Bring on the casseroles: Start with baked ziti

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

With the current balmy temperatures, it’s easy to forget the frigid Christmas weekend less than two weeks ago. Winter is just beginning, so temperatures will inevitably drop again.

It’s time to fire up the oven and officially begin casserole season.

Lasagna is a cold weather favorite. Who can resist the comforting smells of pasta, tomatoes and cheese?

If the task of assembling a lasagna seems like too much work, consider a baked ziti, its less demanding cousin.

If you like lasagna, you will also be a fan of baked ziti. The two dishes share identical ingredients, differing only in the type of pasta used. Ziti are a tubular pasta perfect for trapping the sauce and cheesy bits. If you can’t find ziti in the supermarket, penne will serve the same function.

The first step in making a good baked ziti is to use plenty of sauce, as the pasta will absorb it while baking. Of course, you can use jarred sauce, but making your own will turn it into a casserole to remember. A simple marinara sauce comes together in about 15 minutes.

As for cheese, the more, the better: ricotta for creaminess, mozzarella for its melting quality and Parmesan for an umami boost.

When buying mozzarella, avoid the pre-shredded type, as it is coated with cellulose to keep it from sticking together. It will also prevent your cheese from having that melted stringy texture in your baked ziti. Buying a block of cheese is also more economical than a bag of pre-shredded.

Baked ziti is a great dish for crowds, but you can also apportion it into smaller casserole dishes and freeze for a quick weeknight meal at a later date.

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When lasagna feels like too much work but the lure of cheesy pasta is irresistible, throw together some baked ziti instead. (Julie Falsetti/For The York Dispatch)

Baked Ziti

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1¼ teaspoon salt, divided
  • A few grindings of pepper
  • 1 15-ounce container ricotta
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan, divided
  • 1 pound ziti
  • 8 ounces mozzarella, grated

In a medium-size sauce pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, and saute until the onion just begins to brown, about 8 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, herbs, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low.

Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In a medium-size bowl, stir together the ricotta, half the Parmesan, and ¼ teaspoon salt.

In a large pot of salted water, cook the ziti 1 minute less than al dente as indicated on the package directions. Drain, and return the pasta to the pot. Stir in half the sauce and mix well. Fold in the ricotta mixture, leaving dollops here and there.

Place half the pasta mixture in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Spread the remaining pasta in an even layer. Top with the remaining sauce, and then the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.

Bake uncovered at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, or until the edges are bubbling and the cheese is completely melted and browned in spots. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at julietrulie11@gmail.com.