I’ve tried several recipes similar to this, and I believe the Cook’s people got it right, again. Perfect Baked Ziti. If you haven’t read the article, here it is.
“…Most versions seem like they went directly from the pantry into the oven, calling for little more than cooked pasta, jarred tomato sauce, a container of ricotta, and some preshredded cheese. The results—overcooked ziti in a dull, grainy sauce topped with a rubbery mass of mozzarella—more than earn the dish its reputation as mediocre church-supper fare.”
YIKES. (My commentary)
To make this dish the way it’s meant to be—with perfectly al dente pasta, a rich and flavorful sauce, and melted cheese in every bite.
We didn’t want to spend all day hovering over a pot of stewing tomatoes, so we needed a sauce that was big on flavor and light on prep. Most “quick” tomato sauces call for sweating garlic in olive oil before adding some type of tomato product. Whole canned tomatoes and crushed tomatoes both had good flavor but took time to cook down. To speed things up, we added a can of diced tomatoes. Next, fresh basil added rich, aromatic savor, but more herbs were essential. In the test kitchen, we usually opt for fresh herbs, but for convenience and without sacrificing flavor, we chose dried oregano. Just when the tomato sauce seemed perfect, we added ricotta, and a familiar problem reared its head: Rather than baking up creamy and rich, the ricotta was grainy and dulled the sauce. A different dairy product was clearly in order.
First we tried cottage cheese, and, to our surprise, it was a success. Its pillowy curds have a texture similar to ricotta, but creamier and tangier. And since cottage cheese curds are bigger, they bake up with none of ricotta’s graininess. For our next batch, we boosted the flavor by combining the cottage cheese with eggs, Parmesan, and heavy cream thickened with a bit of cornstarch. Adding this milky, tangy mixture to the tomato sauce produced a sauce that was bright, rich, and creamy—all at the same time.
As for the pasta, most recipes cook the ziti in boiling water until al dente before tossing it with the sauce and baking. But pasta continues to absorb sauce as it bakes, with two drawbacks: overcooked pasta and sauce that has been robbed of moisture. We found that cooking the pasta for about half the cooking time that most recipes call for and with nearly twice the amount of sauce yielded perfectly al dente pasta in the baked dish with plenty of sauce left to keep the whole thing moist.
The remaining question was how to deal with the cheese. Grated cheese congeals into a mass that makes the dish unappetizing and difficult to portion. Instead of shredding the mozzarella, we cut it into small cubes—reasoning that they would melt into distinct but delectable little pockets of cheese—and mixed half of the cheese with the sauce just before adding it to the pasta, then sprinkled the rest over the top. This strategy yielded a hot, bubbly success. The cubes on top remained perfectly distributed, and the casserole below was dotted with gooey bits of cheese.”
Me again. Absolutely delish. I loved it. Grant loved it. The boys loved it. Hardly any leftovers. That pretty much says it all.
2 large eggs , lightly beaten
3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 pound ziti or other short, tubular pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 medium garlic cloves , minced
1 (28-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
Ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese , cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk cottage cheese, eggs, and 1 cup Parmesan together in medium bowl; set aside. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and pasta; cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta begins to soften but is not yet cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain pasta and leave in colander (do not wash Dutch oven).2. Meanwhile, heat oil and garlic in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until garlic is fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and oregano; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in ½ cup basil and sugar, then season with salt and pepper.
3. Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in small bowl; transfer mixture to now-empty Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat and add cottage cheese mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce, and ¾ cup mozzarella, then stir to combine. Add pasta and stir to coat thoroughly with sauce.
4. Transfer pasta mixture to 13- by 9-inch baking dish and spread remaining tomato sauce evenly over pasta. Sprinkle remaining ¾ cup mozzarella and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan over top. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
5. Remove foil and continue to cook until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes longer. Cool for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons basil and serve.