Until now, we didn’t have a signature or go-to recipe for baked ziti, and didn’t really eat it all that often. But we like that it has similar components as one of the all-time most comforting of comfort foods — lasagne — with red sauce, cheese and pasta; but without the time and effort commitment of its layered comfort cousin. We recently picked up a copy of one of Cook’s Illustrated’s special-issue magazines “Skillet Dinners,” and were pleased to find a recipe for baked ziti among its pages of one-pot wonders. We also appreciate that the dish is easy enough to make on a week night, with simple ingredients: a 28 ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes; a pound of Italian sausage; 5-6 cloves of minced garlic; 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes; 3 cups water; 3 3/4 cups ziti or penne pasta; 1/2 cup heavy cream; 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese; 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (or 2 tablespoons dried basil) and 1 cup shredded whole-milk mozzarella cheese. We used Italian turkey sausage instead of the pork variety and loved that the resulting dish still had all of the comfort, but less of the calories and fat.
Pulse the tomatoes in a food processor until no large pieces remain and return the pulsed tomatoes to the can with their juices.
Remove the casings from the sausages by using a knife to slit the casing open along one side, then peel it away from the meat. We used hot Italian turkey sausage and found that it has just the right amount of spice (if we were using pork sausage, we would likely use a combination of hot and mild, since the pork version tends to be a bit more spicy.)
While you prepare the sausage, heat a large, oven-safe (i.e., no plastic handle) skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage to the skillet and cook, breaking apart the meat into small pieces, until the sausage is lightly browned and no longer pink — about 5-6 minutes.
Although turkey meat is pretty lean, the sausage rendered a bit more fat than we wanted, so we spooned some of it off into a small bowl to cool and discard.
Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant — about 1 minute.
Add the processed tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Keep the empty tomato can handy, so you can fill it with the water to be added in the next step, which will pick up all the remaining tomato juices from the can. Reduce the heat to medium-low and gently simmer the tomato/sausage mixture, stirring occasionally, until the tomatos taste sweet — about 10 minutes.
Add the water and the pasta, cover the skillet, increase the heat to medium-high and cook at a vigorous simmer, stirring often, until the pasta is tender but al dente — about 15-18 minutes. Because we couldn’t find ziti at our local grocery store, we used penne pasta instead. The Cook’s Illustrated magazine includes a very handy guide for varied pasta measurements for this recipe, depending on what type of pasta you are using, since the pasta-to-liquid ratio here is key to success of the final dish. For example, although you use the same amounts of ziti or penne (3 3/4 cups), you would only use 3 1/2 cups of orecchiette or small shells, or 3 cups of elbow macaroni. If you use campanelle, bow ties or medium shells, you would use 4 1/2 cups of pasta.
After about 10 minutes, we checked the liquid level in the skillet and thought there was a bit too much, so we left the skillet uncovered for the final 5-8 minutes to allow the sauce would cook down.
Add the parmesan and basil to the skillet, then taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. This would also be the time to add the cream, but sadly, I forgot. We didn’t really miss the cream in the final dish, but it might be one of those situations where you don’t really know what you’re missing until you have it the way it’s supposed to be. We’ll try to remember the cream next time and see if it really makes a difference.
Sprinkle an even layer of mozzarella cheese on top of the ziti and place the skillet in the oven preheated to 425 degrees (original recipe calls for 475 degrees, but that seemed a bit too hot) and bake until the mozzarella melts and browns — about 10-15 minutes. Keep a close eye on the ziti — checking it about every 5 minutes. After 10 minutes, we noticed that the cheese had melted but wasn’t browning, so we turned on the broiler for a few minutes (always an adventure, since our broiler doesn’t always work) and it turned out beautifully melted and browned.
We served the baked ziti with a simple garden salad. It was cheesy, sweet-yet-spicy, with that warm-you-on-the-inside quality that only comfort food can bring. And as with many comfort foods, the leftovers were even better the next day. We now have a new favorite baked ziti recipe.