My best reference for baked ziti is The Sopranos. It became a plot point, and even the cornerstone for a character, when his wife suddenly passed away and a freezer of her ziti was all that was left behind.
Baked ziti is like lasagna, but even easier. It’s shareable, freezable, and deeply comforting, like most casseroles are. This version is a beautiful creamy blend of spicy tomato sauce and lightly seasoned bechamel with mozzarella, which means it’s infinitely likable. My favorite part is the crispy pieces on top – I have to try to not pick all them off one by one before serving this. Enjoy!
1 pound ziti (or any short, dry pasta)
3 cups spicy tomato cream sauce (below)
3 cups white sauce (below)
8 ounces mozzarella cheese (the fresh ball kind), sliced 1/4 inch thick
Parmigiano, to finish
Finely chopped basil
Cook ziti al dente per manufacturer’s recommendation, in heavily salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 9×13 inch baking dish. Layer as follows: 1/2 of the ziti, mozzarella cheese, white sauce, spicy tomato cream sauce, and then repeat with the remaining ziti, mozzarella cheese and remaining sauces. Top with grated Parmesan cheese.
Bake for 30 minutes in the preheated oven, or until cheeses are melted and top is bubbly golden brown. Garnish with basil
INGREDIENTS (WHITE SAUCE):
3 cups milk
2 sprigs of parsley
1/2 small onion, sliced
1/4 teaspoon chili flake
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
1/3 cup grated parmigiano
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Bring the milk and everything else except for the butter, flour, and parmigiano to a simmer.
In a separate sauce pan, melt the butter and add the flour. Stir until doughy and smelling a bit nutty (about one minute). Strain in the milk about a half-cup at a time, whisking to incorporate with the butter and flour mix. It should be smooth and velvety, not chunky or too thick. If it is, just add some more milk to thin it out. Add the Parmesan and set aside.
INGREDIENTS (SPICY TOMATO CREAM SAUCE):
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed chili flake
1 teaspoon paprika
2 (14.5 ounce) cans Italian-style diced tomatoes, undrained
2 teaspoons sugar
1 stem of basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 tablespoons cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons butter
In a saucepan, saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat. Add the crushed chili flake and paprika. Make sure it doesn’t burn. Add tomatoes, basil, sugar, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to boil and continue to boil 5 minutes or until most of the liquid evaporates. Remove basil stem and remove from heat; stir in cream and butter. Reduce heat and simmer 5 more minutes. Set aside.