November 24, 2020
I know it's been a while, folks, but the lack of motivation is real. The grey, dark, and drizzly weather has arrived in Seattle. There is SO much going on that could make you feel down, the dreary weather, Covid, the political climate. It's been a mind-blowingly heavy 2020. One of the ways I deal with stress is through food, more specifically, comfort foods. There's something extraordinarily soothing and cozy about sitting inside dry and warm, eating a stick to your ribs, filling meal. What am I craving? I start to reminisce.
Birthdays weren't a huge "to do" in my family growing up. There were no big, fancy parties, jumpy castles, clowns, or ponies. But, every year, on our special day, we got to choose our very own birthday dinner. My choice, each time, was my mom's baked ziti. It was so delicious. The sauce was perfection, with puddles of oozy mozzarella and melty pockets of ricotta. My most favorite part? The toasty, crispy edges of the cheese encrusted pasta that teetered gorgeously on the dangerous precipe between perfection and charred to a crisp. Yummmm, right in that sweet spot.
I have attempted to replicate my mother's baked ziti. Even with her specific instructions, nothing ever came close. This made me sad and frustrated. There is something about her, my mom, preparing it, cooking it, serving it that cannot be copied. I have tried and tried to make something that comes close. I've used ricotta cheese, but it came out too dry; I mixed the ricotta with cream to help with the texture, still not quite right, not creamy enough. I combined different cheese varieties with the mozzarella, and nope, that wasn't the answer either. Then, I had an aha moment; béchamel Laura, béchamel!! That glorious queen of creamy, white sauces. How something so simple, just butter, milk, and flour, could be so luxurious is beyond me. The béchamel offered just the right amount of velvety smoothness. This is what was missing, I thought. It is the closest to my mom's rendition, and I am so pleased about that. Thanks for joining the party Miss B.
I like to use a simple tomato sauce with this dish, but you don't have to. Use your favorite sauce; make sure you have about 2 – 2 ½ cups total. Feel free to add more cheese or your favorite herbs. But the béchamel is vital here, so don't skimp on that. Please.
1 recipe Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce, divided
1 recipe Marcella Hazan's béchamel sauce
2 cups mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, divided
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
1 1/2 pounds ziti pasta
2 tablespoons butter for baking dish
Fresh basil for serving
MARCELLA'S TOMATO SAUCE
1 28-oz can of Italian imported peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
Large handful fresh basil leaves
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
5 tablespoons butter
So, this is a thing I started doing whenever I make tomato sauce. I empty the can of tomatoes into a blender/Vita-mix®, toss in a handful of fresh basil leaves, and process until smooth. I think it's an excellent way to infuse that bright basil flavor right from the start! Feel free to use whole peeled tomatoes and crush them with a potato masher after they have cooked a bit, but your sauce will be a little chunkier. It's a matter of taste. Why don't I buy crushed tomatoes to start with, you might ask? I don't know. There is something about the taste and consistency that doesn't work for me.
Put your tomato, onion, butter, and a big pinch of salt in a medium pot. Turn on the heat to medium/low, or however high your heat needs to be to keep the sauce at a soft, steady simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes, stirring every so often to ensure the sauce isn't sticking to the bottom. It should thicken slightly. Taste and add more salt if needed. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Once the sauce is cool, divide it into two portions. Some will be mixed with the pasta, and the rest spooned over the top of the ziti before baking. Remove the onion and save it for another use.
Preheat the oven to 400° F and set a large pot of water over high heat. Add a few large pinches of salt. Like, more than a tablespoon. Taste the water. If it doesn't taste like you just sipped from the sea, then add more salt.
Meanwhile, make the béchamel sauce.
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
Put the milk in a small saucepan, turn the heat to low, and warm the milk, just until bubbles start to form around the edges.
While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes. Don't allow the mixture to darken, so LOW heat and STIR!
Remove from the heat, and using a ladle, pour about 2 tablespoons of milk at a time into the butter/flour. Stir until the milk is completely incorporated before adding the next 2 tablespoons. Continue this process until you have added about 1/2 cup of warm milk. At this time, you can start adding the rest of the milk, 1/2 cup at a time, until all the milk has amalgamated into the butter/flour.
Put the pan back on low heat, add the pinch of salt, and continue frequently stirring until the mixture starts to thicken. This will take about 5 minutes or so. It should be the density of thick heavy cream. Taste and add more salt if needed. Pour the béchamel into a bowl that is large enough to accommodate the pasta once it's drained. If there are some lumps, don't fret; grab a whisk and stir like mad.
When cool, add 1 cup of mozzarella to the bowl with the béchamel.
Smear 2 tablespoons of butter onto the bottom of a 13 x 9 inch casserole or baking dish like this. By now, the water should be boiling rapidly. Add 1 1/2 pounds of ziti, stir, and cook for 5 minutes. Yes, this pasta will still be raw, but it will cook to perfection in the oven later. Drain the pasta and toss vigorously with the béchamel and mozzarella. Take half of the tomato sauce and add it to the bowl, stirring gently. There's no need to mix this very well as it's nice to have little pockets of sauce with other small puddles of creamy, cheese strewn throughout.
Spoon the rest of the tomato sauce over the top, followed by the mozzarella and the grated cheese.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until the cheese is melted. Turn the broiler to high and cook the ziti for another few minutes until the cheese is bubbly and browning in areas, with nice darker crispy brown bits here and there. Watch carefully; this can burn quickly.
Let the baked ziti sit for a few minutes and serve with fresh basil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.