~ Baked Ziti Casserole w/Sausage & Four Cheeses ~
Do you have a favorite casserole recipe? You know "the one". The one your family loves, the one you take to potluck, the one you donate to a good cause, the one you give to a sick friend -- the one you've made so many times you've got the recipe committed to memory. Every really good cook or chef, of any level, will be the first to admit they have at least two or three "go to" casserole recipes in their repertoire. I'm no exception and this one is at the top of my short list.
When it comes to making a great casserole, allow me to say this: you only get out of a casserole what you put into it. While, on occasion, a casserole made out of desperation using a melange of last weeks leftovers stirred together with a can of 'cream of' soup, stands a chance of turning out tasty, don't expect accolades -- it's not exactly an appetite stimulator. A well-made casserole should be a family-style fine-dining experience. In an Italian-American household, if you say "baked ziti" everyone knows exactly what to expect and you won't have to call anyone twice to the dinner table -- they'll be sitting there, forks in hand, waiting for it to come out of the oven.
In its basic form, baked ziti is: cooked, tubular macaroni, tossed together in a casserole dish with a flavorful 'gravy' ('spaghetti sauce'), then topped with cheese and baked. Everyone who makes baked ziti makes it a bit differently. Some folks use ground meat, some folks use sausage, others go meatless. Some folks like to include sauteed mushrooms, onions and/or bell peppers. Other folks like to sandwich a layer of ricotta cheese in between two layers of sauced macaroni. I always use sausage, sometimes I include mushrooms, and past that, I make two versions of baked ziti: 'wit' and 'witout' (with a ricotta layer and without a ricotta layer).
1 pound ziti, penne or rigatoni
1 stick butter, cut into pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds Italian sausage
1 cup port wine
6 cups marinara sauce, homemade or store-bought
12 ounces grated provolone and mozzarella cheese blend
1/2 cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
For the ricotta layer:
1 1/2 pounds whole-milk ricotta
6 ounces pre-grated mozzarella and provolone cheese blend
6 tablespoons finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon each: nutmeg, salt and coarsely ground black pepper
1 10-ounce package frozen, chopped spinach, thawed (do not cook it to thaw it), squeezed dry of as much excess liquid as possible (Note: I wrap it in paper towels to squeese it dry.)
~Step 1. Prepare the ricotta layer first. In a medium bowl, using a large rubber spatula, stirring thoroughly, combine all of the ingredients, as listed, except for the spinach. Pull the spinach apart, separating it into small bits and pieces then, fold spinach into cheese mixture. Set aside.
~ Step 2. Place 4 tablespoons EVOO in a 12" skillet. Without removing casing from sausage, slice it into 1/2" "coins", placing them in the pan as you work. Note: In kitchen terminology, the verb "coin" means to create a coin shape by slicing a cylindrical object, like a carrot, with a knife.
Slowly add the wine -- be prepared for some hot steam to come billowing up at you. Using a spatula, deglaze the pan by gently scraping all of the little browned bits loose from the bottom of the pan.
~ Step 4. Add the marinara sauce. Adjust heat to a gentle, steady simmer, and continue to cook, uncovered, until nicely-thickend and reduced by about one-third, 25-30 minutes. Remove from the heat, and, if you have the time, allow it to sit for an hour, to allow flavors to marry.
Note: Alternatively, the sauce can be refrigerated for several hours or overnight and reheated prior to cooking pasta and assembling casserole. This sauce also freezes well, so, if you want to make a double batch, you can freeze half to thaw and use later, which, is a nice time-saver. No matter what you read elsewhere, this casserole is not a candidate for freezing prior to baking because the ricotta mixture contains raw eggs -- make and freeze the sauce, not the casserole.
~ Step 5. In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add and cook the pasta until al dente, about 10 minutes. Do not overcook: the pasta is going to cook more in the oven. Drain thoroughly and immediately return the hot pasta to hot stockpot. Place stockpot on still warm stovetop and add butter. Stir until butter melts and the pasta is coated. Allow to rest, 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until no butter is puddling in the bottom of the pot.
Tip from Mel: At this point, I like to let the mixture sit in the warm stockpot another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. It's not a requirement, but it allows the pasta time to absorb a bit of extra sauce.
~Step 7. To assemble the casserole, spray a 4-quart casserole dish with no-stick spray. Be certain to use a 4-quart casserole (a 3-quart, 13" x 9" x 2" casserole is not big enough). Place half of the pasta mixture in the bottom of prepared casserole. Using a large spoon, dollop, then evenly spread all of the ricotta mixture over the pasta layer. Spoon all of the remaining pasta mixture over the top of the ricotta. Top the casserole with the 12-ounces of grated mozzarella and provolone, then sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano on top of that. Sprinkle Italian seasoning blend and red pepper flakes evenly over all. Loosely cover the casserole with aluminum foil.
Bake, loosely covered with foil, in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes:
Special Equipment List: large rubber spatula; cutting board; chef's knife; microplane grater; 12" skillet, preferably nonstick; 1-cup measuring container; spatula; 8-quart stockpot; colander; large spoon 4-quart casserole dish (oval or rectangular, just be sure it is a 4-quart casserole); aluminum foil
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)