The classic New York style Italian ziti pasta baked with tomato sauce and Italian four cheese mix!
Baked ziti is easy to make. Many Italian restaurants serve a great baked ziti. A good baked ziti has unbroken pasta, some olive oil aroma from the sauce, very lightly browned melted mozzarella and no dark brown burnt tips on the pasta. You cannot just throw a baked ziti in a hot oven and hope for the best!
A poor quality baked ziti looks like the cheese is overly browned and the pasta tips are burnt. Browned mozzarella tastes bitter. Burnt pasta tips are not a good thing. When a baked ziti is overcooked or cooked at too high of a temperature, the ricotta cheese becomes dry and it loses its nice fresh cheese character.
A good baked ziti at a busy pizzeria takes some skill to make, because a pizza oven is usually set at over 600 degrees, so the pizzas cook quickly. In a hot pizza oven, a baked ziti can turn from perfect looking to burnt looking in less than one minute! I have worked the pizza station in Italian restaurants. Many of us chefs place a large upside down sheet pan in the oven to shield the baked pasta entrees from the heat of the stone slab. The vents can be adjusted to regulate the air temperature in a pizza oven, but the temperature has to remain constant for the baked breads. It takes good timing to make a good baked ziti in a stone slab pizza oven.
In an Italian pasta restaurant the regular ovens under the saute station burners are used to make baked ziti. We kept a few ovens at over 450 degrees and a few ovens at under 350 degrees. One oven was always set at 150 to 190 degrees for warming plates. We usually cooked the baked ziti entrees in the slower ovens, so the casserole would heat slowly and evenly with no excess browning. Baked ziti takes some time to cook, just like lasagna does. Old fashioned great Italian chefs do not have microwave ovens in their kitchens to zap baked pastas with. A microwave changes the texture of pasta in a negative way!
The requirements for a cooking a great baked ziti the easy way is: Low oven temperature, a great tomato sauce, quality cheese and al dente ziti noodles!Baked ziti is a very filling aromatic pasta entree! The baked ziti flavor is so good, that it is hard to stop eating once you start. It is very easy to end up eating way too much baked ziti for dinner. Eating too much baked ziti may result in not being being able to do anything more than sit in a chair with the belly hanging out and groaning, just like after eating a big turkey dinner! Dessert is not always an option when having baked ziti for dinner!
Salsa di Pomodoro Recipe:
This recipe makes about 4 or 5 portions of sauce!
Heat a pot over medium/medium low heat.
Add about 5 to 6 ounces of olive oil. (The olive oil proportion should be about 1/10 of the volume of the tomatoes.)
Add 8 cloves of finely chopped garlic.
Add 1 handful of finely chopped onion.
Saute till the onions turn clear in color, but do not let the onions brown.
Reduce the temperature to medium low low heat.
Add 1 pinch of crushed dried red pepper.
Add a 28 ounce can of good quality imported Italian crushed plum tomatoes.
Place a 28 ounce can of imported whole Italian plum tomatoes that are packed in their own juices into a mixing bowl.
Hand squeeze and crush the tomatoes, till no big chunks remain.
Add the hand squeezed tomatoes and juices to the pot.
Add 4 pinches of oregano.
Add sea salt and ground black pepper.
Add 1 small handful of finely chopped fresh basil.
Add 2 tablespoons of minced Italian parsley.
Add 1 cup of dry red Italian wine.
Stir the sauce often, till it starts to simmer.
Reduce the temperature to low heat.
Leave the pot uncovered. (Never cover a pot of Italian tomato sauce with a lid, or the sauce will be like stewed tomatoes!)
Slowly simmer the sauce.
Stir the sauce from the bottom up once every 5-7 minutes for 4 hours.
The sauce should be simmering very gently and there should be very little bubbling on the surface.
Scrape the sides of the inside of the pot back into the sauce too. That stuff is full of flavor!
