Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cheddar Baked Ziti

My grandmother used to make a cheddary spaghetti that I loved as a kid. And I've been kind of chasing that experience ever since...but I've never gotten it quite right. I'll never know exactly how she made hers because she died years ago, taking most of her recipes along with her. Not literally - at least I don't think so (although, now that I mention it, we couldn't find them anywhere). If I sound a little bitter, it's because I am. She wasn't all that warm & fuzzy and didn't want to pass along her cooking legacy to anyone in the family (it's true - I tried to get her to share while she was alive, but she was strangely resistant). Oh well. I think it was her loss because she could have lived on through her food. Maybe it's enough that she inspired me to make my baked ziti with cheddar, instead of mozzarella. Or not (that's pretty weak, as far as legacies go).  

In case you're wondering whether I served this in a school cafeteria or maybe prison...the answer is no, it was just at my house. My 7-year-old daughter spotted some old toddler plates with compartments in the cabinet and for some bizarre reason, was very gung ho to use them. So we ate our baked ziti institutional style.

Yield: 8-10 servings

1 lb. dried ziti pasta
24 oz. ricotta cheese (fresh if possible)
4 cups shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese (the good stuff) or mozzarella
1 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
2 large eggs
freshly ground black pepper
3 1/2 cups (28 oz.) homemade marinara sauce

1.      Preheat oven to 375º F.  Lightly grease a 9- x 13-inch baking dish.
2.      Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until almost al dente (it should be slightly underdone). Drain.
3.      While the pasta cooks, combine ricotta cheese, 3 cups of the cheddar, ¾ cup of the parmigiano-reggiano and eggs in a large bowl. Mix until well combined. Season to taste with black pepper.
4.      Layer in the baking dish as follows (or you can just mix it all together and spread in the pan before proceeding with steps i & j).
a.  Spread about 1 cup sauce in the bottom of the baking dish.
b.  Layer one third of the pasta over the sauce.
c.  Spread half the cheese mixture over the pasta.
d.  Spread a scant 1 cup sauce over the cheese.
e.  Layer another third of the pasta over the sauce.
f.  Spread remaining cheese mixture over the pasta.
g.  Spread a scant 1 cup sauce over the pasta.
h.  Arrange remaining pasta over the sauce.
i.  Spread remaining sauce over the pasta.
j.  Sprinkle with remaining 1 cup cheddar and ¼ cup parmigiano-reggiano.

Can be assembled ahead and kept covered & refrigerated (bring to room temp. before baking).

5.      Bake until cheese is melted and the sides start to get bubbly, about 30 minutes.
cooked ziti
ricotta, cheddar, parmigiano-reggiano and eggs

Spring for the good stuff if possible...since this is a
simple recipe, the quality of the ingredients makes a
big difference in the final outcome of the dish.
mixed cheeses/eggs
the first layer of pasta

Usually I get lazier as I cook, but this time I started out lazy
and then got more patient (don't ask me why). It's easy to see
here where I went wrong. I used too much pasta in my first
layer and then was short for the top layer.
the first layer of cheese (and spreading more sauce)
second layer of pasta (see, neater and more patient)
adding the rest of the cheese mixture
cheese mixture spread
more sauce spread

If you don't have time to make homemade sauce, I
recommend Rao's (it costs a little more, but it's the best).
top layer of pasta (looking a tad thin)
sauce spread on top
cheddar & parmigiano-reggiano sprinkled on top
baked ziti

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