Cheesy Baked Penne with Chicken and Broccoli

April 10, 2014 | | | | |

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Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-BroccoliThis is my second spring participating in Food Network’s Sensational Sides event, which is always a treat. Every Thursday, a handful of awesome bloggers and I share recipes that we’ve developed based on a given theme, such as “clean out the pantry,” “no-cook,” or “mashed.” I’m generally on board with all of these themes, but there’s one that tends to keep me up at night, and it’s finally arrived…


Honestly, “kid-friendly” week gives me anxiety based on the simple fact that it’s outside my wheelhouse. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not the biggest fan of small children. They make me feel uncomfortable, and I’m always afraid that they’re going to touch my clothes or that I’m going to accidentally trip over them. They also ask a lot of questions, which is cute in the AT&T commercials, but not in real life.

Last year, I vowed to work on my child-interaction skills so that I don’t get iced from various social circles when people inevitably start popping out babies, and I’m very pleased to report that I have made some decent progress. Lucky for me, I have two much younger half siblings (who are 7 and 4 respectively) that I like to practice my skills with. They live out in California, which isn’t exactly convenient, but I obviously make sure to really work the time that we spend together.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-2Full disclosure, my interactions with Zoe and Rex were pretty awkward at first. However, after a few weird hours spent watercoloring and watching Naked and Afraid, I’ve discovered that Zoe is actually pretty cool. She’s into face painting, sparkly shoes, and boys, which I also like, and she regularly compliments me on my hair, so I’m pretty sure we’re friends now. Booyah.

Rex was tougher to crack because he only seems to like cars and Batman, which do not interest me. I got discouraged at times (like when he spent a week screaming and running out of the room every time he saw me), but I did finally manage to bond with him over our shared love of mac and cheese and naps, which was exciting progress.

Bring me your children, I will befriend them! 

I also learned a lot from Zoe and Rex regarding what kids like to eat, knowledge that came in handy during my recipe development this week. Based on my observations, their tastes are similar to Logan’s. If given the choice, they would probably happily subsist solely on chicken fingers, pizza, mac and cheese, and ice cream, but they can be convinced to eat some healthy foods if prepared properly. They don’t seem to mind plain chicken and beef, certain green vegetables (broccoli and peas), and whole grain rice and pasta, especially when there is cheese involved.

I was grateful to be able to call upon these tiny humans’ preferences during the stressful recipe experiments that took place in my kitchen over the past few days. I had a couple failures with dishes that turned out to be too scary or spicy for a child’s palate, but mercifully, I did have one clear win. I proudly present this year’s kid-friendly creation: Cheesy Baked Penne with Chicken and Broccoli.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-3I feel like I deserve one of those trendy Rainbow Loom bracelets for this epic pasta bake. Penne packed with juicy roast chicken and fresh broccoli and baked in a luscious three-cheese sauce is absolute heaven in your mouth, friends. This is one of those simple, yet magical flavor combinations that is guaranteed to make people freakishly happy. Comfort food fun for the whole family!

Because I care about your wonderland bodies and the health of your (potential) children, I made sure to keep this recipe on the light and nutritious side of things. For starters, I used whole wheat penne, giving you a nice fiber boost and significantly more vitamins and minerals than white pasta (which is worthless). And chicken and broccoli happen to be a major power couple on the nutrition front, providing a solid amount of lean protein, vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants.

If you’re scared that I’m hiding all kinds of scary things in the cheese sauce, relax. It’s actually just a little bit of butter (or olive oil) and flour, low-sodium chicken stock, 2% milk, and a responsible amount of cheese. There’s no heavy cream involved, and the cheeses used are actually surprisingly low in fat. Plus, cheese has calcium, which is good for bones of all ages!

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-4In other glorious news, this pasta is a breeze to whip up, and if you use store bought rotisserie chicken (which I highly recommend), it only requires about 20 minutes of prep time. All you need to do is blanche the broccoli, boil some pasta, whip up a simple cheese sauce, and then mix it all together and bake the whole shebang until it’s golden and bubbling. I imagine it’s infinitely easier than trying to dress a small child.

You’ll also be psyched to know that you can assemble the casserole in advance and pop it in the oven 25 minutes before serving. So, whether you plan on gifting it to some new parents, feeding it to your crazy kids during the week, or serving it at your next dinner party, this baked penne is a stress-free miracle. And everyone likes pasta and melted cheese. (Unless you or your offspring is allergic to gluten and dairy, in which case, I’m sorry. That blows.) 