After 4 hours, the flavors will meld and the tomato sauce will have medium thin thin tomato sauce consistency. The excess tomato juices will be reduced into the sauce at this point. The olive oil should be well combined with the tomatoes, because the sauce was stirred often.
It is traditional to run this sauce through a hand turned food mill after it is done cooking. Do this step if you have a food mill handy!
Keep the sauce warm over very low heat or reheat the sauce to order.
Quattro Formaggi Recipe:
This 4 cheese mixture is a standard NY Italian 4 cheese mixture. There are many different combinations of Italian cheeses that can be used and many Italian chefs add cheeses that they prefer.
This 4 cheese recipe makes more than what it takes for the baked ziti recipe. The extra quattro formaggi can be used for stuffed eggplant, lasagna or any number of Italian recipes. It can be refrigerated for 7 days.
My first Italian apprenticeship was with the number one best award winning Italian saute chef in New York City. He knew his stuff! That chef said to never add salt and pepper to ricotta or quattro formaggi or the sweet fresh flavor of the ricotta will be overwhelmed. This is true and many chefs make this mistake. The salt will also change the texture of the fresh curd ricotta cheese in a negative way. So, do not add salt and pepper to quattro formaggi!
Place 1 cup of ricotta cheese into a mixing bowl.
Add 1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese.
Add 1/2 cup of grated provolone cheese.
Add 1 cup of finely grated parmesan cheese.
Add 1 raw egg.
Add 6 leaves of chopped basil.
Add 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley.
Thoroughly mix the ingredients together.
Refrigerate the standard Italian four cheese mixture, till it becomes stiff.
Baked Ziti Recipe:
Place a large pot of water over high heat.
Bring the water to a rapid boil.
Add 1 large portion of ziti pasta.
Stir the pasta occasionally for the first few minutes so it does not stick.
Cook the ziti pasta, till it becomes al dente.
Cool the ziti pasta under cold running water. (Never shock Italian pasta with ice, or you will have an asian textured pasta! Cool the pasta gradually, but quickly under cold running water.)
Drain all the water off of the ziti pasta.
Place the al dente ziti pasta into the mixing bowl.
Add enough of the quattro formaggi to thoroughly coat the ziti, but do not mix the ingredients together yet.
Add about 1 cup of the salsa pomodoro.
Gently fold the ingredients together, but do not over mix. There should be a few blobs of the cheese mixture showing.
Spoon a little bit of the salsa pomodoro onto a large casserole dish or an oven proof dinner plate, as a base for the baked ziti.
Mound the ziti mixture on the tomato sauce that is on the dish.
Spoon some more salsa pomodoro over the mound of ziti mixture.
Place the dish into a 325 degree oven.
Bake the ziti mixture, till it starts to become hot.
Remove the baked ziti dish from the oven.
Sprinkle a mixture of grated mozzarella cheese and grated provolone cheese over the mound of baked ziti.
Return the baked ziti to the oven.
Bake the ziti, till the cheese melts and till the cheese gets some tan colored highlights. (Do not brown the cheese excessively or it will taste bitter!)
The baked ziti will be piping hot at this time.
Place the casserole dish or oven proof plate on a large underliner plate or serving plate.
Remind your guests that the baking dish is hot!
No garnish is necessary.
The aroma of baked ziti is so nice and captivating! The flavor of a classic baked ziti is awesome!
Its hard to stop eating a good baked ziti after you take that first bite. What looks like a lot of food on the plate really is not that much. Ziti are hallow tube pasta, so there is plenty of empty air space in that huge looking mound of baked ziti. The cheese makes this pasta quite heavy and it will fill a belly up fast.
It is easy to overeat when baked ziti is the entree. Go with it! Enjoy sitting down after dinner fully stuffed, immobile and satisfied. Have an Italian aperitif and relax! The stuffed feeling from baked ziti is an Italian pleasure that many look forward to. Ciao Baby! ... Shawna