Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Baked ziti with meat sauce and melted cheese
The key to creating an outstanding baked ziti is to keep it from drying out. My classic baked pasta dish is made with mezzi rigatoni or penne or cut ziti noodles, meat sauce and a mixture of cheeses. I make my baked ziti the way a Greek mousaka is made i.e. by layering the ingredients. I also use a mixture of cheeses to top my pasta, instead of the béchamel used in a Greek kitchen for mousaka.
Start by making the meat sauce.
3 tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 White Onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
3 Large Cloves Garlic, finely chopped
1.3 lbs. Ground Beef, Angus Sirloin preferred
3 pinches Dry Oregano or Spaghettata herbs (preferred)*
2 pinches of grated cinnamon
2 pinches of grated nutmeg
1 pinch of sugar
5 Cups Marinara Sauce, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
Sauté the chopped onion and garlic until translucent. Add chopped meat, dry oregano or spaghettata herbs, cinnamon and nutmeg and sauté all ingredients until meat is browned. Add salt and pepper, the pinch of sugar, and ½ the marinara sauce and mix together. Cook for a couple more minutes. I like to use a cast iron pan for making the meat and tomato sauce, because I like the way iron cookware retain heat evenly. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool a bit.
1 lb. penne or mezzi rigatoni or cut ziti -- I like the imported Colavita pasta
1/3 lb grated parmesan, divided
4-6 slices of Crystal Farms’ mozzarella cheese wrap, divided
Chopped Parsley (optional)
First and foremost, cook the pasta for only about 6 or 7 minutes in salted, low-boiling water, till al-dente. Do not cook in violently boiling water and do not overcook or the pasta will fall apart.
Preheat the oven to 375°.
Start layering in a baking dish by using ¼ of the marinara as a base, then a layer of the pasta, ½ of the meat sauce and cover with half of the grated parmesan and finally with slices of Crystal Farms’ mozzarella cheese wrap. I found the wrap to be much easier to work with than fresh mozzarella because the cheese melts much more evenly. Repeat with a second layer of pasta and meat sauce . Cover the pasta with the balance of the tomato sauce, ensuring the ends are completely covered. Top the ziti with the balance of the grated parmesan and top with the rest of the mozzarella cheese wrap slices and bake it UNCOVERED at 375° for 30 minutes or until the cheese on top is evenly melted and lightly browned.
If using the chopped parsley, sprinkle on top of the melted cheese, once the baked ziti is out of the oven.
Spaghettata is a mixture of Italian herbs, with a kick from hot pepper flakes. It is usually used with olive oil and some pitted olives as a quick dressing for a spaghetti dish (it is also the base for a puttanesca sauce). At the duty-free shops of Naples airport, you will find for sale little bags filled with the herbs and marked as Spaghettata. A more elaborate dish that includes the herbs, garlic, sun-dried tomato slices and a small amount of crushed canned tomatoes, sliced olives and crushed capers is known as Spaghettata di mezzanotte. Again, an easy to make pasta dish, usually eaten after a night of heavy imbibing, as a hangover remedy.
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