Everything you need to know to master a baked ziti that will feed your soul
Every cuisine has its core recipes, the fundamental dishes and techniques that set it apart from the rest of the world. I'm breaking down my 10 essential Italian dishes, sharing everything you need to know to master them and become a superstar Italian cook.
What It Is: Pasta al forno - baked pasta - is a classic Italian celebration dish, especially in the south around Sicily, where it is often made for weddings. There are many, many ways to bake pasta, but my favorite is ziti stufati, which is my Great-Aunt Raffy's specialty (and she passed the cheesy crown down to Aunt Raffy). A tomato-and-ricotta sauce is poured over ziti, lots of tiny meatballs, and hard-boiled egg (though I sometimes "forget" to add the egg - make it to your taste!), then baked with fresh mozzarella and parmesan until bubbling and golden. Stufati means stewed, and here it refers to the way the pasta and meatballs continue to cook in the sauce while it's in the oven.
Why I Love It: This is a family meal through and through - no matter whether it's the family you were born into or the friends you keep closest, this dish should be made and eaten with people you love. (Besides, making the meatballs goes by a lot more quickly with another person in the kitchen!) It's not a quick process, but it's a true labor of love.
How It's Done: First, make sure you've got the time! Ziti stufati isn't complicated, but there are a number of steps that must be followed, from making the sauce and the meatballs to assembling and baking. If you like, the dish can be assembled in the baking dish and then refrigerated before finishing in the oven later on or even the next day. And don't skip the resting time after it comes out of the oven! It's crucial to letting the cheese firm up, to hold your servings together in gooey harmony.
The sauce relies on tomato passata, which is uncooked tomatoes that have been passed through a food mill to remove the seeds and skins and make a nice smooth puree. You may sometimes see it labeled as "strained tomatoes." If you can't find passata, you can use tomato puree, though it won't have quite the same fresh flavor. Once your tomato sauce is cooked, stir in the ricotta while it's still warm, so it will melt in rather than leave blobs of cheese. Then you can roll out and brown small meatballs made with milk-soaked bread for lightness and a little parsley for a hint of green. They should be teeny tiny, not much bigger than a marble - that's just the way it's done, says Aunt Raffy! If you're using hard-boiled eggs, chop them up now, and then get all your ingredients ready for assembly.
Use pasta that is really al dente - boil it for just 5 minutes - so it can finish cooking in the oven without getting mushy. Toss with the sauce, then spread half of it in the baking dish. Add most of the meatballs, all of the eggs, and half of the mozzarella, then the rest of the pasta, meatballs, and more cheese. All those layers will melt into each other as it bakes, leaving you with a harmonious meal that's cheesy, saucy, and delicious all the way through, with a crisp golden crust. Serve your family, and let it feed your souls.