Cast Iron Cooking: Crispy Baked Pasta with Mushrooms, Sausage, and Parmesan Cream Sauce

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Pasta tossed in a mushroom cream sauce flavored with Italian sausage, all baked in a cast iron skillet with a crispy seasoned breadcrumb topping. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

You know what I love about cast iron, apart from its serious durability, its slick non-stick surface that requires almost no maintenance, its potential to store a huge amount of heat energy (and release it slowly), and its innate ability to make you look like a total badass?

I love that whenever I pull it out, it's almost always because I'm yearning for something simple and delicious, and that's what cast iron cooking is really all about.

This recipe starts off with crumbled Italian sausage cooked down in a bit of butter. I sauté a few types of mushrooms in the rendered fat, then flavor them with shallots, garlic, and a little bit of soy sauce and lemon juice (this helps bring out their savoriness while also lightening them up). They get finished in a simple creamy sauce flavored with Parmesan cheese. Add some pasta, top it all of with crisp bread crumbs, and you've got yourself a one-skillet meal fit for normal everyday folks who perhaps might occasionally feel like kings.

Here's the step-by-step (or jump straight to the recipe with the links at the top and bottom of this post).

Step 1: Mince Shallots

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Mincing a shallot is just like mincing an onion (an onion for ants, that is). Trim off the root end, split the shallot in half lengthwise, peel off the skin, then start by making a series of parallel cuts that run parallel to the root-stem axis (make sure to leave the stem-end intact). Next, rotate the shallot and slice it into a fine dice.

I use two small shallots for this.

Step 2: Grate Garlic and Chop Herbs

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Next up: garlic. You can mince by hand, but it's much easier to just use a microplane. I prefer a microplane to a press as it does a better job of mincing without squeezing out too many juices.

Chop a quarter cup of fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves and combine them with a couple tablespoons of thinly sliced chives.

Step 3: Chop Mushrooms

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Mushrooms cook down a lot, so I use a full pound of mixed mushrooms—portobello, oyster, and shiitake are a good blend, but really, any mix will do. Check out our guide to cleaning portobello, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms here.

Step 4: Mix Breadcrumbs

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Next, combine a cup of panko-style breadcrumbs with a ton of grated Parmesan cheese, black pepper, half of the chopped parsley and chives, a quarter of the shallot-garlic mixture, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil.

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Work it together until homogenous, then taste it and season with salt and pepper until it tastes good.

Step 5: Slit Sausage

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You'll want a couple of fresh Italian sausages here (either sweet or hot will do). Slit 'em lengthwise using a sharp, sharp knife.

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Remove the casings and discard them. I use only 8 ounces of sausage meat here, but you can use more if you're a sausage fiend.

With our mise en place ready, it's time to start cooking.

Step 6: Melt Butter

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Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in your large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. It's ok for the butter to brown a little.

Step 7: Cook Sausage

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Add the sausage and start to cook it, breaking it up a little with a wooden spoon.

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Got some pent up aggression to let out? Good. So do I . Take it out on the sausage by mashing the bejeezus out of it using a potato masher. This will help to break it up into very fine pieces (and is way easier than trying to do that with a wooden spoon).

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Once the sausage is browned, transfer it to a small bowl with a slotted spoon, but make sure to leave all that glorious fat behind.

Step 8: Add Mushrooms

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Next up, increase the heat to high, then add your sliced mushrooms. It will seem at first that you are adding way too many. Don't worry.

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As the mushrooms cook until they start to release a ton of moisture and collapse down into the pan. That moisture will, in turn, eventually evaporate leaving your mushrooms and oil behind. This is when the real magic happens: unencumbered by their liquid, your mushrooms can now start to brown.

Make sure to let them brown thoroughly. I can't tell you the number of times an otherwise delicious meal was wrecked by improperly browned mushrooms.

Step 9: Add Shallots and Garlic

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When they're nicely browned, add the rest of your shallots and garlic.

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Stir everything together and let it cook just until the aromatics become... aromatic. This will take less than a minute.

Step 10: Add Soy Sauce and Lemon

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Though soy sauce is typically an Asian ingredient, I use it in a ton of Western-style dishes, particularly those with mushrooms. It adds an intense savory quality to them that enhances their natural flavor. Lemon juice also perks them up.

Step 11: Add Flour

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Our cream sauce is a classic roux-based sauce made by cooking down flour in the rendered fat in the skillet. I add 2 1/2 tablespoons of flour

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It should absorb most of the fat as you cook and stir, and should then start forming a thin, dried-out sheen on the bottom surface of the pan. This is a sign that you're ready for the liquid.

Step 12: Add Chicken Stock and Cream

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You could use straight up half & half (or milk), but I prefer the flavor you get from using a mixture of both heavy cream and chicken stock (either store-bought low-sodium stock or homemade stock will do). I use a cup of cream and 2 cups of chicken stock.

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The real trick is to add it nice and slow so that it doesn't lump up. Bring it to a boil and it should thicken nicely.

Step 13: Add Cheese

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Once it's fully thickened, grate in a good amount of real Parmesan cheese (and I'm talking the actual imported kind—skip the domestic stuff, none of it is worth using).

Step 14: Add Herbs and Sausage:

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Stir in the rest of the parsley and chives...

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...then add the reserved sausage. Season everything to taste with salt and lots of black pepper.

If you are the type who keeps warm biscuits lying around, I would not begrudge you stopping right now to ladle some of this stuff over 'em and calling it a day.

Step 15: Cook and Drain Pasta

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But if you prefer to go on, the next step is to cook up some pasta. I used fresh pasta for these photos, but it works just fine with dried pasta as well, so long as it's a small, gnarled or tubular shape (all the better for trapping creamy sauce and bits of sausage and mushroom). The key is to slightly under-cook it, as it'll keep cooking in the pan. You'll also want to reserve some of the cooking water to adjust the consistency of your sauce.

Step 16: Combine Pasta and Sauce

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Dump your sauce on top of your cooked pasta and stir it all together, adding extra cooking water as necessary. You're looking for a super loose (but not soupy) texture. The pasta will absorb a little more liquid and some sauce will evaporate as it bakes, so it's better to err on the side of too loose at this stage.

Step 17: Transfer to Skillet

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Transfer the mixture right back into the skillet and preheat your broiler to high.

Step 18: Top With Crumbs and Bake

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Sprinkle the pasta with an even (and thick!) layer of the seasoned bread crumbs...

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...and transfer it to the broiler to brown and crisp. You'll want to keep it relatively far from the heating element—8 to 10 inches is optimal—so that you get even browning instead of singing in spots. Even so, you'll want to peek in every once in a while and rotate the pan as necessary. It shouldn't take more than a couple minutes overall.

Step 19: Serve

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Now doesn't that look pretty? Use a big spoon to break through that crusty exterior and uncover the creamy, sausage-y, mushroom-packed joy hiding underneath.

I know a few folks (mostly relatives) who could use a bit more joy hiding underneath their crusty exteriors.

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It's nice to try and serve each portion while keeping the breadcrumbs on top, but the truth is, I actually like mixing the bread crumbs in so that you get a nice variety of textures with each bite, the crisp crumbs crunching under your teeth unexpectedly.

I told you simple pleasures is what we were after here today, right?