As both a pasta fan and meat foe, I appreciate the joys of a good noodle, tomato, and cheese casserole. Popular and portable, this baked ziti from the culinary maestros at America’s Test Kitchen has recently become my favorite “pasta casserole.” Baked ziti is great because it doesn’t require the layering of a lasagna or stuffing of shells, and this version is superb. Thanks to a secret ingredient, the cheese and sauce stay rich and creamy (not rubbery noodles and gummy cheese here).
Hidden in there, my friends, instead of the traditional ricotta, is cottage cheese, but I promise you…it works. I was skeptical, since just the sight of cottage cheese with its lumpy curds and the way it’s constantly being portrayed as a delicious and decadent treat for female dieters (a woman wearing a sports bra and dragging a strawberry through cottage cheese with an expectant smile on her face totally puzzles me as a marketing approach) makes me gag a little, but it turns out that when you mix cottage cheese with freshly grated Parmesan and cubed mozzarella, you get something marvelous on the casserole spectrum.
Please forgive the following “making” photos. The only camera I could find at the time was the one in my phone.
My brother-in-law Jon described the end result as “creamy,” which isn’t a word I used to associate with baked ziti, but now that I know how delicious it can be when a forkful of noodles is covered in the perfect amount of tangy semi-homemade tomato sauce and creamy cheesy goodness, I can’t go back to ricotta. This version really is the best baked ziti I’ve had yet.
Life is crazy these days. I made this back in May and started this post over the summer, but here it is, already September. Almost time for apples and soups and copious amounts of pumpkin spice flavored everything, even things that shouldn’t be (I’m looking at you, Pringles). As much as I dread the long winter that follows, fall is so glorious it almost makes up for it. Almost.
America’s Test Kitchen Baked Ziti
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen
1 lb. whole milk cottage cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 lb. ziti or other short, tubular pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-oz. can tomato sauce
1 14.5-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
8 oz. low-moisture mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 1 1/2 cups)
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 350 degrees. Whisk together the cottage cheese, eggs, and 1 cup of the Parmesan in a medium bowl. Set aside. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta just begins to soften, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in colander (do not wash Dutch oven).
Meanwhile, heat the oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium heat until garlic is fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and oregano, and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup basil and sugar, then season to taste with salt and pepper.
In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and heavy cream, then transfer the mixture to the empty Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat and add the cottage cheese mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce, and 3/4 cup mozzarella, then stir. Add pasta and stir to coat.
Transfer the pasta mixture to a 13- by 9-inch baking dish and spread remaining tomato sauce evenly over the top. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella and Parmesan over the top, then cover tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the foil and continue to cook until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes longer. Cool for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons basil and serve.