Italians typically refrain from serving baked pasta on Christmas Eve. On that night, meals are usually the traditional Seven-Fish dinner, a holdover from the Catholic Church's restrictions on eating meat on certain days. But on Christmas, or "Natale" in Italian, a baked pasta dish will likely be on the table, both in Italy and in Italian-American households, along with a turkey or pork roast. Dessert might be struffoli, fried pasta dough covered with honey and candied fruit.
Lasagne is one of Italy's "crowning glories," says Dana Bowen, writing in "Saveur." Any type of lasagne works for a Christmas dinner, whether it's a classic lasagne with tomato sauce, a traditional Northern Italian-style lasagne made with spinach pasta and a white bechamel sauce, or a nouveau lasagne with celery root and mushrooms. Use ground beef or ground sausage for your lasagne, or skip the meat altogether and serve a wild mushroom lasagne.
A timballo, also called pasticcio or tortino, is sometimes served on Christmas Day. Essentially a baked mound of pasta, risotto or, sometimes, potatoes, timballo begins with a layer of cooked pasta pressed around the edges and bottom of a large bowl. Then you fill the bowl with eggs, cheese, meat and vegetables; bake it; and, finally, unmold the timballo onto a platter.
For some Italians, Christmas lunch is the big meal of the day. The pasta course might comprise lasagne or timballo, or the cook may serve a baked cannelloni, manicotti -- tubes about 4 inches long -- or any pasticcio al forno -- baked pasta with cheese. Invented pasta dishes work just as well, such as a dish invented by Marzetti's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, with wide egg noodles, button mushrooms and cheddar cheese.
Whether you're cooking for Christmas or for another special occasion, you can make a baked pasta dish the day before and leave it uncooked in the refrigerator in an ovenproof dish, or freeze it for up to three months. Buttering the dish before filling it with the cooked pasta and other ingredients keep it from sticking to the dish when you serve it. Precook your pasta until it is slightly al dente, or undercooked, and cook all other meat and vegetable ingredients as well.