Baked pasta is incredibly appealing, especially on chilly winter evenings. Yielding pasta, tangy tomato sauce, creamy cheese, chewy brown edges – what’s not to love?
Unfortunately, baked pasta often fails to live up to its Platonic ideal. The pasta overbakes to mush, or comes out dry and unappealing; the ricotta layer that should give such rich creaminess separates into grainy curds, and the whole thing just doesn’t seem worth the trouble. I rarely make them anymore, because they so rarely turn out how I like them.
But last night, my sweetie was tired from a tough day. Comfort food was in order. And the fridge held half a carton of cottage cheese, leftover mozzarella and provolone, and most of a 28-oz jar of housemade marinara from a local Italian deli, Tully’s. I decided to surf the web for a likely-looking recipe. (My search string was “baked ziti cottage cheese”).
I found this recipe from Cook’s Illustrated magazine, to which I had a subscription for many years. I remembered seeing it long ago, reading all the testing that caused them to choose cubed mozzarella over shredded cheese, cottage cheese over ricotta, etc. (Reassuring, since I had worried that cottage cheese might not work.) I didn’t have exactly the ingredients they called for, but the method looked promising. Crossing my fingers that my changes wouldn’t mess up the recipe, I gave it a try.
The casserole came out of the oven gorgeously brown and gooey. I couldn’t wait until the plates got to the table, and tried a bite off the serving spoon. It was magnificent! Easily the best baked ziti I’ve ever tasted. The cottage cheese and dollop of cream made the sauce fabulously rich and creamy, while the pure tomato sauce layer maintained its tanginess. The pasta was lushly soft – maybe a bit too soft for some, but not at all mushy. Perfect comfort food.
It’s been a while since I made baked ziti, but it won’t be long until I make it again. In the meantime, Arne and I may have to arm-wrestle for the leftovers.
This is half of the Cook’s Illustrated version, with all my changes. Please feel free to mix it up with the cheeses; I used shredded mozzarella and sliced provolone because that’s what was in my fridge. The recipe serves four.
8 oz penne or ziti pasta
1 20- to 28-oz jar best-quality jarred marinara sauce (Trader Joe’s is excellent)
8 oz lowfat cottage cheese
1 large egg
2 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup milk
1 4-oz link cooked hot Italian or other sausage, chopped, optional
2 ounces shredded or sliced mozzarella or provolone
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water for about half the time called for on the package, six minutes or so. You want it cooked enough to bite, but far from done. Drain, return to the pot, and set aside.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Warm the marinara in a saucepan or the microwave. Set aside. In a medium bowl, stir the cottage cheese and egg together until well combined. Stir in the mozzarella and 1/2 the Parmesan. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, stir together the cornstarch, cream, and milk. Set over very low heat and bring gently to a simmer. Simmer a few minutes. The process will take about 8-10 minutes. It will probably not thicken noticeably; either way is fine. Remove from heat and stir in the cottage cheese mixture, then 1/2 cup of the marinara. Stir in the sausage, if using. Pour the sauce over the cooked pasta and combine well.
Prepare a 9×9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray. Pour the sauced pasta into the pan and spread evenly. Pour the rest of the marinara on top of the pasta and spread evenly. Top with mozzarella or provolone and the remaining Parmesan.
Cover the baking dish with a piece of oiled aluminum foil (so the cheese doesn’t stick) and bake 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 30 more minutes, until the top is gorgeously brown and you can see sauce bubbling around the edges. Remove from the oven and let rest 20 minutes. (I know it’s tempting to skip the rest period, but don’t! It lets the pasta firm up and absorb the sauce, making for a neater presentation and enhanced deliciousness.)
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