If there are no small children in your vicinity and you plan on eating this pasta with fancy grown-ups, feel free to dress it up a little bit. I like the idea of adding some prosciutto and pancetta for a meatier meal, or sundried tomatoes and a little pesto to give it a spring/summer flair. Heat things up with plenty of crushed red pepper, and don’t be scared to get some more intense cheeses involved (pecorino Romano, blue, goat, gruyère, etc.). Grown-ups rule.

Cheesy Chicken and Broccoli Pasta Bake: (Serves 6)
3 cups broccoli florets
1 pound whole wheat penne (Farfalle and ziti are also great options.)
3 tablespoons butter (You can also use olive oil if you prefer.)
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons flour
1½ cups low-sodium chicken stock
1¼ cups 2% milk
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1½ teaspoons crushed red pepper (optional)
1¼ cup grated Fontina cheese, divided
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 cups shredded or chopped chicken breast (I used the breast meat from a store-bought rotisserie chicken because I had one in the fridge, but you can also roast or poach your own chicken breasts.)
¼ cups whole wheat Panko breadcrumbs

Preparing your Cheesy Chicken and Broccoli Bake:

-Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees.

-Start by blanching your broccoli. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and prepare a bowl of ice water. (You’re going to use the ice water to shock the broccoli and stop the cooking process).

-When the water is boiling, add the broccoli florets and cook for one minute until bright green.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-1-Use a slotted spoon to transfer the broccoli to the bowl of ice water.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-2-Return the water in the pot to a boil and add the penne. (Yes, you’re using the same water for the broccoli and penne. Conservation and convenience! Whoop.) Cook until just al dente (usually 7-8 minutes), strain and return it to the pot. Please don’t overcook the pasta, people, or it won’t hold it’s shape after you bake it.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-3-Moving on to the cheese sauce! (You can start the sauce while the pasta is cooking if you’re capable of multitasking.) Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. When melted, add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute until fragrant.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-4-Whisk the flour into the butter and garlic to form a roux. Cook, stirring constantly for 1½ minutes.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-5-Slowly whisk in the chicken stock, milk, oregano and crushed red pepper (if using). Bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking regularly, until thickened. This should take about 5 minutes.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-6-Remove the sauce from the heat and add 1 cup grated Fontina, 1 cup mozzarella, and ¼ cup Parmesan. Stir until the cheese has fully melted.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-7-Taste your sauce and season generously with salt and pepper.

-Add the broccoli and shredded chicken breast to the pot with the penne.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-8-Pour the cheese sauce on top.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-9-Stir to combine.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-10-Pour the mixture into a medium baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup Fontina, ¼ cup Parmesan, and ¼ cup whole wheat Panko.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-step-11-Transfer the pasta to the oven and bake for 25 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling.

Cheesy-Baked-Whole-Wheat-Penne-with-Chicken-and-Broccoli-6Serve warm and experience childlike joy.


I’m thrilled to be a part of Food Network’s Sensational Sides event this week. For more awesome kid-friendly recipes, check out the blogs below.

Feed Me Phoebe: Mushy Pea Toasts with Mint
Jeanette’s Healthy Living: Roasted Asparagus with Parmesan Crust
Bacon and Souffle: Kid-Friendly No-Boil Quick and Easy Mac and Cheese
Weelicious: Italian Asparagus Sticks
Devour: 5 Kid-Friendly Cupcakes
Cooking With Elise: 6 Kid-Friendly Sensational Sides
Dishin & Dishes: Mini Carrot Cake Cookie Cups
Napa Farmhouse 1885: Cream of Mushroom Soup (for Zola)
Red or Green: Busy Mom’s Chicken Tacos
The Sensitive Epicure: PB&J and Apples Rice Paper Roll-Up (Gluten-Free)
FN Dish: Side Dishes Your Kids Will Love

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  1. Melissa French on March 17, 2015 at 10:01 am

    I love wheat pasta, and I’m a sucker for cheese. And comfort food. I have included your recipe in my March Real Food Meal Plan. Thanks for sharing!

    • Serena_Wolf on March 17, 2015 at 6:55 pm

      Thank YOU for sharing Melissa. Love the looks of this meal plan!

  2. Food, pleasure, and health on April 10, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    this bowl of pasta makes me happy..i have everything in my kitchen except for the cheese which sucks because i really want this.

    • Serena_Wolf on April 11, 2014 at 9:14 am

      Hahah. I still have have a casserole dish of this, which makes me happy! I would happily share.

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