Chances are you’ve already got all these ingredients in your pantry.

By Stacey Ballis
March 09, 2021
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Baked Feta Cheese
Credit: Getty / Elena_Danileiko

By now we have all seen the viral baked feta pasta videos sweeping the nation. And if for some reason you have not, as with many recipe hacks, it is a little bit of genius. A block of feta, some olive oil, whole grape or cherry tomatoes, salt and pepper, some chili flake if you like heat or garlic if you lean that direction. Bake until the tomatoes have burst and the cheese is soft, mix together, and toss in cooked pasta. It's super easy, delicious, and a perfect no-brainer dinner to get on the table.

But sometimes with a viral recipe like this, especially one that then inspires its own versions, some key things can get lost in translation. For example, most of the videos do not specify Greek or Bulgarian sheep's milk feta, both of which will break down into much creamier sauce than American cow's milk versions, which tend to be grittier and often saltier. Not an unpleasant flavor, just something to be aware of. And most do not remind you that as with any pasta, the addition of a couple tablespoons of the pasta cooking water will help emulsify the sauce and make it cling to the pasta better.

There are now different versions hitting the internet, using different cheeses, adding different vegetables, roasting the garlic versus adding raw at the end, basil or no basil. And it is certainly worth experimenting with your own versions.

For me, I love a recipe that is as easy to improve as it is to make in the original. Because the only thing better than a viral recipe that is delicious, is one that you can take to the next level by just adding a bonus ingredient, especially if that ingredient is already in your pantry! Here are 6 great ways to upgrade your original viral feta pasta!

1. Add a dash of vanilla

No, seriously. Vanilla and tomatoes are terrific friends! I often sneak a splash into my sauces and soups. Don't forget, vanilla itself is not sweet, so even though it is most often used in sweet dishes, it only brings flavor. Think about using unsweetened chocolate in a mole sauce or some cocoa powder in your BBQ rub. Vanilla powerhouse Nielsen-Massey, which makes my favorite vanilla products, always recommends a bit of vanilla in tomato recipes. You can add a half-teaspoon to a teaspoon of extract or paste to the pan along with the olive oil and watch the recipe sing!

2. Add cinnamon

Again, I know you think I am going down a weird baking-aisle rabbit hole, but cinnamon is an essential spice in Greek cooking, and this is a very Greek-influenced pasta. Classic Greek tomato dishes like pasticcio all have cinnamon in the sauce, as does the famous chili in Detroit. Be judicious, though: ¼-½ teaspoon will be plenty.

3. Add a spice blend or mix you love

If you have a spice blend you love—herbes de provence or a vadouvan blend, say—chances are  it can also elevate this pasta! Want an easy way to test? Remove a small portion from the pan and add a sprinkle and taste. Love it? Add it!

4. Think beyond basil

Basil is obvious for pastas, as is parsley, but did you know that fresh mint and tomatoes are really good friends? They are in the same family, and the freshness of mint against the sweetness of the tomato and the creamy cheese is a match that will invoke summer. The anise flavor of fresh tarragon is also a good pairing, as is the subtle musk of sage. And if you prefer a slight oniony bite, try sliced scallions or minced chives.

5. Bulk it up with beans

Beans in a pasta like this bring a lot to the party: bonus protein, texture, and creamy flavor. Adding a drained can of a white bean like a cannellini or navy, or a hearty bean like a chickpea to the pan before baking will bulk the dish up beautifully while keeping it vegetarian.

6. Add crunch

The one thing about this pasta is that is a very soft dish. Topping with some toasted breadcrumbs, toasted nuts like sliced almonds or pine nuts, or even fried shallots can add some very welcome textural balance and an extra bit of flavorful punch. Just sprinkle on top before serving, or serve on the side for people to add their own!