Baked Ziti al Forno with Meat Sauce

Baked Ziti al Forno with Meat Sauce

Making baked ziti is like making manicotti or lasagna, only much easier to prepare.  It is the perfect one-dish meal to make for a family dinner served with a salad and some crusty Italian bread.  These days it’s just me and my hubby, so I don’t make it as much as I would like because we would be eating it for a whole week.  I think it is the perfect dish to make for large gatherings.  You can make it several hours ahead of time and bake shortly before serving.

I make my sauce using a large cast iron skillet.  My mother swears that the sauce tastes better and so do I.  Just take my word for it.

There are several ways to assemble the baked ziti.  Some people like to combine the pasta with the ricotta and then layer it with sauce on top.  I put a layer of ricotta in between layers of pasta combined with the sauce.  This is the quickest method.  Others add a little sauce to the pasta and then spoon a layer of sauce on top.  Either way, it’s all good!

BAKED ZITI AL FORNO WITH MEAT SAUCE

Difficulty Rating:  Easy
Makes 8 servings.

For the Meat Sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large onion (1cup), diced
1 carrot, finely minced
1 clove garlic, minced
11/2 pounds ground beef or Italian sausage (or a combination of both)
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
2 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
6 large fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 teaspoons sugar
Salt and ground black pepper

For the Ricotta Layer:
2 pounds ricotta cheese
2 eggs
1 cup shredded Mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon finely minced Italian parsley leaves,
Sea salt and ground black pepper

For the Pasta:
16 ounces ziti, penne rigate or mostaciolli pasta
1/2 cup grated Pecorino-Romano or Parmesan cheese, divided
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

MAKE THE SAUCE:  Heat olive oil in a 12-inch skillet or large pot over medium heat.  Add onion and carrot.  Cook until vegetables are soft, about 6 minutes.  Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer.

Raise heat to medium-high, add the meat and cook until browned.  Drain off some of the fat if using sausage.

Stir in tomato paste.  Then add crushed tomatoes, 1 cup of water, and basil.  Cover and cook until sauce starts bubbling.  Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in peas and sugar and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add additional water if necessary for desired consistency.  Cook 15 minutes longer.  The sauce can be made a day ahead of time.  Reheat and thin with a little water before using.

MAKE THE RICOTTA FILLING:  Place ricotta in a medium bowl.  Stir in the eggs, cheeses, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste, until just combined.  Refrigerate until ready to assemble.

COOK THE PASTA:  Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Add the pasta and cook until not quite al dente, about 7 minutes.  The pasta should be a little firm when you bite into it – not quite cooked through.  Place pot under the faucet and add some cold water to stop cooking.  Drain the pasta and place in a large bowl.

Combine the pasta with the sauce.

ASSEMBLE THE ZITI:  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Generously grease a 9-inch x 13-inch baking dish with softened butter.

Spread half of the pasta mixture on the bottom of the baking dish.  Spoon the ricotta on top in an even layer.

Sprinkle with half of the grated cheese and half of the mozzarella.

Repeat with another layer of pasta and sprinkle with remaining grated cheese and mozzarella.  Cover with foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until sauce is bubbling and mozzarella is melted on top.

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