Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Baked Ziti Representin'

Baked ziti is the Rodney Dangerfield of the pasta family. It gets no respect.

Thrown together with a jar of store-bought pasta sauce, some grainy ricotta, sprinkled with bagged, shredded cheese, and baked till dry as leather, baked ziti is often sadly used as a cheap, main dish for feeding a lot of people without much effort. Now, don’t get me wrong, those church potlucks can be expensive and your group of picky pre-teens may turn their noses up to anything else, so cheap and easy have their place in the kitchen. It’s just that, well, it can be so much different than that. Oh yes, it can be VERY different!

In the past, baked ziti was too saucy, too dry, too cheesy, too mushy from overcooked pasta, too bland. Too many extremes. Sometimes a ground meat of some sort is thrown in the mix, but really, most baked ziti simply poses as spaghetti in a different shape and acts as a vehicle for all that melted cheese.

Upon eating this last night, hubs proclaimed, “This is probably the best baked ziti I’ve ever eaten in my life!” That’s quite a compliment, huh? Trust me. Step away from the jarred pasta sauce and preshredded cheese. It’s time we got a little respect around here!

Baked Ziti
Recipe source: Cooks Illustrated, April 2009

1 lb. whole milk or 1% cottage cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 oz. grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 1/2 cups), divided
1 lb. ziti
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
5 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 (28 oz.) can tomato sauce
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves, divided (or 1 tablespoon dried)
1 tsp. sugar
Ground black pepper
3/4 tsp. cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream (or whole milk)
8 oz. low-moisture mozzarella, shredded (not preshredded!)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350° F. Whisk cottage cheese, eggs, and 1 cup Parmesan together in a medium bowl; set aside. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta; cook until pasta begins to soften but is not yet cooked through, 5-7 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in colander.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sautee for 1 to 2 minutes, do not brown. Stir in the tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and oregano; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off the heat, stir in 1/2 cup basil and the sugar, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

In a small bowl stir together the cornstarch and heavy cream. Transfer the mixture to the now-empty stockpot over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, 3-4 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and add the cottage cheese mixture, 1 1/2 cups of the tomato sauce and 3/4 cup mozzarella. Stir to combine. Add the pasta and toss to coat thoroughly with the sauce.

Transfer the pasta to a 9×13″ baking dish and spread the remaining tomato sauce evenly over the top. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan over the top. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the foil from the pan and continue to cook until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes longer. Cool for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons basil and serve.

Photo from: http://www.castellofoodcompany.com/

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