Baked Ziti

As Thanksgiving approaches, we have many choices of recipes for our menus: stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, rolls- the number of dishes to choose from can be overwhelming. While I love these classic dishes, I firmly believe there is no better dish to serve at Thanksgiving than baked ziti. Is it traditional? No. Is it a showstopper? Absolutely.

Growing up in an Italian-American family, we always had some kind of pasta dish at Thanksgiving. My great-aunt brought baked ziti every year; while it was delicious, it was always shrouded in mystery. My grandmother, my mother, and I debated whether my great-aunt, normally a rather sub-par cook, had bought the ziti or made it herself. I liked to give my aunt the benefit of the doubt and give her credit for making such a tasty dish, but my other family members would only entertain the idea that she had bought it pre-made from a fancy Italian deli. My great-aunt refused to submit to any interrogations, and the mystery remains unsolved to this day.

What’s not in doubt is just how amazing this recipe is. It has everything you want: meat, cheese, herbs, tomatoes, and pasta. The textures are perfect: gooey mozzarella, crispy baked pasta on top, and creamy ricotta. Think of it as a substitute for the mac and cheese that you might traditionally serve at Thanksgiving. The rest of your meal doesn’t have to be Italian for you to serve baked ziti. Why not serve some pasta along with turkey, cranberry sauce, and green beans? When it comes to Thanksgiving, I’m strongly in the camp of that there is no wrong or right. Ignore tradition and cook what makes you happy!

This recipe might seem time-intensive, but the steps are rather straightforward. Basically, you make the tomato-meat sauce, cook the pasta, mix the cheese, assemble everything, and then bake. If you’re trying to avoid too much cooking on Thanksgiving day, you can make the tomato-meat sauce ahead of time and refrigerate it until it is time to assemble. One secret to this dish is to slightly under-cook the pasta by a few minutes; it should still have a hard chew when you remove it. Since you will be baking it, it will cook a second time. Under-cooking it during the first time will help avoid mushy, squishy pasta. Bring this showstopper to your family and friends, and they’ll be thankful for you!

Recipe

Ingredients

Olive oil

1 large onion, diced finely

3/4 lb. sweet Italian pork sausage, casing removed ( you can also use chicken sausage if you have dietary restrictions)

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup dry red wine

1 35 oz can whole plum tomatoes, with their juice

1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano

1 cup fresh ricotta (use whole milk ricotta)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

pinch of nutmeg

1 lb ziti

1/2 lb fresh mozzarella balls (cut into small cubes, about 1/2 an inch)

1/8 cup panko breadcrumbs

salt and pepper

Equipment

Large casserole pan (13 x 9)

Dutch oven or large flat bottomed pan

Large pasta pot

Colander

Cheese grater

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Put a large pot of water on high heat to boil.
  2. In a dutch oven or large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the sausage and garlic. Break up the sausage into small pieces with a spoon or spatula. Cook until sausage begins to brown (about 4 minutes). If the sausage gives off a lot of fat, pour off most of it, but leave a little to add flavor to the sauce. Add the red wine. With a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pan/pot to lift up all those delicious crispy bits. Boil wine off until it’s almost gone. Add the tomatoes will all of their juice and cook uncovered at a lively simmer for about 10 minutes. Smash tomatoes as they cook with a spoon or spatula. The sauce will thicken slightly. Add the oregano and pinches of salt and pepper. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
  4. In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, about half of the Parmesan, the parsley, and the nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Meanwhile, cook the ziti in boiling water- take out two minutes or so before the package says to. The pasta should have a bit of a chew to it. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Add the ricotta mixture and mix well. Add the sausage sauce and mix again. Pour everything into the baking dish.
  6. Press mozzarella cubes evenly across the dish. Press the cheese in a little, so it’s slightly below the surface level. Top with the rest of the Parmesan and the bread crumbs.
  7. Bake uncovered until bubbling and lightly browned- about 20 minutes. Switch the oven to broil and broil the dish for about 1–2 minutes- just until the top of the pasta starts to brown slightly. Keep an eye on the broiler to avoid burning.
  8. Serve immediately.

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