Baked Ziti took me a long time to learn. It seems really simple, but there are a lot of things to think about. You need two sauces: one cheese and one tomato. My early attempts, put too much emphasis on the tomato sauce and not enough on the cheese sauce and the cheese. My first attempt used a slow simmered style of sauce. The sauce got overpowered by the other elements. The first big break through came when I realized I was going to cook the sauce with the noodles so it doesn’t have to be cooked first. So for ziti, I usually start with diced or crushed tomatoes, seasoned assertively with oregano and garlic. Generally I use my pizza sauce recipe plus 1 t fennel. This has the added benefit of making the dish quicker to get in the oven. Generally I can put the water on to boil for the noodles and have all the sauces whisked together and the cheeses shredded or grated by the time the noodle are cooked. It is still an hour and a half from there to the table, but it is always worth the wait.
The next consideration is the cheese sauce. Traditional recipes use ricotta cheese. But here in the heartland, the ricotta in the supermarkets is not that good. But there’s cottage cheese. And most of the cottage cheeses are much better than the ricottas I can buy. On the other hand, If you have access to great ricotta, go ahead and use it. I would. Then the traditional seasoning for the cheese is parsley. One time I was out, But I had plenty of basil. So once out of necessity, I substituted Basil. It brings a more distinctive sweet flavor to the dish. I thought it was a big improvement. Now I always use basil. I might add fresh parsley as well.
Parmesan Cheese: great ingredients make great food. Many years ago, I switched from the green cans of grated cheese (aka “shaker cheese”) to real imported parmesan. My go to parmesan is the two year aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Ever since I switched to that, all my cooking has improved. Sometimes I’ll run into the three year aged Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio. That is really good too. Here in Wisconsin I can get really good 12 month aged domestic parmesans. I make sure it looks like it has been cut from a block rather that pressed into a mold like all those perfect 5 ounce wedges next to the American cheese in the supermarket.
While I often use other noodles, ziti noodles do seem really ideal for this casserole. They have a big enough hole to let some of the chunky tomato sauce inside. A fork with a couple of noodles will also cradle a small spoonful of sauce to your mouth. Penne or large elbow macaroni are my next favorites. And of course if I’m really in the mood for baked noodles, whatever is on the shelf works. The two most important things are to salt your noodle water and just barely cook the noodles.
Remember, the noodles are going to cook a little bit more in the casserole.Think about how you want them to feel like in your mouth. If they are tender going in, they will be mush after they are cooked. If they are el dente going in, the will be tender coming out of the oven. I’m shooting for el dente coming out of the oven so I try to cook them until they just start to expand and become flexible enough so you can squeeze them flat without cracking them.
I need to do a whole blog post on salting your pasta water. This is the most common mistake I see cooking pasta: not enough salt in the water. And this problem is everywhere. In restaurants and in home kitchens. By my calculations, if you are cooking your pasta according to the box directions, you need about 1.5% salt to water. So the box usually says, four quarts of water for 1 pound of pasta. I’m going to change to the metric system here because the math is easier. So 1.5% of 3.7 liters is about 55 grams of salt. And then back to the hard-to-figure system: That is about 4 tablespoons of salt. Remember almost all that salt will stay in the water. The noodles only take up so much.
Lately there has been a lot of talk about cooking noodles in less water and I think it works better and makes it easier to deal with. I usually use 2-3 quarts of water to cook a pound of noodles. Smaller pot. easier to fill, move, drain. Less water boils faster so I eat my noodles sooner… I always use 1.5% of the combined weight of the noodles and water to figure out how much salt.
In the recipe below, I substituted a 18 month extra aged gouda for about half the parmesan from my standard ziti recipe. I also omitted cubes of cheese mixed into the sauce and noodles. Instead of meat or sausage I used 3 pounds of mushrooms and I used blue cheese to top it off instead of the mozzarella.
Sorry: thats not the right picture. I forgot to take any so I used the picture from another baked ziti. Next time I make it, I’ll get a better picture.
Mushroom Baked Ziti with Blue Cheese
1 pound ziti noodles
2-3 pounds sliced or chopped mushrooms
1 large onion diced
3-4 large cloves garlic
2 28 ounce cans petite tomatoes – pizza sauce recipe plus 1 t fennel
1 lb cottage cheese seasoned with fresh basil and nutmeg
2 ounces grated Parmesan
2 Ounces Aged Gouda
4 ounces crumbed blue cheese
I made this for the December 2017 Moreland Thankmas Party. Sorry I didn’t take any pictures.
Cook the noodles until they are almost al dente.
Meanwhile, dice and sauté the onion. I like a course dice- 1/2 or 3/4 inch. Then add the chopped mushrooms. Again, I like a very course chop or very thick slices and I also usually use a couple a different types of mushrooms. Sauté until the mushrooms give off most of their water. I want the mushroom to still have a nice firm texture. Add the garlic and sauté for a couple of more minutes. Remove from heat. Add the canned tomatoes to the pan. Mix the sauce with seasoning (garlic, oregano, salt, crushed pepper flakes, plus crushed fennel seed or fennel pollen) like pizza sauce.
Drain the noodles and mix with the sauce. Spread half the mixture in a 3 quart baking pan. Then spread ⅔ of the cottage cheese sauce over the noodles and sauce in the pan. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Spread rest of the noodle mixture followed by the rest of the cheese sauce. Give the layers a subtle swirl before topping with the grated aged gouda (or you could use more parmesan here) and the crumbled blue cheese. Bake in a 350 degree oven until the center is about 160 degrees — 55 minutes or so.
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