Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Baked Ziti: A crowd-pleasing dish
for your next family get-together

Baked pasta can be absolutely horrible.
   Many people have had the experience of being at a brunch or potluck, digging into baked mac and cheese or another type of pasta, and finding their serving is rubbery or mushy.
   These two undesirable traits are what Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine from America’s Test Kitchen, aimed to eradicate with their recipe for Baked Ziti (click for the recipe).
   They did it, and brilliantly.
   The baked ziti that results from their recipe is, for lack of a better word, smooth. There is no mushiness, strings or clumps.
   I’ve never had baked pasta with such a pleasing texture.
   It’s the texture that causes me to recommend this dish the most. While the flavor is absolutely fine, you’re not going to impress your local neighborhood foodie with its mind-bending taste.
   Rather, this is a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly dish that’s ideal for entertaining large groups. Easter, here we come.
   Everyone from ages two to 92 will eat it, and heartily.
   The recipe called for ziti or any other short, tubular pasta. We couldn’t find ziti and so used chifferini rigati, which to us looked short and tubular. To me, though, it sounds as if macaroni would do just fine in this recipe.
   Although the recipe isn’t hard to make, it is a little labor intensive. It took my husband and I about 50 minutes, working together, to do the advance work before putting the pasta in the oven to bake.
   The recipe I linked to above is on a blog, and is identical to the one we used.
   The pasta is boiled until it is al dente, and then drained.
   Garlic is cooked in a skillet or frying pan, then canned tomato sauce, canned diced tomatoes and dry oregano are stirred in and the mixture is simmered until thickened. Off heat, fresh basil and sugar are added.
   In the large soup pot or Dutch oven in which the pasta was cooked, cornstarch and heavy cream are brought to a simmer (this happens quickly. Stir constantly so it doesn’t burn.)
   The pot is removed from the heat, then a mixture of cottage cheese, eggs and Parmesan cheese, one cup of the tomato sauce and cubed mozzarella are stirred into the mixture. The pasta is added and stirred to coat with the sauce.
   The pasta mixture is poured into a 13x9 inch baking dish (we used a glass one), and spread with the remaining tomato sauce. More grated Parmesan and mozzarella is sprinkled on top
   The dish is covered with foil and baked for 30 minutes, then the foil is removed and the dish baked for another 30 minutes.
   After being cooled for 20 minutes, the pasta is sprinkled with fresh basil and served.

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