Crusty Baked Shells

Trying political times.

Cold winter day.

Ice storm on its way.

Comfort foods are needed. And what is more comforting than macaroni and cheesee?

This dish of Crusty Baked Shells is a grown-up version of a classic. Lighter than traditional macaroni and cheese, it calls for a mixture of several kinds of cheeses (Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, and Romano) rather than a traditionally rich cream sauce to coat the noodles. Fresh garlic and mint are sautéed in olive oil to bring out their flavor and fragrance, then tossed in with layers of noodles and cheeses. The dish is baked until it forms a light crust. The crispy crust adds a perfect balance to the creamy cheeses and soft pasta. Enjoy it for dinner with a light salad and some wine. Take comfort.

I look forward to seeing you in my kitchen, gathering flavors, soon.


©Crusty Baked Shells with Herbs by Dena T Bray

Crusty Baked Shells

About 6 to 8 servings


  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pounds medium pasta shells
  • Olive oil
  • 1 small head garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup fresh mint leaves, torn, plus more for serving
  • 2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
  • ¼ cup dried onion flakes
  • ¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus more for serving
  • Handful fresh parsley leaves, rinsed


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Fill a large pot with water, add some salt, and bring to a boil. Add the pasta shells and cook until tender. Drain and set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a small pan. Add the minced garlic and sauté briefly, until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and fresh mint leaves. Leave on heat one minute more, stir. Set aside to cool.
  4. In a large bowl, mix together the Romano and ricotta cheeses. Add salt and pepper, to taste.
  5. Set out a baking dish large enough to hold all the ingredients (a 10-inch round or a 10 by 13-inch rectangular dish). Coat the bottom lightly with olive oil.
  6. Transfer half of the mixed cheesed to the bottom of the pan, followed by half the pasta, the half of the olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Repeat.Sprinkle with panko, dried onion flakes, and Parmigiano Reggiano.
  7. Bake, uncovered, until browned and crusty on top, about 30 minutes.
  8. Serve hot, garnished with more grated cheese,  fresh mint, and parsley leaves.
  9. Enjoy.


This recipe was adapted from Cooking for Jeffrey by Ina Garten. Her recipe includes one head cauliflower, broken into florets and browned in the olive oil. Her recipe also calls for 3/4 pound pasta rather than the full pound, and sage in place of the mint.

One year ago: Oatmeal & Apricot Scones

Two years ago: Sunflower Butter Cookies

Three years ago: Lemon Loaves

Four years ago: Peanut Butter & Oatmeal Cookies

Five years ago: Spice Muffins with Brown Butter Frosting

Dena Testa Bray has been writing Gathering Flavors, a culinary blog, since 2011. She is a trained chef & ran a home based cooking school. Dena now designs websites, focusing on work with creative people. You can see her website work at She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and family.