I love having people over for dinner, especially when those people remember my every growth spurt and awkward childhood moment to share over the grub. My husband has many times heard the stories of my youth, growing up with two older brothers and two older cousins (both boys) that served as my extended family during random weekends and summers on the lake. Apparently the stories never get old, especially the most tragic and embarrassing for myself (inside joke for my family: “Dream Girl.” Sigh.) Despite the slight hue of red my face changes almost instantaneously, the nostalgic dialogue is always welcome.

We have all grown up and stayed close, despite the miles, marriages, and life changing moments. My dearest Aunt Judy (aka “my second mom”) has always been a steady force in my life and to turn the tables and cook for her was truly an honor.

Baked Pasta Casserole Dish

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

Use any small pasta, but I have made this with both bow tie pasta and small shells.

Olive oil
3/4 pound whole wheat or regular pasta shells
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped (we added the extra garlic clove to give it a bit more kick)
4 cups well-chopped fresh spinach
1 1/2 cups sliced almonds, lightly toasted
zest of 2 lemons
8 ounces fresh mozzerella, shredded

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter/oil a large casserole dish or baking pan – something roughly equivalent to 13×9-inch pan.

Boil the pasta in salted water per package instructions. Drain pasta and toss with a glug of olive oil.

While pasta is boiling, heat a bit of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high. Saute the onions with a couple pinches of salt for a few minutes or until slightly carmelized. Toss in garlic. Stir in spinach. Cook for just about 20 seconds, until the spinach collapses a bit. Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup of the almonds and 1/2 of the zest. Add to pasta and stir until completely mixed in, for a few minutes. Now sprinkle the bottom of baking dish with the rest of the zest. Add a layer of the pasta to the bottom of the baking pan, now sprinkle with some of the cheese, add more pasta, then more cheese. Finish with a layer of cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes or until cheese on top is bubbly and melty. Serve sprinkled with the remaining almonds.

Serves 8.