesy and yummy, it's something pretty much everyone will eat including kids. You can make it ahead of time if you have to feed a crowd, and they travel well for those potlucks! Baked pasta can be as meaty and comforting as you choose, or you can lighten up the dish and make it vegetarian.

"Baked pasta dishes are great for a crowd for so many reasons," Christopher Arturo, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education told TODAY Food. "They are easy to scale up and can be made ahead of time. Because they have less sauce, it’s easy to portion out (and not as messy) and you can get an even amount of all the ingredients in each portion.

If you’re making a baked item with more sauce like lasagna or baked ziti, Arturo recommends using a casserole dish. For a less saucy dish, where you want to invert it to serve, he recommends a non-stick pan.

Choosing the best ingredients

"Nicely, meltable cheeses that are bindable at room temperature is a must," said Arturo. "As you bake it, the cheese will seep in between the pasta and other ingredients and as it cools, it will help bind the dish together. Fontina and mozzarella are two good examples."

Arturo recommends thicker tomato sauce that has less liquid for baked pasta dishes. "The less moisture you have, the smaller the chance of the slices moving around when you make a cut and having items slide out of place," he said. This type of sauce is usually more deeply flavored.

It’s best to use smaller pasta, those that are tubular and have holes and lots of ridges on the outside. "This absorbs more sauce, helps the sauce to stick better and has areas that can be filled cheese and sauce," he said. Penne, ziti, mezzi rigatoni and rigatoni are all great options. "If you want to use a longer pasta, I’d suggest bucatini."

How to cook

"If you are using dried pasta, boil it in salted water until it’s just past al dente, then strain it and lay it out on a sheet tray," said Arturo. "This will help air it out so it will end up being a little stickier, so it binds the dish better."

If you’re using fresh pasta, the sauce and steam will cook it, so just layer it in.

How to freeze

"I recommend cooking the baked pasta dish, then letting it chill, before cutting it into smaller pieces to freeze," said Arturo. "I’d avoid freezing the dish before cooking, because there is a lot of moisture that will turn into ice and make the dish watery."

Ready for some serious comfort food for your crowd? Read on for some of our favorite baked pasta recipes you can try tonight:

Italian Pasta Bake

Italian Pasta Bake

John Alberti

For a vegetarian option sub out the sausage in this recipe for fresh veggies like peppers, zucchini or mushrooms.

This comforting dish is easy enough for a weeknight meal, but also impressive to serve to a houseful of guests.

This is a great make-ahead dish as it freezes well. Insider tip: If you have multiple open boxes of pasta, add them all in for a variety of shapes!

This one is hit to serve at parties -- just make sure you remove the skillet from the flame before adding the vodka so it doesn't ignite!

With salty bits of prosciutto, think of this dish as grown-up mac and cheese.

This dish features basil pesto, shallots and grated Parmesan cheese.

This is a great way to make a satisfying dish using leftovers or ingredients that don't cost too much.

Frozen eggplant gets popped into this dish to make a comforting meal for many.

Joy Bauer's Baked Ziti Casserole

Joy Bauer sneaks some spinach into this lightened up version of baked ziti.

Penne Pie

Penne Pie

Katie Lee

This penne pie is crazy good and can easily feed a crowd.

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