Monday, April 25, 2011

Baked Ziti

Baked pastas are a great comfort food that even kids love. Pasta in a tasty sauce baked with cheeses until gooey on the inside and a little crusty on the outside. They may take a while to cook, but are fairly easy to assemble, making them a staple in most American households. The most straightforward, and easiest to assemble (an coincidentally, one of the most popular) is baked ziti.

Baked Ziti is one of the most popular baked pasta dishes
One of the keys to a great baked ziti is the tomato sauce. You can get acceptable, maybe even good results using store bought tomato sauce, however, the right way, which will produce the best results, is to make your own tomato sauce- or as most Italian-Americans would say- Gravy. This can take several hours, as you'll note in my "Sunday Gravy" post- so doing a baked ziti right means you'll need a long cooking time. If you want this as a weekday, or quick dinner, you'll need to compromise and use sauce from a jar (or leftover tomato gravy you've made yourself that's been held in the freezer). Making your own tomato gravy has the advantage of a built in side dish- the meat you cook in the gravy can be served with the ziti.

Fresh, home-made tomato gravy (or sauce) is the key to a great ziti
You'll also need at least one box of ziti, or other tube shaped pasta, such as rigatoni, or penne. I prefer to make a huge amount in one shot since baked ziti holds up well in the refrigerator as leftovers, so I usually make about two pounds of pasta. The trick here is to make sure your pasta is not overcooked. In fact, you should slightly undercook your pasta- we'll be putting it in the oven in a slurry of tomato sauce and cheese, so it will continue to cook and absorb moisture. If you start with pasta that's already on the soft side, it will be mushy and lifeless when it comes out of the oven. You want to take your pasta off the heat and drain it when it is still firm, and has a bite to it that is on the hard side of al dente.

There are many ways to assemble the ziti in the baking dish- many people find it easier to mix their cheeses in a separate bowl, others like their cheeses in clumps. I like mine mixed fairly well, and I find it easiest to mix everything right in the baking dish. I'll start with a layer of gravy on the bottom- this will help make sure that the pasta is well lubricated, and will not stick on the bottom.

Start with a little gravy on the bottom of the baking dish
Next, add in your cooked ziti, and some mor gravy. Add in a good sized blob of ricotta, and a handful of grated mozarella cheese. If you like you can add a few herbs as well- oregano, basil, and/or parsley, and a little black pepper. Yes, we should probably use fresh mozarella- fresh mozarella, however does not lend itself easily to grating since it is somewhat wet and spongy. This is also a nod to my childhood- we always had baked pastas using generic store-bought "mozzarella" rather than the good stuff. I think that there's something about the texture of the stuff that makes it feel more "homey" to me than fresh mozarella, at least in this application. Also, be warned- if you, like me, made two pounds of pasta, you will almost certainly need a second baking dish, so don't try to pack the dish to overflowing.

Ricotta and Mozarella added to the ziti
Take a wooden spoon, and mix the cheeses, gravy, and pasta all together. If you need to adjust the amount of cheese or gravy, go ahead. You want the pasta to be wet, but you don't wat the gravy pooling at the bottom. The resulting mix should be mostly ricotta, tinged with the tomato sauce. This will provide enough moisture to allow the pasta to cook a little more without drying out.

Ziti and cheeses all mixed up
Before you are ready to put your ziti in the oven, we'll need to top it off. Cover your ziti with a layer of mozarella - I prefer it to be thick enough to lightly cover everything, but not so thick that it becomes a slab when baked. I also like to sprinkle on a handful fo grated parmesan, and top off with a little bit of herbs.

Cover your ziti with a reasonable amount of mozzarella, and it's ready for the oven.
Preheat your oven to about 350 degrees. You'll want to bake your ziti uncovered until it is heated through and the cheese on top is melted adn bubbling. If you like the top a little crusty, let it go a few extra minutes until the edges of the pasta that may be sticking up just begin to turn brown. All in all, it should only take about 20-30 minutes depending on the size of your baking dish and your oven's temperment.

Baked Ziti out of the oven and ready to serve
I like to serve mine with a little extra gravy and a little extra ricotta on the side. If you made your gravy with meatballs, sausage, or other meats, they will make a great side as well. It's gooey, and filling, and it holds up very well in the refrigerator, so, if you make a lot of extras like I do, you'll have something for lunch for a few days too. Enjoy.

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