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Making The Casserole 'Hot' Again

Casseroles are a great answer for the daily question of "what's for dinner?" because they are easy to prepare and so practical.

But if you've had casseroles that are too dry and tough, our friend Chris Kimball and his team at "America's Test Kitchen" have tested every covered dish recipe you can find.

You can find them all in their new cookbook, "Cover And Bake."

Here are recipes for the dishes Kimball showcases on Tuesday's The Early Show.

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CHRIS KIMBALL'S TIPS FOR GREAT PASTA
1. Undercook your pasta. Starches like pasta and rice should be cooked so that they are slightly underdone.

2. Pay attention to size. Be sure to follow recipe instructions with respect to cutting chicken into strips or bite-sized pieces since in many cases, we have constructed the recipes so that the chicken will cook directly in the sauce before the casserole goes in the oven.

3. Store casserole fillings and sauces separately when making recipes ahead. This helps maintain the integrity of the final dish.

4. Bring made-ahead casseroles to room temperature before baking. Cold casseroles take too long to come up to temperature in the oven...so hence you tend to over cook the casserole...and it become dry.

5. Use the specified size of baking dish. This helps ensure the even cooking time for your casserole.

6. Make sure your oven is the correct temperature. It takes at least 15 minutes for a standard oven to reach the desired temperature. So you don't want to place your dish in early...only for it to sit longer in the oven...hence it become dry.

7. Allow casseroles to cool before serving. Casseroles need a few minutes of repose before they are sliced. This allows the flavors to come together; help the layers bind everything; the sauce to cool.

8. Proper seasoning is important. Fresh herbs make all the difference when it comes to casseroles.

9. Toppings make a difference. For example use fresh bread crumbs and not stale ones out of a can to achieve the right crisp on your casserole.

EASY MEAT LASAGNA WITH HEARTY TOMATO-MEAT SAUCE
Serves 6 to 8

If you can't find meatloaf mixture for the sauce, or if you choose not to eat veal, substitute 1/2 pound ground beef and 1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage, casing removed, for the meatloaf mixture.

Planning Ahead: Assemble the casserole as directed in step 4, but do not bake. Wrap the dish tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze, tightly wrapped with an additional layer of foil, for up to 2 months. (If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.)
To Bake: Allow the lasagna to sit at room temperature for about 1 hour. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap and wrap the dish tightly with foil that has been spayed with nonstick cooking spray. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil. Return the lasagna to the oven and continue to bake until the cheese is spotty brown and the sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes longer. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

TOMATO-MEAT SAUCE
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine
6 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 pound meatloaf mix or 1/3 pound each ground beef chuck, ground veal, and ground pork
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 (28-ounce) can tomato puree
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

RICOTTA, MOZZARELLA, AND PASTA LAYERS
15 ounces whole-milk or part-skim ricotta cheese (about 2 cups)
2 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 1/4 cups)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
12 no-boil lasagna noodles from one 8 or 9-ounce package
1 pound whole-milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 5 1/3 cups)

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. For the sauce: Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the ground meats, salt, and pepper; cook, breaking the meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until the meat loses its raw color but has not browned, about 4 minutes. Add the cream, bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid evaporates and only the fat remains, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato puree and drained diced tomatoes; bring to a slow simmer and cook until the flavors are blended, about 3 minutes; set the sauce aside.
3. For the layers: Mix the ricotta, 1 cup of the parmesan, the basil, egg, slat, and pepper together in a medium bowl until well combined and creamy; set aside.
4. Smear the entire bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish (or a shallow casserole dish of similar size) with 1/4 cup of the meat sauce (avoiding large chunks of meat). Place 3 of the noodles in the baking dish to create the first layer. Drop 3 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture down the center of each noodle and level the domed mounds by pressing with the back of a measuring spoon. Sprinkle evenly with 1 1/3 cups of the mozzarella. Spoon 1 1/2 cups of the meat sauce evenly over the cheese. Repeat the layering of the noodles, ricotta, mozzarella, and sauce two more times. Place the 3 remaining noodles on top of the sauce, then spread the remaining sauce over the noodles, sprinkle with the remaining 1 1/3 cups mozzarella, and then with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan.
5. Lightly spray a large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover the lasagna. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil. Return the lasagna to the oven and continue to bake until the cheese is spotty brown and the sauce is bubbling about 25 minutes longer. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

TURKEY TETRAZZINI
Serves 6 to 8
Tetrazzini is also great made with leftover chicken. Don't skimp on the salt and pepper; this dish needs aggressive seasoning.
Planning Ahead: Follow the recipe through step 3. Refrigerate the topping, the cooked pasta, and the sauce in separate bowls, tightly wrapped with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days.
To Bake: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Transfer the pasta to a colander and rinse quickly under hot tap water. Poke several vent holes in the plastic wrap covering the sauce and microwave on high power until hot, 3 to 5 minutes. Continue to assemble and bake the casserole as directed in step 4, increasing the baking time to 30 minutes.

