Rescuing Baked Ziti

Last night, it happened. It’s not often that I make a new dish and, two bites into the meal, I am told, “This is awesome. You have to make this again.” All at once, I was thrilled and surprised. My experiences with homemade baked ziti have been poor, bastardized versions of a dish, resulting in dry pasta with plasticized cheese, so I didn’t have high hopes. And, when I saw the recipe I was looking at preferred cottage cheese over ricotta, my expectations were lowered even more — in my experience, substituting with cottage cheese meant “diet,” and diet meant giving up a great taste for healthier fare.

Then again, it was a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen.

Baked Ziti

I’ve been so impressed with ATK that I got a subscription for Cook’s Illustrated. So far my only complaint is that they don’t run like normal subscriptions; to keep you from receiving magazines without paying, they send the previous month’s edition and not the current. We did send a check, but receiving the current edition was very slow. I had to call and ask what the deal was, which is something I’d prefer not to do. However, the customer service rep I spoke with was very apologetic and sent a complimentary copy of their Soups & Stews booklet.

Unfortunately I had already purchased that from my local grocery store, but it was a nice gesture.

So far, this has been the most valuable magazine subscription I’ve ever had. Maybe that’s because they aren’t really magazines. Unlike typical magazines that are articles of fluff and the occasional recipe that you can’t find unless you dig through the advertisements, Cook’s Illustrated cuts straight to the point. They don’t even have advertisements. The magazine actually reads like a little instructional booklet. Each recipe takes up one or two pages, and the commentary includes history of the dish (if applicable) and the steps they took to come up with the final recipe. I love reading about each different and odd thing the Test Kitchen tried and the reason they picked certain ingredients. Before they even start a dish, they identify what they absolutely do not want. I love it.

CI - Baked Ziti Gone Bad

Baked Ziti
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated March/April 2009

1 pound whole milk cottage cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 ounces grated Parmesan (about 1 1/2 cups)
Table salt
1 pound ziti or other short, round tubular pasta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 5 teaspoons)
1 (28 oz.) can tomato sauce
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
Ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces low-moisture mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)

The measurements above will serve between 8 – 10, so I cut mine in half and had enough to serve 3 adults.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk cottage cheese, eggs, and 1 cup Parmesan together in a medium bowl; set aside.

Baked Ziti - Cottage Cheese, Eggs, Parmesan

Basically what they’ve done is taken a traditional tomato sauce with a variant of an alfredo sauce, and combined them with cubed mozzarella. As it turns out, they tried all kinds of ricotta and different milks and creams, and determined cottage cheese, though still a little weird to me, holds up best when heat is applied to it. I used small curd since I didn’t want to be weirded out by seeing little balls of cottage cheese in my food.

Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot over high heat. The Test Kitchen calls for using a Dutch oven, but I didn’t have one. Instead, I went with ye olde pot, and it worked just fine. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook the pasta for half the amount of time that is reflected in the instructions. The whole key to this is remembering the pasta is still going to cook and absorb liquid after everything is combined and thrown into the oven. Boiling the pasta for half the time will result in perfect pasta when the dish is done. I used Penne, and cooked mine for 6 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in colander. Do not wash the pot because you will be using it for something else in a few minutes.

Heat oil and garlic in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until the garlic is fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes.

Ziti - Sauteeing Garlic

Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and oregano; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in fresh basil leaves and sugar, then season with pepper.

The original recipe calls for seasoning with salt and pepper, but I found that when I did that, there ended up being a bit too much salt for my taste. Between the salted pasta and the Parmesan, there really didn’t need to be any additional.

Ziti - Simmering Sauce

Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in a small bowl; transfer mixture to now-empty spaghetti pot and set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, about 3 – 4 minutes. Remove from heat and add cottage cheese mixture, 1 cup of the tomato sauce mixture and 3/4 cup mozzarella. Stir to combine. Add pasta and stir thoroughly to coat with sauce.

Ziti - Adding Pasta

This is the step that started to make me nervous because that pot of mixed ziti and cottage cheese looked exactly what I originally feared the dish would taste like: cheap knockoff Baked Ziti. But it doesn’t end up looking like that, so don’t be turned off by that weird concoction you’re seeing in the picture.

Transfer pasta mixture to 13×9 inch baking dish and spread remaining tomato sauce evenly over the pasta. Sprinkle remaining 3/4 cup mozzarella and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan over top. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

Ziti - Cubed Mozzarella

Remove foil and continue to cook until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes longer. The recipe called for cooling for 20 minutes before serving, but we dug right in.

Baked Ziti Bowl

I wanted to get a better shot, but I didn’t realize our web admin was going to dig in with an actual ladle and then start mangling the dish from one end to the other. I’m afraid the best shot is the one I provided above with the forkful and underneath, lovely little melted cubes of mozzarella embedded in the tomato sauce.

When the dish came out, the two layers of the pasta had come together quite beautifully. A punch of bright tomato and basil was delicious and their unconventional alfredo delivered. Most importantly, I didn’t distinctly taste the cottage cheese, though it lent to a light and fluffy overall dish that I loved. Not only was this the first Baked Ziti that delivered, it was the first pasta dish that involved cottage cheese that I actually enjoyed.

In terms of an overall dish, I’d be proud to serve this to guests and take to potlucks. In fact, this would be great in a crockpot. Be sure to pour the layers into a flat crockpot dish, then bake the dish in the oven. When it’s done, place in the crockpot to keep warm.

In terms of a weeknight dish, it’s good and bad depending on your school of thought. Making this dish used: 1 pot + 1 pan + 2 bowls + 1 baking dish = a little more mess and clean up than I’d like on a weeknight.

Cooking time and active time is also a factor. I spent about 25 active minutes preparing the dish, then it takes another 50 – 60 minutes to bake. While the baking time gives you room to clean up the mess and finish whatever household chores you need to do before dinner, that’s a long time before dinner even gets to the table. The argument for that is you’ll have a lot of really delicious leftovers that will reheat well, so cooking time for a couple of days later or whenever you decide to serve it again is very short. So it depends on your school of thought. I personally must ding it for the hour and a half, though the sheer and utter deliciousness of the dish brings the score back.

Overall Dish: A
Weeknight Cooking: B

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