Friday, February 13, 2009



We'll be getting to warmer days soon enough, when these stick-to-your-ribs casseroles won't seem so appetizing, so try this scrumptious dish while there's still a chill in the air (or turn on the air conditioner if you never have such a chill).

This is an adaptation of another winner from Cooks Illustrated. They research recipes of perennial favorites and, through seemingly endless trial and error, but based on a thorough knowledge of food science, come up with delicious and fool-proof versions. You may have had baked ziti before, but I'll bet it hasn't been this good.

A couple of notes: one of their breakthroughs is using cottage cheese, either full- or low-fat, instead of the traditional ricotta. They say it's creamier. I didn't have cottage cheese on hand, but I did have some low-fat ricotta, so I used that. It was delicious and I can't imagine how much better cottage cheese could be, but I'll probably try it one day. Another breakthrough: boil the pasta for only about 5 minutes, or just until it begins to soften. It will cook completely in the oven; otherwise it will turn to mush. Also, their version uses a plain tomato sauce; I add vegetables and a pound of Italian sausage.

1 lb. ziti or other short, tubular pasta

1 lb. whole milk or 1% cottage cheese or ricotta
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 oz. grated Parmesan cheese (about 1½ cups), divided

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. bulk Italian sausage, or, if links, meat squeezed out of links
1 medium sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
5 medium garlic cloves, peeled, smashed and chopped

1 28-oz. can tomato sauce
1 14.5-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tbsp. dried basil
1 tsp. sugar
black pepper

1 tsp. cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream

8 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut into small chunks (about 1 ½ cups)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring a gallon of water to boil in a Dutch oven, add salt to taste and, cook ziti until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside in colander. Do not wash Dutch oven.

Mix together cottage cheese or ricotta, eggs, and 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese in a medium bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium heat and add sausage, onion, green pepper, celery, parsley and garlic. Sauté until vegetables are softened and meat is no longer pink. Pour off excess fat if necesssary. Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, oregano and basil; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in sugar, then taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper in needed.

Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in a small bowl, then transfer mixture to now-empty Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook and stir until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove Dutch oven from heat and add ricotta mixture, one cup of the meat and tomato sauce, and half the chunked mozzarella, then stir to mix well. Add pasta and stir to combine it thoroughly with the sauce.

Transfer pasta to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, then spread remaining meat and tomato sauce evenly over the pasta. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove foil and continue to bake until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about another 30 minutes. Remove to rack and cool for 20 minutes before serving.


Anonymous said...

This looks so good I may even try it for dinner tonight. Good one! Thanks. I just copied it.

Linda - SE PA said...

I love pasta and ricotta cheese - although Lazy Linda just spoons it in the cooked pasta & sauce.

This recipe sounds very good and worth the extra time.

Kat said...

I made this last week with the cottage cheese and I liked it. It was so much lighter than the heavier ricotta. I used chicken instead of sausage, and it too was delicious.

Kat said...

PS I used fresh basil and the diced tomatoes I used were the ones with basil and garlic.

Ralph said...

I like the cottage cheese endorsement, Kat. I'll definitley try it.

Jeff said...

So strange these comments should come up... A few days ago my wife asked what I would like for dinner and I said just some plain noodles with ricotta cheese. It reminded of a dish we had on Saturday nights when I was growing up - pot cheese and broad noodles. It's a drier form of cottage cheese. My mother used to refer to it as having "dairy" for dinner.
So anyway, having made it, I spooned it out to eat. Seemed to be missing something. So I added some sauce and micro'd the sucker. Wasn't bad. I guess it is the short cut to baked ziti... :)
Gourmet - no. Stick to the ribs - yes.
- J.

Ralph said...

Jeff, who needs a recipe when you can improvise? I'm sure the first baked ziti was cooked by an Italian nonna and there are probably as many ways to make it as there are nonnas. If it tastes good that's all that matters.

Jeff said...

It's all about improvisation, Ralph... :)
- J.

Peewit said...

Ah you are back! yesterday when I logged on to your page I had the masthead and the left hand column but no text. Wierd!

Probably just as well as I am going to have to hide this recipe from the rest of the family. They'll love it but I just don't care for pasta.

We do a similar recipe which like Kat uses chicken. I prefer it done on the days I'm out though. (which has been a lot this week hence no comments, sorry Ralph

Anonymous said...

I made it with cottage cheese and it was wonderful. Will put this recipe on my monthly make list. Delicious.!! Thanks.

Ralph said...

Glad you liked it! That's two of you now telling me how good the cottage cheese is. I might make it for some company coming this weekend and will definitely try it that way.