Pasta Surprise!


When we were children, my Mum used to make us a favourite dinner called Spaghetti Surprise. We absolutely loved it, but when I asked Mum for the recipe several years later, she simply either didn’t have one, or had lost it along the way..

Consequently, I had to invent my own version, which is definitely good, but never quite reached the peaks of childhood memory perfection.. I realised, after several years, that this dinner was made in my Mum’s day with those blocks of orange processed cheese called Galtee (if you remember this, then you are officially old!) which gave it that great golden/red colour that I remembered, but that also, in 1970s Dublin, virtually the only pasta available was spaghetti!

The ‘Surprise’, by the way, was the chunks of ham nestled amongst the pasta!


This is my version, and funnily enough, we still call it Spaghetti Surprise at home! I hope you and the family will enjoy it.


  • A deep casserole, big enough to feed your family
  • a large saucepan to cook the Pasta
  • A grater
  • Sharp knife and a chopping board
  • A large frying pan or wok

INGREDIENTS: These are the quantities I used to make the dinner that you see in these pictures. It will feed about 4-6 people – you can increase or decrease these quantities, depending on how many you’re feeding. See NOTES about estimating pasta portions

  • 200g cooked ham, from a joint, cut into chunks. See NOTES
  • 250g pasta shapes of your choice. See NOTES. We use Fusilli, for no reason that I can remember!
  • 1 med-large Onion, chopped
  • 150g mushrooms, sliced ( see NOTES)
  • A sprinkle of Chilli flakes – optional
  • A heaped teaspoon of Italian herbs
  • Knob of Butter
  • 25g plain flour, with 1 heaped teaspoon of Mustard powder mixed in.
  • about 500mls of milk, or a mixture of milk and pasta water – your choice.
  • Cheese, grated. In these pictures I use some grated leftover Parmesan, and a big handful of Mature Cheddar.
  • Breadcrumbs and more grated cheese, for the topping.


  • Heat some oil to a medium-hot heat in the frying pan – I use Irish Rapeseed Oil.
  • Add the onions, and stir around.
  • Add the herbs and chilli
  • Add the Ham pieces


  • Stir all these well together, until the onions go translucent and slightly softened, and the pieces of ham are heated through. About 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the Butter and let it melt.


  • Sprinkle over the Flour and Mustard mix, or just add a teaspoon of ready-made mustard if that’s what you’ve got. Stir this well in, until it’s almost all absorbed.


  • If you’re going to serve this straight away, put the pasta on to cook about now. Cook until it’s just under ‘al dente’, then drain, saving some of the pasta water to replace some of the milk in the sauce if you like.
  • Heat the oven to 180 Fan
  • Start adding the milk, about a 3rd at a time, and as it heats up, it will start to thicken.
  • When all the milk/pasta water has been added in you should have a thickened sauce  – if it’s too thick, add some more pasta water or milk. It should be about the consistency of unwhipped double cream.


  • Add in the cheese, and let it melt in.


  • Mix the bread crumbs and remaining cheese together.
  • Drop in all the drained pasta, and spend a little time combining it all together.


  • Pour the whole lot into your chosen dish, then sprinkle a generous amount of cheesy breadcrumb mixture on top.

Ready for the oven!

  • Bake for about 25-30 minutes until the sauce is bubbling, and the breadcrumbs are crisp and  browned.



  • Getting ahead – Make the sauce, cool, cover, and refrigerate until needed.  Cook the pasta, drain well, then cool, etc. Don’t put the two together until you’re ready to finish the dish. If you need to refresh the pasta – it can get a bit sticky when it’s cold –  just pour a kettle of hot water over it, and proceed as before.
  • It’s important not to thicken the sauce too much before adding the pasta – pasta is like a sponge, and slurps up a lot of the sauce!
  • I like the addition of a little either fresh or dried chili – I think it adds a nice level of interest.
  • I always make this if I’ve cooked a joint of ham – the very last of it gets cut up and made into this pasta dinner – making it a very economical use of the ham – I get at least 3 dinners from one smallish Gammon joint from the supermarket. I’ll link all the recipes at the bottom of this post.
  • How much Pasta? Well, I decide which dish I’m going to serve it in, and then I simply pour the dried pasta into the dish until it’s just half full. This works out as a perfect amount of pasta for the dish I’m using. Try it and see!

Just half-fill your dish with dry pasta shapes to have the perfect amount for this Dinner!

  • Don’t forget that you can use crisped up bacon for this, or some fried Chorizo, if you don’t have ham. Or go full Veggie, and use whatever you have, in nice big chunks – think Cauliflower, Sweet corn, spring onions etc etc.. I tend to use this recipe to clear out my fridge, usually on a Monday!

I started writing down recipes in an old copybook when I was about 16. With 6 children at home, my Mother was always glad of a hand in the kitchen, and really allowed us to experiment - as long as we washed up afterwards, and left the kitchen immaculate! Having a tidy kitchen has followed me through my life, as has the habit of writing down my favourite recipes; except that these days I write them for my website, and add photographs when I can. The website really started when it occurred to me that my daughter might like to have these recipes when I've forgotten them. In my early days of cooking for family and friends, I used to phone my Mum all the time to ask her for the recipe for some of our favourite family dinners. She rarely had a recipe to hand - I think, like me, she made a lot of it up as she went along.. So welcome to Eating for Ireland - these are the recipes that my friends and family having been eating these past 40 years.. yes, I truly am ancient! They are tried and tested, and have worked for me for all that time - I have updated them as new ingredients became available - I really hope you'll find something that you can make into a family favourite of your own. You don't have to tell anyone where you found these great new dishes that you're serving up - it can be our little secret, but I'd really love it if you could give me a sneaky 'follow' on Facebook and Instagram.. So off you go - have a good rummage around, you're bound to find something new! My sincere thanks to all of you who have found a recipe that you liked and dropped me a line to tell me - I really do love to hear from you! Happy Cooking! Becks xx

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