Friday, October 7, 2022
Oct. 7, 2022

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Feta and tomato Internet sensation delivers on all counts

Baking cheese, cherry tomatoes together creates sauce that’s as delicious as it is easy to make

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
4 Photos
The sauce prep couldn't be simpler -- just put a block of feta cheese in a baking pan with cherry tomatoes, onions and garlic and slather everything in olive oil.
The sauce prep couldn't be simpler -- just put a block of feta cheese in a baking pan with cherry tomatoes, onions and garlic and slather everything in olive oil. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Pasta is a non-negotiable element of our family’s culinary life. My daughter would be content to have some form of pasta for dinner or lunch (and possibly even breakfast) seven days a week. When she wishes to feed herself, she boils a pot of pasta and grates cheddar cheese over it; this is her comfort food. My husband would be pleased to classify fettuccine Alfredo as its own food group. To be fair, pasta is made from grains and there’s plenty of cheesy dairy in the sauce. If you add a sprig of basil, why, that’s a leafy green vegetable. Boom! Balanced diet.

As for me, I like a bit of tomato in my sauce. OK, I like a lot of tomato. I love spaghetti marinara or pasta with chopped fresh tomatoes mixed with garlic, olive oil and salt. If I’ve got some whole-milk mozzarella or a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano to grate over the top, even better. It’s not that I dislike cheese — ha ha, what an absurd notion! — it’s just that I prefer tomatoes to be the star of my pasta show.

Since we’re coming into peak tomato season, I thought I’d try a recipe that’s been floating around social media for the past couple of years wherein you bake a whole block of feta with two pints of cherry tomatoes. The feta melts and the tomatoes bubble and without you doing anything at all, the whole thing turns into a luscious, tangy, melty-cheesy sauce for your poor naked noodles. Stir and serve!

Well, reality is often far removed from the mouthwatering magic depicted in photos and videos posted on the internet. Social media mavens aren’t an accurate predictor of what will happen in my own kitchen, so I set out to recreate this recipe with middling expectations of success.

Many, many recipes for this dish exist on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and most likely on a few other platforms I’ve never heard of. Sometimes called “TikTok pasta,” it originated as uunifetapasta, a recipe by Finnish food blogger Jenni Hayrinen and popularized by (among countless others) MacKenzie Smith of grilledcheesesocial.com. Spoofs followed close on their heels, like Bunmi Laditan’s version where she substitutes marshmallows for tomatoes and candy bars for feta, then melts everything in the oven and mixes it with “al dente” breakfast cereal. Genius. And people say surfing the internet is a waste of time.

Baked Feta and Cherry Tomato Penne

1 8-ounce block sheep’s milk feta

2 pints whole cherry tomatoes

½ large white onion, cut into
½-inch chunks

8-10 peeled and crushed garlic cloves

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup chopped fresh basil

½ teaspoon lemon pepper

¼-½ teaspoon salt

2 dashes nutmeg

12 ounces uncooked penne rigate

¼ cup pasta water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put all ingredients except feta and pasta in a large baking dish and stir until covered with oil. Place whole block of feta in the center and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 45 minutes. Cook and drain penne, reserving ¼ cup pasta water. Mix pasta and water into tomatoes and feta until well coated. Serve.

I chose a recipe more or less at random and changed it to suit my own tastes and accommodate the ingredients I had on hand. Fortunately, I had a block of feta and our garden is just starting to produce a few cherry tomatoes, although I did have to supplement them with tomatoes from the grocery store. I also had fresh basil, garlic, onions and olive oil. Some recipes also call for cream cheese, shallots, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, thyme and other herbs or spinach. Those things all sound great, but I wanted to make this as simple as possible (which is how I think it will taste best).

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Put two pints of cherry tomatoes into a large ovenproof dish. You don’t even need to slice them — just keep them whole. Add half a large onion, cut into 1/2-inch chunks. Next, add eight to 10 peeled and crushed cloves of garlic. (I tried flattening them with the blade of my knife but ended up sort of hammering them with the knife handle. Whatever works.) Mix everything with ¼ cup olive oil, ¼ cup chopped fresh basil (it might seem like a lot but basil is fluffy), ½ teaspoon lemon pepper, two dashes of nutmeg and ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt. A note on the salt: I included extra salt because tomatoes are notorious salt hogs and can absorb a lot before reaching optimum tastiness. However, feta is also salty, although the amount of salt varies by brand. The upshot is you’ll want to use the salt measurement as a suggestion rather than a rule.

Put an 8-ounce block of feta directly in the middle of the tomatoes, working it around until the tomatoes are cuddled around the cheese all cozy-like. The internet recommends feta made with sheep’s milk or mostly sheep’s milk because it melts better. If the cheese comes in brine, add that, too (but be mindful of the salt content). Drizzle a little extra olive oil over the feta. Put everything in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.

About 20 or 25 minutes into the process, start boiling salted water for pasta. Many TikTok pasta recipes neglect to mention exactly how much pasta you should cook to go with the sauce, which is kind of important, but maybe I’m overthinking it. I cooked a 16-ounce box of penne rigate (penne with little ridges to hold the sauce) and only used about three-quarters of it, but extra pasta is never a problem here because my daughter will eat it. She would be quite happy to go to sleep on a bed of noodles, if such a thing existed, and it’s a genuine shame that it doesn’t. Anyhow, cook the pasta until it’s al dente, which means it should offer just a little resistance when you bite into it. Drain the pasta but reserve ¼ cup pasta water.

When the tomatoes and feta are done — the tomatoes should have burst or become soft and wrinkled, and the feta cheese should be a toasty golden color on top — remove them from the oven. Stir the melted feta together with the tomatoes and then add the pasta along with ¼ cup pasta water. The starch in the pasta water will make a silkier sauce and help it stick to the penne. Mix until the pasta is well coated and serve with a sprinkling of fresh basil leaves. Voila!

I hate to admit it, but the internet foodie people are right. All the rhapsodic hyperbole about this dish is solid truth and it’s exactly as advertised. I was certain something would go wrong, that the cheese wouldn’t melt or the tomatoes would burn or it would all turn to pink glop, but it’s the kind of delicious that makes you close your eyes and ask for silence so you can concentrate on the flavors: cheesy, tangy and a little sweet from the natural sugars in the tomatoes. The onions add a mellow note and the occasional clove of roasted garlic is soft and almost creamy.

It’s so good, maybe I’ll try the marshmallow version next.

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