A new take on an Italian Classic from Recipe Developer Extraordinaire Alison Roman
If you’ve ever cooked a recipe from Alison Roman, you’ll be mightily impressed by the spin she puts on Classics. And this dish is a classic. Ziti al forno, which translates to Oven-Baked Pasta, is also distinguished by having no real rules for its recipe. Almost anything goes. The pasta is almost always tubular but that’s about the extent of the rules. The Italians have been making Ziti al Forno dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when oven-baked pasta was served at banquets and in the palaces of the nobility. It is still a staple on the tables of many southern Italian towns. In Sicily and Campania, which includes Naples and the Amalfi coast, the dish is still among the most popular. It’s a great family favorite. But the variations are endless and the ingredients beyond the pasta are really completely up to the cook. It comes down to what he or she has on hand and what creativity she or he brings to their table.
Alison Roman’s Layering technique puts the flavors of the whole dish in every bite.
Alison Roman’s take on the dish turns it into something closer to lasagna. She layers the pasta with cheese. Every bite has the taste of creamy ricotta, mozzarella and tomato sauce. The New York Times recipe developer adds heavy cream to the ricotta for smooth luscious texture. While her version was meatless, and despite the richness of the three kinds of cheese in the recipe, I wanted to add Italian sausage. I did so by breaking up ½ lb. of Italian sausage and cooking it along with the onions. Alison writes ‘the key to (the recipe’s) success comes from undercooking the pasta during the initial boil so it stays perfectly al dente, even after a trip to the oven’. The instructions on my imported Garafalo Penne Ziti Lisci called for 11 minutes so I cut it down to 9. And the pasta was perfect.
How to lower the calorie count, if you must…
I confess to a certain fear that the calorie count on Baked Ziti with Sausage was going to be sky-high. So I did a nutrition count that revealed that the calorie count on each portion was 477. But there certainly are numbers that deserve to be noted. The total fat content, the saturated fat content and cholesterol counts are all high. Leave out the Sausage and you lose 96 calories, the fat content drops 21 percent, the saturated fat and cholesterol fall tool. But the carbs don’t. And the Carbs would send Keto dieters into a tailspin. But if you are feeding a runner in this week’s New York Marathon, all those carbs will undoubtedly fuel a 26.2188-mile race. I’ve also included links to a couple of other Alison Roman recipes which are equally as good as this one. Here is the recipe:
Baked Ziti with (or without) Sausage
Alison Roman's take on this Italian classic puts the pasta in tomato sauce in layers of three different kinds of cheese. Add sausage if you wish.
- Necessity: 1-3 Quart Baking Dish
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, packed in juice
- 1 (28-ounce) can tomato purée or sauce
- ¾ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- 16 ounces/1 pound ricotta
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ½ cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino, plus more for grating on top
- 1 pound ziti, rigatoni, penne, manicotti or other short, tubelike pasta
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- Step 1 Make 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 2 Prepare the filling: In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, heavy cream and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
- Step 3 Prepare 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 4 Cook 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
- Step 5 set aside while the tomato sauce finishes cooking.
- Step 6 Once tomato sauce is done, stir in reserved pasta water.
- Step 7 Place pasta in a large bowl and add 2 cups sauce. Stir to coat pasta evenly encouraging the sauce to go inside each tube.
- Step 8 Spoon 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 9 Let cool slightly before eating with a big green leafy salad.
- Step 10 Tip Baked ziti can be assembled 2 hours before baking. It can be baked 1 day ahead and rewarmed before serving.