Wish Upon A Dish: Ultimate Baked Ziti

February 26, 2013

Ultimate Baked Ziti

I started to notice something disturbing recently. When you have cooked from scratch as long as I have, and still try to remain as open to change as I can be, some things should jut not be messed with.

What could I possibly be talking about? Brand name packaged ricotta. You know them, Biazzo, Polly-O and Sargento. Pretty much nation-wide brands, pretty much all equal. At first I thought it might have been the brand, but after sampling all three of them I really got sad, no, not mad, just very sad.

Why would any company, known for it's Italian products, take something so sacred and loved because of it's creamy, curdy cheese texture and BLEND THE CRAP out of it?

I admit, before they messed with the texture, although still not nearly as good as homemade, in a baked dish (shells, lasagna and ziti), they were acceptable. Hell, lasagna made with cottage cheese no longer grosses me out, I can surely eat ones using a plastic carton of ricotta cheese and in a pinch, do........well, did.
Now for the sad....I can no longer cook with store shelf ricotta. Yup, they have finally crossed over the line for me.

Those small little balls of creamy sweet cheese caviar now feel like little grains of sand. When subjected to heat, they just don't melt. Most consumers won't even tell, but I have been eating ricotta for over 55 years and difference was not only in the appearance but in the texture, and good ricotta is all about the texture. 

Last night's Ultimate Baked Ziti dish was a lesson in a perfect example of why I can not embrace all changes in the food industry. I will gladly eat vegan cheese if I know it's fake cheese, but real cheese should act like REAL CHEESE. It just doesn't behave the way it used too, and for that, I can not forgive. Shame on you, and you know who are, for once again giving into the homogenized world we now live in, and not sticking to your heritage. Why not just have us all eat Stage 1 baby food?

There is an easy alternative.
Did you know that making homemade ricotta takes all of ten minutes, uses two ingredients and can be made in small amounts, like enough for one recipe? Yup, and if you read this, you too can easily master the art of making ricotta. I thought about not posting this but even with the store ricotta this recipe is excellent and should be used the next time you plan on baked ziti.

Ultimate Baked Ziti
makes 4 servings
* 2 cups ziti rigate
* 2 cups good meat sauce, divided into two bowls
* 8oz mozzarella
* 1/2 cup Romano cheese
* 1/4 cup cream
* 2/3 cup ricotta
* 1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
* 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
* 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
* Freshly grated black pepper

1. Put a gallon salted water to a boil and preheat the oven to 350°. Meanwhile in a large bowl, spoon in the ricotta, 1/2 the mozzarella and half the Roman cheeses, the cream, half the meat sauce and all the herbs and spices. Mix to combine.
2. Boil pasta for 8 minutes (will be quite firm), and before draining, save a cup of the cooking water.
3. Incorporate the drained pasta into the cheese mixture. It should be loose with enough moisture to make it the consistency of a chunky soup. Use the pasta water to thin it out. The pasta will need that moisture to cook to perfection without drying out. Spoon 1/4 amount into each ramekin or all, into a large lasagna pan. Dollop the remaining meat sauce down the middle and sprinkle evenly, the remaining 1/4 cup Romano cheese.
4. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, up the temperature to 400° , take off the foil and spread the mozzarella over the top. Return to the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until the mozzarella is melted and the edges are bubbling
5. Let pasta rest for at least 20 minutes. Serve extra grated cheese if desired.

Review: Reheats like a dream, either in an oven or in the microwave. It remained moist but the edges stayed crispy. I will never make a baked ziti any other way again and at 515 calories a serving, it's a good thing.

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