This baked ziti is layered almost like a lasagna to ensure every bite has enough creamy ricotta, stringy mozzarella and tangy tomato sauce. But the key to its success comes from undercooking the pasta during the initial boil so it stays perfectly al dente, even after a trip to the oven. Heavy cream is added to prevent the ricotta from becoming grainy or dry during baking, letting it be its most luscious self. While this baked ziti is meatless (there’s plenty of richness from the cheese — three types, to be exact), you could always incorporate a bit of sausage, ground meat or pancetta, if you like. Simply add 1/2 pound to the onions while sautéeing and proceed with the recipe.
- Serves: 6 persons
- ¼cup olive oil
- 1large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2tablespoons tomato paste
- 1(28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, packed in juice
- 1(28-ounce) can tomato purée or sauce
- ¾teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- 16ounces/1 pound ricotta
- ½cup heavy cream
- ½cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino, plus more for grating on top
- 1pound ziti, rigatoni, penne, manicotti or other short, tubelike pasta
- 1pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Step 1Make the tomato sauce: Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is totally softened and translucent (without letting it brown), 8 to 10 minutes. Add tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring until it has turned a deeper brick-red color, tinting the oil and onions a fiery orange color, about 2 minutes. Crush the whole tomatoes by hand and add them (including the juice) and the tomato purée to the pot, stirring to scrape up any bits from the bottom of the pot. Season with salt and pepper and add red pepper flakes, if using. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomato sauce has thickened and flavors have come together, 20 to 30 minutes.
Step 2Prepare the filling: In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, heavy cream and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Step 3Prepare the pasta: As the sauce cooks, heat oven to 425 degrees, and place a large pot of salted water to boil on the stove.
Step 4Cook pasta until it’s nearly al dente. (You want to undercook the pasta slightly, as it will continue to cook in the oven. A good way to do this is cook it 2 minutes less than you normally would if preparing it al dente.) Reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, drain pasta and rinse with cool water; set aside while the tomato sauce finishes cooking.
Step 5Once tomato sauce is done, stir in reserved pasta water.
Step 6Place pasta in a large bowl and add 2 cups sauce. Stir to coat pasta evenly encouraging the sauce to go inside each tube.
Step 7Spoon a bit of remaining sauce on the bottom of a 3-quart baking dish and top with 1/3 of the pasta. Spoon 1/3 of the remaining sauce on top, dollop with half the ricotta mixture and scatter 1/3 of the mozzarella on top of that. Repeat, beginning with the pasta, one more time. For the final layer, add the last 1/3 of pasta and the last of the sauce. Dot remaining mozzarella on top and shave a bit more Parmesan on top of that. Place baking dish on top of a sheet pan lined with parchment paper to catch any drips. Place in the oven and bake until the edges are golden brown and bubbling and the top has browned nicely, 30 to 40 minutes.
Step 8Let cool slightly before eating with a big green leafy salad.