TOPPING
4 slices white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

FILLING
Salt
1 pound fettuccine, linguine, or spaghetti, broken into thirds
1 tablespoon olive oil
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
20 ounces white button mushrooms, brushed clean, stems trimmed, and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 medium onions, minced
4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups half-and-half
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 cup) Ground black pepper
4 cups cooked turkey meat, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups frozen peas

1. For the topping: Process the bread and butter in a food processor fitted with the steel blade until coarsely ground, about six 1-second pulses; set aside.
2. For the Filling: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a Dutch oven over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta; cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain the pasta and toss with the oil; leave it in the colander and set aside.
3. Wipe the pot dry with a wad of paper towels. Add the butter to the pot and return to medium-high heat until melted. Add the mushrooms and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook the mushrooms until they have released their juices and are brown around the edges, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, thyme, and cayenne; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the broth and half-and-half; bring to a simmer and cook, whisking often, until lightly thickened, about 1 minute. Off the heat, whisk in the Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Add the pasta, turkey, and peas to the sauce; stir to combine. Pour into a 9 by 13-inch baking dish (or a shallow casserole dish of similar size) and sprinkle with the bread-crumb topping. Bake until the topping has browned and the sauce is bubbly, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Variation
TUNA NOODLE CASSEROLE
Follow the recipe for Turkey Tetrazzini, substituting two (6-ounce) cans of solid white tuna packed in water, drained and flaked into 1-inch pieces with a fork, for the cooked turkey in step 4.

BAKED MACARONI AND CHEESE
Serves 6 to 8
Although the classic pasta shape for this dish is elbow macaroni, any small curvaceous pasta will work.

Planning Ahead: Assemble the casserole as directed in step 4, but do not sprinkle with the bread-crumb topping or bake. Wrap the dish tightly with plastic wrap and poke several vent holes with the tip of a paring knife. Refrigerate the macaroni and cheese until cool, about 3 hours, then wrap tightly with another sheet of plastic wrap. Refrigerate the topping and casserole separately for up to three days, or freeze, tightly wrapped with an additional layer of foil, for up to 2 months. (If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.)

To Bake: Allow the casserole to sit at room temperature for about 1 hour. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle evenly with the bread-crumb topping. Wrap the dish tightly with foil and bake until the casserole is moderately hot, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to cook until the bread crumbs are brown and the mixture is bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes longer. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

TOPPING
4 slices white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Macaroni and Cheese
Salt
1 pound elbow macaroni
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 1/2 cups whole milk
16 ounces Colby cheese, shredded (about 5 1/3 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 2 2/3 cups)
Ground black pepper

1. For the Topping: Process the bread and butter in a food processor fitted with the steel blade until coarsely ground, about six 1-second pulses; set aside.
2. For the Macaroni and Cheese: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a Dutch oven over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the macaroni; cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave it in the colander; set aside.
3. Wipe the pot dry. Add the butter and return to medium heat until melted. Add the garlic, mustard, and cayenne; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the chicken broth and milk; bring to a simmer and cook, whisking often, until large bubbles form on the surface and the mixture is slightly thickened, 5 to 8 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the Colby and cheddar gradually until completely melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Add the drained pasta to the cheese sauce and stir, breaking up any clumps, until well combined. Pour into a 9 by 13-inch baking dish (or a shallow casserole dish of similar size) and sprinkle with the bread-crumb topping. Bake until golden brown and bubbling around the edges, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes before serving.

FRENCH TOAST CASSEROLE
Serves 6 to 8

The dish needs to be refrigerated at least 8 hours to attain the correct texture. Do not refrigerate for longer than 24 hours, or the bread will disintegrate. Assemble the topping just before baking. Walnuts can be substituted for the pecans.

1 (16-ounce)loaf French bread, sliced
1/2 inch thick
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
8 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
2 cups half-and-half
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Topping
12 tablespoons unsalted butter-softened
3 tablespoons corn syrup
11/3 cups packed (91/3 ounces) light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

1. Adjust the oven racks to the upper-and-lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Arrange the bread in a single layer on two baking sheets. Bake until dry and light golden brown, about 25 minutes, rotating the baking sheets front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.
2. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish (or shallow casserole dish of similar size) with the butter. Layer the dried bread tightly in the prepared dish. (You should have two layers.)
3. Whisk the eggs, milk, half-and-half, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a large bowl. Pour evenly over the bread and press lightly to submerge. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to24 hours.
4. For the topping: When ready to bake, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the butter, corn syrup, and brown sugar together in a medium bowl with a rubber spatula until smooth and incorporated. Stir in the pecans.
5. Remove the casserole from the refrigerator and discard the plastic wrap. Spoon the topping over the casserole, then spread it into an even layer using the rubber spatula. Place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until puffed and golden, about 60 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Variation
BAKED RUM-RAISIN FRENCH TOAST CASSEROLE
Combined 1 1/2 cups raisins and 1 cup rum in a microwave-sage bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and poke several vent holes with tip of a paring knife. Microwave on high until the rum comes to a boil, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside, covered, until the raisins are plump, about 15 minutes. Drain thoroughly, discarding the rum (or save it for another use). Follow the recipe for French Toast Casserole, sprinkling the plumped raisins in between the two layers of bread in step 2.

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