Pasta Surprise

P1130080This was one of our favorite dinners as children, and I remember asking Mum for the recipe after I’d left home, but either she’d lost it, or had never had one to begin with (more likely) so I had to make up one of my own.

It has taken me several years to come up with a recipe which resembles our old family favourite;  I hope a younger generation will enjoy it as much as we did. :)

It always makes me laugh that we still call it Pasta Surprise, when everyone knows exactly what the ‘surprise’ is!


  • Large, deep frying pan/wok
  • Large saucepan for the pasta
  • Deep 2-3 litre oven proof dish


Feeds about 4-6 people


  • About 100g Pasta shapes of your choice – I actually think that shells or spirals are better for this recipe. As a rough guide, I pour the pasta shapes into the dish I intend to use for serving – if you fill it about 2/3rds full, the quantities will be perfect when it’s cooked and the sauce is added. Today my dried pasta weighed just over 100g
  • 1-2 tablespoons of oil
  • 150g of Bacon pieces – cooked – I use left-over ham from a cooked joint  for this recipe, making it really handy at Christmas time.
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • a sprinkle of dried chillies (optional)
  • A teaspoon or so of Italian herbs
  • 15-20g Plain flour.
  •  Some freshly ground pepper.
  • 1 teaspoon of dry mustard powder
  • 300mls cold milk
  • 150g of grated cheese; medium strong cheddar is good.
  • About 125g of fresh breadcrumbs


  • Heat the oil in the pan and add the onion. Reduce the heat and cook gently until softened and slightly golden.
  • Add the garlic, herbs and chilli (if using) and cook for another minute.
  • Add the ham and stir around.


  • Sprinkle over the flour and mustard powder, and stir to combine. It will be absorbed by the juices in the pan.
  • Slowly add all the milk, stirring all the time, then cook gently for about five mins.
  • If the sauce gets too thick, add some more milk – it should be fairly liquid, because it will be soaked up by  the pasta.
  • Season with ground pepper. Ham can be salty, so only add salt after you’ve tasted  the mixture.
  • Add half of the cheese to the sauce, and melt in.

I’ve added a little finely chopped fresh basil in this photograph – simply because it was there..

  • Cook the pasta, drain, reserving some of the cooking water, then add the pasta to the sauce and coat well.P1130077


  • Pour into the oven-proof dish
  • Combine the remaining cheese with the breadcrumbs; then sprinkle on top of the pasta.
  • Put into the oven at 180° for about 20 mins until it is all bubbling hot, and the cheesy crumb has formed a crispy crust.
  • Serve at once with a green salad, and garlic or warmed crusty bread

Ready-made supermarket garlic flatbread


  • I think that it was the bacon pieces inside that were supposed to be the ‘surprise’!
  • Mum called it Spaghetti Surprise because spaghetti was the only pasta available in the 70’s, but these days we prefer it with Fusilli.
  • This is a great dish for using leftover ham and cheese (from Christmas for example). Almost any kind of gratable cheese will do – I tend to add a little Parmesan to whatever I’m using, just because it’s there.
  • If, after you’ve added the pasta to the sauce, you think it looks a little too thick, add a the pasta water a tablespoon at a time until you get your preferred consistency.
  • If you fancy adding a few more veggies to this (and I often do – that’ll ‘surprise’ them 😉 ) I’d suggest some sliced cooked mushroom or small florets of cauliflower or broccolli, all stir-fried until fairly tender, then added into the sauce just before the cheese. If you’re doing this, you can certainly reduce the amount of ham in the recipe.
  • I quite often cook the pasta at the same time as the sauce – it speeds things up really well. Don’t worry if it cools off a bit – it’s going into it’s lovely cheesy bath, and then for a spin in the oven!

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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