The blustery, freezing December weather is bad for many things — my hair, my commute, my morning run. But it’s awfully good for baking a cheesy pasta in a skillet.
That’s not to say that I wouldn’t make this cozy, gooey Cheddar-rich casserole in nicer weather. But the colder, darker and gloomier the day, the more entitled I feel to plunge my spoon into the still-bubbling pan as soon as it comes out of the oven, devouring bite after bite.
What makes this pasta casserole a little different from others of its cheese-laden, tomato-sauced ilk is the addition of onions and spices.
The onions, sautéed until golden all over and very tender, do double duty. After being cooked hot and fast in a deep-sided skillet until they brown and collapse, some are left in the pan to bolster the tomato sauce and form the foundation of the dish’s flavor. The rest are combined with the Cheddar topping so that the sweet oniony strands can mingle with the melted cheese, adding silkiness to every forkful.
The onions here aren’t just jammy and sweet: They’ve got spunk. They’re spiced with both ground and whole cumin seeds for earthiness, coriander and allspice for depth, and cayenne and black pepper for a sharp bite. As the sauce simmers, a heady fragrance will waft from the pan and settle over your kitchen, brightening the dampest evenings even before you dig in.
The Cheddar here holds its own against the cumin-scented onions and tomato sauce.CreditAndrew Scrivani for The New York Times
Mozzarella is usually the cheese of choice for baked pastas, but I use Cheddar here for its tanginess, which is better able to hold its own against the cumin-scented onions and zippy tomato sauce. Cheddar, especially the kind that’s been aged for more than six months, also has a slightly lower moisture content than most mozzarella, so it is more likely to singe and blacken at the edges of the skillet you bake it in. These nearly burned spots are my favorite, and it takes all my willpower not to pick them off before bringing the pan to the table for everyone to share.
But share them I do, because a golden-topped pan full of baked pasta studded with crisp shards of browned onion and cheese is a savory and satisfying delight, whether it’s a bone-chilling December evening, or a temperate spring afternoon.