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~ Baked Ziti Casserole w/Sausage & Four Cheeses ~

IMG_6271Do 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.

IMG_6155When 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.

IMG_6177In 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).

Baked Ziti #6 (Ingredients)For my basic baked ziti recipe:

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

Italian seasoning blend and red IMG_6186pepper flakes, for topping

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.)

IMG_6191 IMG_6194 IMG_6197 IMG_6200~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.

IMG_6150 Baked Ziti #7 (Sausage Coined)~ 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.

IMG_6159~ Step 3.  Over medium-high heat, saute the sausage coins until they are just cooked through and turning golden brown, stirring frequently, about 12-15 minutes.

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.

IMG_6173 IMG_6174~ 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.  

Baked Ziti #10 (Cooked Pasta  Butter)~ 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.

IMG_6217 IMG_6212~ Step 6. Stir all of the sausage and sauce into pasta.

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.

IMG_6201 IMG_6224 IMG_6228 IMG_6234 IMG_6239 IMG_6244 IMG_6249~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:

IMG_6259Remove the foil and continue to bake 15 additional minutes:

IMG_6274Remove from oven & rest 30 minutes prior to serving:

IMG_6305Don't have time to make lasagna?  Make my baked ziti instead!

IMG_6289Baked Ziti Casserole w/Sausage & Four Cheeses:  Recipe yields 12-16 servings.

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

IMG_7355Cook's Note: Attention lovers of lasagna and the crockpot:  For another super-easy 'lasagna substitute' ~ Crockpot Lasagna -- I made it, it works & it's good! ~ can be found in Categories 3, 19 or 20!  

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015) 


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